Libraries occupy a unique position in the civic fabric of American life. They are not just providers of information, but also forums for public discussion, connection points to community resources, and teachers of civic skills. In a democracy situated within an increasingly complex information and media landscape, libraries can also play a vital role in providing young people with opportunities to contribute to civic life through media – before they can even vote. CIRCLE, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement which is based at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, considers media an important part of a young person’s civic ecosystem, or the set of social structures that can aid or inhibit them from participating in civic life. We contend that a healthy relationship to media and information is not one of passive consumption, but one filled with opportunities to think about, discuss, and act on information. Because of that, we’ve spent the last two years studying how engagement with media can help young people make sense of their role in democracy and contribute to public discussions.
Civic media making has emerged as one important and accessible way that adults can help young people build paths to participation. We know that teens are already politically active and creative online: In a survey of more than 1,800 teenagers (14-17), nearly half said they had created media online within the last month to express their thoughts about a political or social issue. In addition to giving youth a space to navigate their own identities and actively construct an understanding of their political and social world, media making can also play an important role in helping youth build feelings of social and political confidence. More than four in five teens (82%) who created some form of media in the last month said they felt more informed about politics as a result, and a similar proportion (80%) said they felt like their voice was more powerful.
Not all teens receive equal access to media literacy education, including opportunities to create civic media. The question, then, is how adults can support young people’s creative efforts by giving a diversity of youth structured opportunities to express their thoughts, opinions, and concerns around political and social issues using media. Some teens are fortunate enough to encounter these opportunities in school. About half (53%) of teens surveyed said they had learned about how to evaluate and analyze news and media in school, and an encouraging number had been given opportunities in the classroom to express themselves through media. Students who had learned media literacy skills in school, in fact, were about twice as likely to have created media in the past 30 days as students who had not. However, these opportunities are not distributed equally. Teens living in rural areas, those whose parents don’t have an advanced education, and those from minoritized racial backgrounds are less likely to benefit from media literacy instruction in school.
Libraries, in many ways, are uniquely situated to help fill this gap. Certainly, they have long occupied a special role in the civic life of youth by serving as voter registration sites and polling locations, creating out-of-school learning and leadership opportunities, providing access to free and high-quality information resources, and giving youth a connection point to the broader community they live in. At the same time, libraries are also savvy in the use of information, digital technology, and creative expression in a way many other civic institutions may not be. This combination of expertise positions libraries to provide media creation opportunities that are grounded in the critical thinking and research skills young people need to contribute to an increasingly complex information environment. Opportunities abound for libraries to cultivate civic skills and dispositions through:
- Digital creation workshops
- Media literacy programming
CIRCLE’s media making toolkit, a series of lesson plans designed to elicit students’ perspectives on civic issues through making memes, GIFs, photo series, videos, and more, can provide a useful starting point for thinking about library media programming through a civic lens. We also provide additional resources for adults looking to leverage media as a civic tool. By using youth-centered and participatory approaches (as exemplified in a new chapter by two librarians and our Deputy Director) that give youth ownership over their learning, library professionals can help young people see themselves as civic actors who are empowered to create, engage with, and use all kinds of media.
As we continue to deepen our understanding of the relationship between media and youth civic engagement, we look forward to providing additional insights and resources to help stakeholders from all walks of community life break down the barriers that keep young people marginalized from and underrepresented in public conversations. In June, CIRCLE will release a groundbreaking report called CIRCLE Growing Voters, which outlines a new framework for expanding the electorate and bringing more diverse youth into our democracy. Based on exclusive, rigorous research, this framework serves as a guide for every community and institution, including libraries, to help prepare young people to participate in elections. We hope librarians from a diversity of communities can join us for our virtual launch on June 14 at 2 pm ET. We’ll present an overview of the research in the report, feature a panel of young voters, and hear from experts in various fields about how they’re working to put into practice the principles of CIRCLE Growing Voters. As the importance of media in informing and aiding the civic life of youth becomes ever more apparent, so too does the role of libraries as facilitators of youth participation, and we hope that librarians can continue to be part of this important conversation