Bridgebuilding Case Study: Johnson County Library
This case study was developed by IREX as an example of a "bridgebuilding" activity. IREX defines bridgebuilding as engaging across differences in ways that respect identities, foster mutual relationships, seek a common good, and promote a commitment to civic engagement, thereby contributing to increased social capital and strengthened civic infrastructure, and ultimately, a stronger democracy.
Background/context of the library
“Johnson County Library provides access to ideas, information, experiences, and materials that support and enrich people’s lives... to create an environment that enables people to learn, explore, enjoy, create, and connect."
Throughout their services and offerings, they are committed to these values:
- Customer needs come first.
- People are respected.
- Access to information is ensured.
- This is a learning organization.
- Freedom of information is protected.
- Privacy and confidentiality are rights.
- Basic services are provided without charge.
- Quality of service is important.
- Integrity is a commitment.
- Being stewards of community resources.
What bridging initiatives/programs has the library offered?
Since 2015, Johnson County Library has partnered with their local chapter of the League of Women Voters to hold Legislative Coffees. The library invites Kansas state senators and representatives, along with constituents in Johnson County to participate in these sessions. During the sessions, legislators are given a few minutes to present on the work that they do in their communities and other important, current events in Topeka, and then take questions from the audience. Coffee and donuts are provided.
Each session opens with a reminder for the legislators and audience to maintain a tone of civility. Audience members submit questions via notecards, and preference is given to questions related to the most popular topics. The library provides contact information for all legislators in case questions are not answered or community members would like to follow up.
The event is hosted each year during the Kansas legislative session. The library reaches out to legislators in late November to December with an invitation to participate. The day before the event, staff set up the space. Recently, with its growth in popularity, this has included outsourcing sound support and hiring a company to livestream the event.
To encourage a diverse audience from the community, the library uses inclusive language so that all feel welcome, such as referring to “community members” rather than “citizens” wherever possible. The primary audience that attends the Legislative Coffees are voters; however, the library reaches out to local civics/government teachers to invite future voters.
The library also hosts Gather at the Table, a program that offers a space for conversation over a meal about difficult or controversial topics with people of diverse ages. The conversations are led by library staff who were trained in facilitation by the Institute for Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University. For these conversations, staff select topics on timely and relevant issues, and develop a set of open-ended questions that are written in a neutral tone. Past topics include local LGBTQ+ rights and local protection ordinances, the #MeToo movement, legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, and climate change. Before the start of any conversation, staff share a set of ground rules to help set the tone.
The program is hosted at the Central Resource Library branch of the Johnson County Library. Prior to the pandemic, they hosted one event per month, and had a large group of teen regulars who participated in this program in large numbers. The pandemic caused the library to pause the program, and as of 2022, they were slowly restarting it.
Why were bridging initiatives needed in the community?
Johnson County Library started the Legislative Coffees to better incorporate voters in the political process, increase the visibility and accessibility of state-level politics, and connect voters with their elected officials.
Gather at the Table was created to encourage conversation and increase discourse on difficult topics, to foster a deeper understanding of different perspectives, connect community members, and increase civility. Topics are selected based on community needs. For example, the conversation about local LGBTQ+ rights and local protection ordinances was planned around the time that numerous municipalities passed or considered these ordinances.
What were the signs of success?
Since starting the Legislative Coffees in 2015, interest and attendance have grown. The events started in smaller meeting rooms in three different library branches, and have expanded to the main area of six branches. When community members attend the sessions, they leave with more knowledge about what is happening in their state legislature, the people who represent them, and the type of work they are doing as legislators for their communities.
Studies published in the Journal of Deliberative Democracy have shown that conversations with people of different viewpoints, like those facilitated through the Gather at the Table program, can give others a deeper understanding of differences and can moderate viewpoints. Teen participants are also introduced to and engage with issues in their communities.
What was learned?
As these programs continue, the library is learning and making changes to improve events. For example, they have learned that an important aspect of organizing these kinds of events is to start off by setting expectations for participants. Starting with a reminder of civility during the Legislative Coffees and establishing ground rules at the beginning of each Gather at the Table event has contributed to maintaining civility throughout and creates an enabling environment for people to learn and listen.
The library also changed the space where they host Gather at the Table to make it more inviting. Originally, the events were hosted in a meeting room, but library staff found that people were hesitant to cross the threshold to come in and participate, and so they moved it to be in the main area of the Central Resource Library branch.
Advice to other libraries: create ground rules, build relationships, and don’t be afraid to keep trying and adjust for improvements.
- Library name: Johnson County Library
- City, State: Shawnee, KS
- Size of library system: 15 locations
- Contact for bridging work: Ashley Fick, Civic Engagement Librarian, [email protected]
Use this case study to learn:
- how to foster better relationships between communities and their legislators.
- how to facilitate conversations between members of the community to foster dialogue across differences.
- tips to implement activities that encourage and/or maintain civility.