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9.11 investigation

Libraries Embrace 9-11 Idea: Let's Talk About Democracy

Libraries embrace 9-11 idea: Let's talk about democracy

By Cara Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

It all started with the words "What if."

What if Americans spent the day talking about democracy? What if they had the conversation in their local libraries? What if it all happened on Sept. 11, a date that means so much in the national memory?

These are the questions David Silver asked last winter at a meeting with librarians in Seattle. Since then, 110 librarians across the country have given him an answer: great idea.

"No one's saying, 'You're dreaming,' anymore," said Silver, 36, a communications professor at the University of Washington and co-director of The September Project. "It's so exciting."

In the midst of the war on terrorism, and in the heat of a presidential campaign, The September Project has a simple goal: Start a national conversation about democracy, citizenship and patriotism. Libraries by the dozen are signing on, from a juvenile hall in California to a private school in Alabama, a countywide library system in Minnesota to a university in Texas.

"People are so eager to talk to someone, anyone, to figure out what's going on," said Marsha Iverson of the King County Library System. "And there's more need than ever for developing understanding and finding solutions, no matter what your political persuasion."

As the guardians of one of the last public places in America, librarians say they feel a duty to jump-start that discussion.

Already, libraries in 24 states are planning performances, exhibits and forums that will explore how the nation has changed since the terrorist attacks. A library in Australia has signed on, and libraries in Ireland, Spain and Holland are expected to join in, exploring how that day changed the world for those nations as well.

"This seems like a wonderful way to use the tragedy to get something positive going," said Jean Pollack, a children's librarian at the Boulevard Park branch in unincorporated King County.

Pollack had been wondering how children perceived the 2001 terrorist attacks, and if she could do anything to ease a discussion into it. Now The September Project has her focused on the task. Perhaps the children could recite the Bill of Rights while juggling? Or maybe they could write letters to students across the country, telling about their community?

The directors of The September Project are determined to keep politics out of the day's events. But that is virtually the only restriction placed on the librarians who have signed on to the project. They can explore the common themes of citizenship, democracy and patriotism in any way they choose, however suits their community best.

Silver had doubts about that approach in the beginning. But Sarah Washburn, co-director of the project, pushed hard against the one-size-fits-all model. She argued that Patriot Day the designation given Sept. 11 by Congress and President Bush should be made special in each community, with events tailored to the people who live there.

"I knew the librarians," said Washburn, 32, who worked on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiative to connect all U.S. libraries to the Internet. "I knew they would take this idea and run with it."

And that is exactly what they've done. In Salt Lake County, Utah, libraries looked to the state Humanities Council, which maintains a speakers bureau with Sept. 11-related topics ranging from "Why Do They Hate Us?" to "Veiling Women in World History."

Library manager Kent Dean decided on an expert on Islamic society to speak to his patrons. The largely Mormon state has a growing population of Muslims, he said, and their culture and customs are at risk of being misunderstood.

In California, the greater Santa Cruz library system has created a three-day extravaganza. It has partnered with everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to local churches to sponsor a series of discussions and exhibits in libraries across the county.

All of the events will revolve around three questions: What do you like about America? What do you think needs to be fixed? What are you going to do about it?

"I think this is a moment for all of us to be thinking about who we really are, and what we want to be doing as a country," said Anne Turner, Santa Cruz library director. "These are questions that cut across all political lines."

Seattle's Central Library will host the public premiere of a documentary called "Poetry in Wartime." After a discussion of the film, participants will filter into "Expression Sessions" workshops in poetry, writing and mural design. For those who prefer, the library may set up a video booth where people can speak their thoughts in private.

After culling through hundreds of ideas, the documentary seemed like a perfect fit for Seattle, said Kristin Zavorska, events producer and creative director for the library. From spoken-word stand-ups to readings at bookstores, poetry has a presence in many corners of city life.

One of The September Project's earliest supporters, Zavorska said it has been a thrill to watch a small idea snowball into a nationwide plan. It just shows, she said, how much hunger there is for discussion about what has happened since the terrorist attacks.

"Nationally, I think we're just coming out of a period of mourning," said Zavorska. "We're beyond the shock and grief, and now we need to start talking about what it meant to us."

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024


The site includes not only a map of which libraries have signed up, and where, but it also lists resources and ideas for librarians who are trying to plan a day of events.

homepage: homepage: http://www.theseptemberproject.org