Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Gordon Avenue public library was a few blocks from my elementary school. Some days, rather than taking the bus home, I would hang out at the library until my parents could pick me up. I perused the shelves, discovering books and authors, and settling into a comfy chair to read. It was a space of safety and exploration, and everyone was welcome.

Years later, in the 1990’s, that same library was the birthplace of my work on bridging political divides. I had returned to Charlottesville after college. Counseling women with unintended pregnancies and involved in the local pro-choice coalition, I became exhausted by embattlement with pro-life activists. Inspired by the work of Common Ground in St. Louis, I reached out to the director of the pro-life crisis pregnancy center, and we committed to bring our sides together to talk. We sought a location for this conversation that would feel equally comfortable for everyone, and we ended up at the Gordon Avenue public library.

Each month, we gathered in our reserved room, and sat in a circle talking and listening to one another. We were pro-choice Catholics, pro-life feminists, Democrats and Republicans, young and old, with a range of personal and professional connections to the topic. As we shared, not simply our opinions, but the values and experiences that led us to our views, we generated trust and mutual understanding. In the end, it wasn’t about changing anyone’s mind about abortion, it was about shifting our perceptions of people who disagreed with us on the subject. And for me, that was transformational.

I carried that experience with me for decades as my work on LGBTQ psychology brought me into contact with people who held opposing views. And when the 2016 election revealed the deep divisions in America, I wrote a book, Beyond Your Bubble, about how to have dialogue across political differences. Which brought me back to libraries. For example, in fall 2020, a library-community partnership hosted a 4-week program based on Beyond Your Bubble. When I Zoomed into the final session, I was so heartened to hear attendees’ motivation and optimism for engaging in challenging conversations.

I think it’s important to keep such hopeful experiences in mind these days. Currently, public libraries are caught in the midst of culture wars as citizens clash over book bans and drag queen story hours. Nonetheless, libraries continue to have an important role to play in healing our fractured communities. The American Library Association encourages libraries to be bridging spaces through the Libraries Transforming Communities program, and the Urban Libraries Council just published their community conversation guide for libraries.  Libraries are deeply committed to connecting with the communities they serve, and one way they do that is by creating programs and resources on bridging political divides and talking about controversial issues. Library leadership and staff support programming to bring people together and engage communities in conversation. They continue to be free, accessible, trusted, and welcoming spaces of learning and discovery.

During this National Library Week, I celebrate public libraries for the important role they play in cultivating knowledge and social cohesion in these divided times.