October 14, 2019

Libraries and Social Change

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I have vivid memories of visiting the library as a child, going to story hour and then being allowed to choose a few books to read that week. With age came the ability to take out more books and then eventually to have my own library card.

I still use the library all the time, but mostly online, whether it is my university’s library system or the public library to download e-books and audio books. While the way many of us use the library has changed, it is still a public institution whose importance we often overlook.

As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in his book Palaces for the People, public libraries serve as especially important spaces for communities today despite the ubiquity of e-books. He writes of new parents taking children to events like story hour and having the chance to connect with other parents, many of whom may feel isolated from other adults while caring for children.

He observes a lower income community where a virtual bowling league pits them against another team at a different library branch. Rather than just about signing out books and other materials, libraries are one of the few public gathering places that are open to everyone.

We do have private spaces where people can linger, like some coffee chains and local diners. But those spaces are not available to everyone, as an infamous 2018 incident at Starbucks revealed when police were called when two African-American men sat at a table before ordering. Klinenberg discusses other such incidents, as when elderly customers were asked to leave McDonalds because they were sitting at their table for a time period management deemed too long. Ultimately, private spaces are not open to everyone.

Klinenberg calls libraries an essential part of social infrastructure. Just as roads and bridges are vital forms of physical infrastructure which connects physical spaces and enables movement from place to place, social infrastructure are physical spaces where communities and connections form.

As Klinenberg describes in a New York Times op-ed:

In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another.

It’s not just low-income communities that need libraries. Klinenberg discusses how the elderly also benefit from courses and programming, and interacting with people at libraries can help stave off isolation. One elderly family member of mine regularly uses the computer at his local library, even though he has a computer with Internet access at his home. He also has a printer, but typically goes to the library to print when necessary. At first I didn’t understand why.

His library is an easy walk at just a few blocks away, and since he’s not very comfortable with computers, he can ask for help with some basic functions and searches. As we are increasingly expected to be our own customer service support agents, making travel reservations or buying goods online, those who aren’t computer savvy may find help from a friendly local librarian who can guide patrons on how to do so online. Because he uses his printer so rarely, the ink cartridges have usually dried up by the time he needs to print and it is far cheaper to pay a dime per page than go through more cartridges that will probably only be used once.

These services aren’t offered anyplace else that he is aware of and interacting regularly with the local library staff provides some social interaction. For people who are retired, it is a chance to see familiar faces as part of a regular routine.

Our local library features many community events, including local meetings of our community council, an art exhibit featuring local artists, and a used bookstore. Even though people in this affluent community can afford to buy books online at full price, since the local bookstore closed the library’s sale is the only place where people can browse actual books and see their friends and neighbors at the same time.

Even though the way that many of us get our information has changed over the past few decades—finding books and articles for school or research no longer requires a visit to a physical library or knowledge about how to use a card catalog—we still need them as vital parts of communities. What other forms of “social infrastructure” is especially important for communities today?

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