April 03, 2023

Public Libraries as Social Infrastructure

Colby King author photoBy Colby King

A few years ago, I wrote about post offices as social infrastructure. I referred to sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, in which he defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact,” (p. 5). I recently saw a vivid illustration of how Klinenberg’s original subject, libraries, operate as social infrastructure. I want to share the story and discuss its context.

My wife and I have been taking our daughters, who are 5 years old and 21 months old, to our local public library and borrowing books. Our oldest has been particularly excited about this. She finds a new book from the Princess in Black series on each visit.

On a recent weekend afternoon, I took both kids to our neighborhood playground. Among the kids at the playground there was a girl just a few years older than our 5-year-old, who is very eager to hang out with older girls because she sees them as cool and knowledgeable, and she wants to learn all she can from them. This older girl was friendly with her, and they ran around the playground while I pushed the baby in a swing.

They climbed up a set of stairs to the slides and my daughter noticed that the older girl had left a book she brought with her there on the steps. She recognized the tag on the spine meant that the book was from the library, and asked excitedly, “Oh, what is that library book?”

The older girl explained that it is a chapter book, for older kids. “Is it about a mermaid?” my daughter asked, noticing the mermaid on the cover. “It is,” the older kid explained. “It’s called The Tail of Emily Windsnap and it’s part of a series.”

My daughter asked more questions, about the series, about how much the older girl had read, and how often she goes to the library. She asked enough questions about the book that she persuaded this older girl to sit down at the playground and read the first chapter of the book to her. She was enthralled. When she finished reading the chapter, the older girl promised that, when she finished reading it, she would return it to the library so that my daughter could borrow it.

Their interaction demonstrated so much about how libraries function as social infrastructure. The library’s tag on the spine of the book was a marker of what is cool and interesting. The shared appreciation of the book made available through the library helped both children to connect with each other. Their plan--for my daughter to retrieve the book after the older kid returns it--reveals how the library functions as a hub of community life.

This interaction happened at time of contentious debate over library books. In a scene that has become familiar across the country, in Pineville, Oregon, this past December concerned residents spoke at a meeting to encourage the Crook County Library to label LGBTQ-related books and remove them from the children’s section. Last summer more than 200 community members attended a meeting of the Ashland Public Library board in Ashland, Ohio. Concerned participants described some of the library’s books as pornographic and argued that the books should be moved to a “parental shelf,” or removed from the library. The library board’s president explained that the publisher and library staff consider the identified books to be health books and explained that those books are not held in the children's fiction or play areas. The board president also explained that their expectation is that parents or other care providers are with children as they browse the library.

The American Library Association reported that last year we saw a record number of attempts to ban or restrict books across the country. Last spring, this debate came to Greenville County, South Carolina, which is the western neighbor of Spartanburg. The Greenville County GOP passed a resolution urging their County Council to move books with what they described as “sexually explicit” content from the children’s section of county libraries to the adult section. One problem, as reported in the Greenville News, is that “there is no sexually explicit content in the children’s section of any Greenville County library branch.”

Recognizing a pattern across these and other incidents, last fall here in South Carolina a coalition of educational organizations, civil rights groups, religious institutions, and others committed to free speech and the free exchange of ideas including the League of Women Voters and the South Carolina ACLU formed Freedom to Read SC. Josh Malkin, a director at the SC ACLU was involved in these efforts and also involved with the Freedom in Libraries Advocacy Group (FLAG) in Greenville, members of which have worked consistently since last year to resist censorship efforts at the Greenville County library. Despite some success last fall, Josh suggested in the local news that censorship efforts were likely to continue. They have continued. This spring, a year after the resolution, the Greenville County Library System’s Materials Committee has now voted to advance a proposal to limit access to transgender themed materials.

Last week, a friend told me that community members were planning to speak at the Spartanburg County Library’s board meeting to raise similar concerns about materials in our local library. A report on the meeting in The Post and Courier noted that during the 30 minutes allotted for public comment, 11 people spoke. Four speakers asked for books to be moved, drawing on many of the same arguments seen elsewhere. Seven speakers asked for the books to remain.

Among those were Amberlyn Boiter, who is president at PFLAG Spartanburg and serves on the board of the Women's Rights and Empowerment Network. Amberlyn was born and raised here in the Upstate of South Carolina, and she has a two-year-old daughter. In her comments, Amberlyn noted that her daughter, “…has two moms, and one of those moms is transgender. This isn't age-inappropriate or sexual – it’s simply who her parents are.” Further, she explained, “If you move books which contain characters like the members of [my daughter’s] family, you are telling her that her family is something to be hidden.”

I was among the seven people who argued that the books should remain on library shelves. I spoke about the need to protect public institutions. I shared my feeling that segregation of materials would be censorship. I argued that our public libraries must be rich, diverse, reflective of our community to serve our community well. Then I shared the story of my daughter at the playground, making friends and building community through their shared interest in a library book. We were dismissed before the board continued its meeting, and we are waiting to see if any action is taken. Colby King speakingOur social worlds are segregated and often polarized, but social infrastructure, like that provided by public libraries, helps us overcomes these dilemmas. Illustrating this, Klinenberg recently pointed to this piece in The New York Times compiling photographs taken in libraries across seven states, documenting “the thrum and buzz in buildings once known for silence.” As Klinenberg explained in his book, “Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to face interactions—at the school, the playground, and the corner diner--are the building blocks of all public life,” (p.5).

Photo courtesy of the author


Very few parents have a great mindset like your wife, exposing children to books from a young age will help nurture their love for knowledge from a young age.

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