Like a fish that doesn’t realize it’s surrounded by the very thing it needs to survive: water, we may not even notice the very life-giving infrastructure that we are immersed in until it is threatened or depleted. Eric Klinenberg implores readers to take another look at the importance of the social fabric of our communities. In his book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, Klinenberg (2018) takes a close look at how, what he calls social infrastructure, has the power to make or break the future of our communities.
From the very beginning of the book, in which Klinenberg takes the reader to 1995 Chicago in which a major heatwave killed a record number of citizens (pp. 1-7) to the final chapter in which Klinenberg looks at the devastating numbers of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Sandy, and Katrina (pp. 177-207) the message remains the same: communities with strong ties that have relief spaces during disasters have a greater chance of survival and communities that have spaces where diverse types of people can congregate feel happier and are healthier. In addition to social fabric helping communities to survive and thrive, Klinenberg also attributes lower crime rates to the revitalization of abandoned lots and houses into green social spaces (pp 125-139), as well as to places like the library where people are treated with respect and dignity and are given the responsibility of civility (p. 45).
The most written about theme throughout Klinenberg’s book is the importance of coming together for the sake of the community. It is about the positive forces of caring and creating bonds that make a society healthy, protect the vulnerable, keep crime rates down, and keeps people alive. In many of the chapters, it is the library that helps to facilitate these community bonds. The library connects people with information and with other patrons who may otherwise be isolated or vulnerable such as new mothers (pp. 34-37), teens with no other safe spaces (pp. 44-46), and the elderly (pp. 133-134).
The library helps many more than just these specific groups, though, and it is oftentimes a starting zone for recreational programs, learning, and even after-school childcare. The hyperlinked library can be even more of a community hub when connected to the rest of the community spaces in a town or city. By strengthening the bonds and community ties through outreach and program development, the hyperlinked library can build strong roots, strengthen the social fabric, and connect people in ways that have the potential to save the lives of those who are touched by library programming.
Community Spaces Bridge the Divide
Klinenberg’s ideas are very compelling and give way to an idea that any space, whether it be the library, a park, a dam, an empty lot, church, café, or barbershop, can be more than what it seems. Through the use of these spaces and, in the context of this class, the library, a community can be networked in such a way that we can mend the divisiveness presently tearing our social fabric apart and look to each other for support.
Like Klinenberg’s interviewee Michael MacDonald, head of Global Health Initiatives in Washington D.C., so eloquently put “It’s the fragile, agile networks that make a difference in situations like [Hurricane Sandy]. It’s the horizontal relationships like the ones we’re building that create security on the ground, not the hierarchical institutions” (pp. 193-194). It is the sprawling networks, the caring and bringing together of people from all backgrounds to help one another that can help turn society’s trajectory around. By treating others with dignity, respect, and caring for one another on small scales, like proposed in Stephens (2019) when speaking about horizontal staff structure, to large scales, like community recreational spaces for all, the reaching outward as opposed to reaching upward is what makes a difference.
Klinenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the people: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. New York, NY: Crown.
Stephens, M. (2019). The hyperlinked library: Exploring the model. [Video lecture]. Retrieved from https://sjsu-ischool.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=a0569381-4d66-4e0a-a7fa-aab3010a8f3e
Talks at Google. (2019, February 5). Eric Klinenberg: “Palaces for the people” | Talks at Google. [Video file]. Retreived from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJIYhSA84Sc