Palaces for the People: How we can take Carnegie’s vision into the digital age

For this assignment, I chose to read Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People. The title refers to the term used by Andrew Carnegie when describing his epic philanthropic mission to build libraries across America and even internationally. Klinenberg pays tribute to Carnegie in the book, mentioning that “entrepreneurs have amassed vast fortunes in the new information economy, and yet no one has come close to doing what Carnegie did between 1883 and 1929, when he funded construction of 2,800 lending libraries, 1679 of which are in the United States” (Klinenberg 2018 pp 218). 

Prechtel, B. (2016). Ashland. [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.seradesign.com/projects/ashland-public-library/

This is a photo of the library I currently work at. The original Carnegie (shown above) now houses the children’s department. The rest of the library was built on behind it as an addition.

The reason Klinenberg chose the title is because the book carefully underlines the link between social infrastructure and the quality of human life, civic life, and even environmental health. He coined “social infrastructure” to describe “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” (Klinenberg 2018 pp. 5).  Throughout the book, he basically states that towns or places that have excellent public spaces where people can gather, socialize, and simply be with other people—both like themselves and foreign to their usual circles—consequently have less crime, better health, and all around better civic engagement. He uses a variety of examples based both on personal experiences and on sociological studies to make his point. 

For example, the book begins with an overview of the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995. Temperatures reached 126 degrees and people began to die—mostly those who were elderly and isolated, without social connections or places to go to stay cool. He then gives an example of a library in New York City which hosts various programs for the elderly which are very popular, because the programs provide a safe space for people who would otherwise be stuck isolated in their homes can socialize with others who share their lifestyles. Public spaces also lower crime, because they create communities, and communities tend to look out for each other better, according to Klinenberg (Klinenberg 2018). 

Although heavily referenced in the book, libraries are not the only sources of social infrastructure that Klienenburg advocates for. He also cites sports parks, regular city parks, churches, and even spaces meant to ward off climate change like Benthemplein in the Netherlands as spaces that, which by their very existence, can create vibrant, and therefore safer, communities all around (Klinenberg 2018). 

The sports park in my hometown was once an empty field. It now features several soccer fields and baseball diamonds and hosts many school teams, sports leagues, and tournaments.

This book aligns with the course content in a number of ways, even though the book isn’t strictly about libraries the whole way through. The book is really about how public spaces act as places that create community. And the readings have again and again pointed to how important community is. In fact, the main mission of libraries tends to be connecting the community to information. In his book, Kleinenberg mentions how libraries and churches act as the refuge for people seeking shelter or information during natural disasters, such as hurricanes Harvey and Sandy. Similarly, the course readings so far have delved into how libraries can foster communities even outside the walls of the building. 

Professor Stevens’ chapter “The Hyperlinked Librarian” in the book In the Heart of Librarianship summed it up best when he said “the library is everywhere—it is not just the building or [even its] virtual spaces” (Stevens 2018 pp 2). The idea of “the hyperlinked librarian” is that we must understand that fewer people are using print materials, so if we want to reach a bigger selection of the community than the regulars who come through the doors, we have to leave the library. We have to create virtual social infrastructure. In the same vein, the article “People and UTS Library” has a subsection called “Community & Connections: People Count.” I think “people count” is an understatement; people are the  only reason that libraries exist, as well as the heart and purpose of libraries. It goes on to mention that we have to engage with the community, often through a better use of blogs, social media, and other e-content. “Some of us are still too slack in getting out and establishing genuine links,” the article notes (Booth 2013 pp 9). I think Klinenberg would agree that a library that isn’t establishing a strong community presence is failing at the enormously important task of proving community infrastructure.

So what does this mean for libraries? Clearly we are more than the “book warehouses” that come to so many people’s minds when the picture a public library. We are the anchors in communities. We’re the town living room. We’re the place where people can gather to learn, play, and make connections they may not otherwise be exposed to. It’s crucial that we market ourselves as such.

Sources: 

Klienenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequity, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group. 

Stevens, M. (2016). The Hyperlinked Librarian. In In the Heart of Librarianship: Attentive, Positive, and Purposeful Change. Retrieved from https://web-b-ebscohost-com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/ehost/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzEzNTAzNTZfX0FO0?sid=c1444992-484f-44e7-bddf-ed470073cacb@pdc-v-sessmgr01&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1

Booth, M. (2013). People and UTS Library. Retrieved from https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Booth_PeopleUTSLibrary.pdf

One thought on “Palaces for the People: How we can take Carnegie’s vision into the digital age

  1. Hi Jacqueline, you’re absolutely right that “’people count’ is an understatement; people are the only reason that libraries exist”! I have a rec background, so it was awesome hearing that Klinenberg also mentions outdoor spaces as critical for building community. I’ll have to add this one to the ever-growing list. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *