Karah's #hyperlinkedlibrary Blog

“Palaces for the People” Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jorge Garcia on February 19, 2019

In May of 2007, my parents and grandparents decided to combine households, and my soon-to-be husband and I decided to buy the house my grandparents would vacate.  We had saved for a honeymoon, but cancelled those plans in favor of a small down payment on the house. It was a great little place, a Levittown-like cape with a huge back yard and an inground pool.  The community was sought-after by people commuting to New York for work, as there was a direct train from our town into Manhattan, but being in northern Monmouth county, it still offered the quiet, tree-lined streets of the suburbs with close proximity to the beautiful Jersey Shore.  The house had been maintained well since it was built in 1962, and it would make a great forever home.

But in 2011, we had our first child, a boy, and another baby boy completed our family in 2014.  The next year, as the prospect of enrolling our oldest in the public schools loomed, we found ourselves having second thoughts about the town in which our sons would grow up.  Besides, a move would eliminate our dreaded commute, and offer us peace of mind knowing when our kids were in school, we would be just down the road, a phone call away if they were sick and needed us to pick them up.  Not having to rely on anyone else to help with our kids was a huge relief after years of dealing with unreliable child care greatly complicated by the fact that it was given for free by family. After a long search, we found our home, and the new place felt more like home to us than our old one ever did, despite the fact that we had been happy there.  

So what prompted a move from our home where we’d always assumed we’d stay and raise our family?  From the beginning, when we first moved to the town, we noticed there was not what we thought of as a sense of community.  There was a town center, but it was vintage, at best, and didn’t have the type of vibrancy that made us want to spend any time there.  Plenty of restaurants and businesses resided in nondescript strip malls laid out on main county roads separated by fast food chains. There were huge county parks, but you had to drive to get there, and the one neighborhood green space that had been planned with the prefab houses in the 60s had a crumbling playground that never seemed to attract children.  It was as if all the set pieces of a happy, suburban life had been dropped down in the middle of beautiful open land in rural New Jersey, but something about forming this community didn’t quite take. And when we had children, it really became clear to us: The town did not have what Eric Klinenberg calls strong “social infrastructure.”

I take all this time on my experience because for years I have tried to explain to friends and family why we would move from the suburbs by the shore back to the congestion of northern New Jersey with its high taxes and home prices, but I didn’t have language to describe why I never really felt at home in that setting.  In his 2018 book, Palaces for the People, Klinenberg has offered a way in which to understand both my unease in that community and my comfort in our new one.  He says, “…people with the same interest in social connection, community building, and civic participation have varying opportunities to achieve those things depending on the conditions in the places where they spend time.  The social and physical environment shapes our behaviour in ways we’ve failed to recognize; it helps make us who we are and determines how we live” (13). I think when I had children, it became clear to me that although I could not put my finger on what it was about that community that I did not like, I somehow knew living there would determine my family’s behavior and could possibly affect the lives of my children in ways I was not at all comfortable with.  I had assumed that when we had a family, we would be drawn into the community through them as we frequented local parks and took part in local activities, but I see now my husband and I did not share an “interest in social connection, community building, and civic participation,” with our neighbors, and that having children wasn’t going to change that lack of interest. It had always been there; having children just made it more obvious.

In any case, after adding quite a few titles from the original list provided to my TBR list, I settled on reading Palaces for the People because the subtitle–How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life–speaks not only to my professional passion of librarianship, but also to my experience as a citizen and member of a community.  Klinenberg’s thesis is that shared spaces play a vital role in our democracy, and the social infrastructure that support these spaces has the power to make society better.  Reading this book has helped me understand more fully my lifelong love of libraries; I am not just an avid reader and book lover, I see libraries as a physical manifestation of my core values and beliefs that learning and information is for everybody.  How beautiful is that!? Klinenberg says, “Why have so many public officials and civic leaders failed to recognize the value of libraries and their role in our social infrastructure? Perhaps it’s because the founding principle behind the library–that all people deserve free open access to our shared culture and heritage, which they can use to any end they see fit–is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our time….Their core mission is to help people elevate themselves and improve their situation” (37).  The author’s summary of the library’s founding principle and core mission speak directly to why I went into education in the first place. I believe public school is perhaps the only systemic institution that has the power to democratize, and I have always wanted to be a part of that work.

Libraries are not the only form of social infrastructure Klinenberg discusses, but he says they are “among the most critical forms of social infrastructure that we have” (32).  He also talks about religious centers like churches and synagogues, daycare facilities, parks, and bookstores as vital components of the social infrastructure, and says these “public places and institutions play a pivotal role in the daily lives of our neighborhoods and communities.  On good days they can determine how many opportunities we have for meaningful social interactions [the kind I was interested in securing for my family when we decided to move]. On bad days, especially during crises, they can mean the difference between life and death” (226). Klinenberg examines what happens to communities in the days, weeks, and months following disasters such as heat waves and hurricanes, and finds those with strong social infrastructure fare far better in the aftermath of a crisis despite demographics and geography.  

This book has allowed me to truly zero in on my mission as a librarian, provided me with language I did not previously have about librarianship and my role, and I am just beside myself knowing there is someone out there doing this kind of thinking about social infrastructure.  I feel hopeful in new ways after reading this book, and am so excited to talk about the ways in which it has grown my thinking on the value of libraries. I recommend that everyone read this book, but especially librarians. Klinenberg wrote an opinion piece last September on the subject, if you just want the broad strokes for now.  Great, great stuff.

2 Responses

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  1. Lisa Semenza said, on February 20, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    I thought this was a well written review as you compared your family’s search for your place in a community to the need for libraries to be a place of community to draw others in. Thanks for sharing.

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