In Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that libraries (among other institutions) have the potential to improve lives (particularly those of the most marginalized among us) and thus, to improve our society. He explains that, “For many seniors, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations,” and that “it’s where they can be part of a diverse and robust community, not a homogeneous one where everyone fears decline,” (Klinenberg, 2018, p.38). He notes that “libraries offer refuge and safe space to teenagers,” and that “libraries help children and teenagers feel responsible, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too,” (Klinenberg, 2018, p.38). In other words, libraries promote and encourage pro social behaviors and attitudes, such as valuing diversity and taking responsibility for the welfare of others. In this way, libraries build community.
In order for all of this to occur, however, the library needs to offer something (whether programs, services, information, physical space, or something else) that makes people want to access the library and its services. In an article entitled, “Do We Need Libraries?” (a question to which I am quite sure Eric Klinenberg would answer “yes!”) Steve Denning writes, “The first and most important question for libraries is to ask: How can we delight our users and customers?” (2015). This means that libraries must actively seek input from their users, to find out what current services they are providing that inspire “delight” and what else might they offer to delight their users. Brian Mathews explains, “Libraries are about people, not books or technology,” (2012). He goes on to state, that for library professionals, “libraries need to be a cause, a purpose, and the reason you get out of bed and are excited to get to work,” (Mathews, 2012). And why wouldn’t a library professional be excited to have the opportunity to improve their local community and to be a part of such a positive endeavor?
In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg tells the story of a New York Public Library “Information Specialist,” named Andrew. Andrew is an example of someone who is, (as Brian Mathews wants to see in the profession), “excited to get to work,” in the library. Andrew has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about what makes libraries valuable to the people in his community. Klinenberg quotes Andrew saying that, “the library assumes the best out of people. The services it provides are founded on the assumption that if given the chance, people will improve themselves,” (2018, p.52). Klinenberg muses that “during [his] time in libraries, social interactions – with librarians and with other patrons- are one of the crucial ways that this self-improvement happens,” (p.52). One of the meaningful ways that Andrew is able to facilitate this type of positive social dynamic in his library is through a program he came up with, called “Tea Time,” (where patrons drink tea together). Klinenberg quotes Andrew, who says, “I like the way the program brings people together…but that’s not all,” (2018, p.53). Andrew goes on to explain that “the library really is a palace. It bestows nobility on people who can’t otherwise afford a shred of it. People need to have nobility and dignity in their lives…and they need people to recognize it in them too,” (Klinenberg, 2018, p.53). Andrew continues, “Serving tea doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but the truth is, it’s one of the most important things I do,” (Klinenberg, 2018, p.53). This strikes me as a perfect example of a library professional figuring out how to provide a service that “delights” his users and that promotes a sense of community (by focusing on the people within the community, and their needs, such as the need for nobility and dignity, that Andrew picked up on). As Klinenberg makes clear in his book, this kind of social infrastructure, that libraries across the United States make available to their users, is a valuable (perhaps the most valuable and important) function of the modern public library.
Denning, S. (2015, April 28). Do we need libraries? Retrieved from:
Klinenberg, E. (2019) Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight
Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York, NY: Crown.
Mathews, B. (2012, April). Think like a startup. Retrieved from:
- Reflection Blog 1
- Reflection Blog 2: Community and Inclusion