Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life paints libraries—public libraries specifically—as the great equalizer, the space that will catch humanity in its downfall and lift communities back up. I do not disagree, but I do not fully agree. As we have seen in the last seven months since physical library spaces closed all over the country due to COVID-19 (and many remain so), libraries are losing funding, jobs are being cut, and they are fighting to keep themselves relevant as essential “third places.” Library workers have continued to adapt to changing needs and circumstances, but there are remaining unmet needs deeply embedded in the structure of some communities that cannot be fixed with a library service or program.
“The accessible physical space of the library is not the only factor that makes it work well as social infrastructure. The institution’s extensive programming, organized by a professional staff that upholds a principled commitment to openness and inclusivity, fosters social cohesion among clients who might otherwise keep to themselves.”(Klinenberg, 2018, p. 36)
Klinenberg focuses on the social impact of libraries early on in the book and then transitions to highlight various types of infrastructure, commenting on their influence on the communities in which they reside. In the chapter about college campuses, the juxtaposition of Ivy League schools and the surrounding area is described as isolating and exclusive. The architecture of the campuses physically keep outsiders out and insiders in, not allowing for social intersections. The example of the Silicon Valley technical hub is similar—the private tech campuses offer their employees access to green spaces, restaurants, athletic facilities, childcare, as well as other various spaces to expand their social network. But these amenities are off-limits to neighboring residents, visitors, and sometimes low-level temps and contractors. While the campuses bring boundless opportunity for social interaction for those who have access, they close themselves off to the neighbors that exist directly outside their walls. Libraries act in opposing fashion. Their buildings and services are influenced by community input and conversations; there are no requirements for entry (although there are still barriers to access). Libraries blur lines of social class and allow for natural interaction among diverse groups, explored in Klinenberg’s example of the Wii bowling tournament at the New Lots branch library.
Libraries do not only provide a space for people to gather—they provide a space for people to access support and assistance. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a New York City branch library that had escaped major damage began offering basic necessities to neighbors whose homes had been damaged by as much as 16 feet of water. They initially provided the basics (food, water, power) and within a couple of days started helping fulfill larger needs (connecting people to the Red Cross, helping residents fill out online FEMA applications). In this instance—and many others—library staff helped satisfy the communities needs by connecting them to local resources.
Reflecting on the assistance provided by library workers after Hurricane Sandy reminded me of the early shutdown days in March 2020. The three-branch system I work at closed our doors to the public, but maintained a small staff of people answering phones each weekday. I was given the opportunity to work what we called “The COVID Hotline” without any previous reference experience. I am grateful we were there, although not in person, to provide resources and support to the members of the community. Speaking with people on the phone connected our staff to the community and vice versa. In times of fear and uncertainty, the library remains a familiar space that can provide a necessary sense of comfort.
As demonstrated, physical spaces are not the only pathway to social connectedness. Klinenberg mentions danah boyd’s book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, which I read last year for INFO 200. Much of the anecdotal information boyd (2014) provides focuses on parents’ strict restrictions on their teens—how much time they are allowed to spend outside of home, where they can go, and what they can do. Instead of fighting with their parents for more time spent socializing outside—at the mall, park, or other public space—teens turn to their smartphones and computers, connecting to each other via social networking sites like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. Even though many prefer in person interaction, these modes of connectivity afford teens with limited physical mobility the advantage of staying present with each other through the online world. Libraries have the potential to act as a champion for teens as a “third place,” offering up a physical space with no expectations to provide anything in return. They also have the ability to offer up virtual space by providing free Internet access, virtual programming, and access to online databases/resources.
The Hyperlinked Library
Klinenberg’s positive affirmations and rosy stories of libraries as gathering spaces, bringing diverse groups together for Wii bowling or story time give me hope—but these events are not always realistic possibilities. We know libraries provide a physical space for people to gather, explore their interests, work, play, experience community. They also provide digital access that allows for further exploration, connection and information seeking. Where do we go from here? In my neighborhood, we are currently looking at communities with large numbers of job loss, business closures, health concerns, people transitioning to online learning and working from home. How can the library’s social infrastructure help support these community needs? I do not have all of the answers. And I do not know what libraries are going to look like in the next couple months (or years). Uncertainty still hangs in the air, but I’m choosing to cling to the hopefulness I feel when I hear: “The library is everywhere—not just a building or virtual space” (Stephens, 2020).
boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.
Klinenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the people: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. Crown Publishing Group.
Leferink, S. (January 24, 2018). To keep people happy… keep some books. OCLC. https://blog.oclc.org/next/to-keep-people-happy-keep-some-books/
Stephens, M. (2020). The hyperlinked library model [Lecture]. Retrieved from https://sjsu-ischool.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=a0569381-4d66-4e0a-a7fa-aab3010a8f3e
Stephens, M. (2016). The Heart of Librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change [eBook edition]. ALA Editions.