CONTEXT BOOK REVIEW – Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People

In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg argues forcefully that the creation and cultivation of social infrastructure is essential to building and sustaining vibrant, resilient, inclusive, human communities. Drawing both from history as well as more contemporary sociological studies, he situates libraries — alongside civic associations, unions, green architecture, and mixed-income neighborhoods — as part of a social system that nurtures community connection and interaction. These structures and institutions enable community members to come together in diverse configurations and relationships, to learn from and with each other, and to support the flourishing of themselves and their communities. They can include not just associations or groups, but the built environment and physical spaces in which community members interact in public. Klinenberg’s call is for our society to renew and expand our commitment to such spaces, towards preserving the notion of the commons, and an ethic of mutuality, equity, and democracy, which he sees as crucial to meeting the challenges of our time. It is through social infrastructure that these values and principles can be realized in the everyday lives of communities. 

Although presenting several different examples of social infrastructure throughout Palaces…, Klinenberg devotes a large measure of attention on libraries. Through discussion of different library branches — most pointedly the Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library — he counters the narrative of libraries as book repositories, pointing towards several examples of  how library organizations can serve their communities independent of print, or even digital materials: as social gaming space for elders participating in a cross-borough virtual bowling league; as an emergency response center following natural disasters; as a space for first-time parents or youth to connect and learn from one another; or just as a safe place for houseless folks to spend their day. The free and open nature of libraries, he notes, makes them truly accessible “third spaces,” distinguishing them from other spaces labeled as such, like cafes, which are still governed by the dictates of commerce, requiring payment for the privilege of using the space. 

This anti-commercial mission of libraries is what makes them both sites of such possibility, but also explains perspectives of those who see them as being on the wane. Klinenberg delves into this by asking and answering a critical question:

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 is 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. (If, today, the library didn’t already exist, it’s hard to imagine our society’s leaders inventing it.) (emphasis added)

It is precisely this founding principle, this mission that makes libraries such a valuable contributor to a community’s social infrastructure — because it is focused on providing access to information and content to anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, level of education, ability status, or any of a number of other dimensions of identity. Librarians need to center this openness and ongoing collaboration with a diversity of potential users through developing community-responsive services and programs, towards helping to build and realize community. They should work to make their library “a space of permission,” in the words of Sharon Marcus, who Klinenberg features in a narrative about her childhood experiences with libraries. 

While acknowledging the connective potential of digital technologies (particularly for youth, whose lives are increasingly regulated and surveilled in the offline, physical world, and who have been increasingly seeking some level of autonomy online), Klinenberg asserts that much of the value of social infrastructure emerges from its capacity to bring a diverse range of people together in physical space. Libraries, as physical spaces open to all and focused on serving just such a diversity of users, can thus be crucial contributors to the social infrastructure of the communities they serve. In fact, in a world where social interactions are increasingly shaped by algorithms and filters intent on keeping most people in a state of outrage and disconnection from those different from them in identity and perspective, libraries remain a fairly unique space in terms of their potential for enabling of heterogeneous, cross-cultural and intergenerational exchanges. Klinenberg argues that even in physical space, social distance and segregation lead to polarization and disconnection, while contact and conversation help humanize and expand community. Libraries can be fluid, dynamic physical spaces that help anchor social gatherings, and thus, enable social cohesion and solidarity to flourish.

To continue performing the valuable role they do, Klinenberg believes that libraries and librarians need to respond and transform themselves, to ensure they stay relevant and responsive to the communities they serve. He presents the example of floating libraries, which have emerged in Bangladesh in response to increasing floods generated by climate change, as a creative approach to maintaining and even possibly expanding access. Such grassroots, hyperlocal innovations show how library service need not be defined by major funding, and  inspire librarians in countries and communities with significantly more resources to explore new ways of facilitating use, sharing, and creation of content by their users. 

Although speaking of social infrastructure in general, Klinenberg ends his book with a few crucial imperatives, which I think are very much aligned with the Hyperlinked Model and future of libraries. First, he underlines his primary point, which is that social infrastructure needs to be understood as an essential component to the wellbeing of communities alongside physical (or increasingly tech) infrastructure, and that we need to carefully consider how and what we build of it, since our values are expressed in such constructions, and define what future we want to create. In the context of libraries, this can be taken to mean both spaces and services need to be purposefully developed and designed and even redesigned, in line with what users are seeking to meet their needs, and that library workers should be advocates and collaborators with others within their community focused on enhancing the overall welfare of their communities. In addition, he argues that such design cannot be the work of political officials or experts, but need to be inclusive, democratic, and participatory, “harnessing all kinds of collective intelligence.” This resonates with the notion of participatory design and services that are fundamental to the Hyperlinked Library model, and should be adopted by any library system desiring to remain relevant and responsive to its users (and potential users). Finally, while arguing for the importance of innovation, creativity, and possibly even technology in designing social infrastructure, Klinenberg maintains that social connection and interaction — nurturing humanity — must remain central to the outcome; libraries need to maintain a similar stance, keeping people, not materials, as the center of their work.

CONCLUSION: PANDEMIC REFLECTIONS

While I found Klinenberg’s Palaces of the People a compelling case for investment in social infrastructure, I’m left with many questions about how much the COVID pandemic may have shifted or even damaged some of its capacity, in our country, and elsewhere. This public health crisis, which has specifically complicated the ability of folks to interact physically, has caused many institutions and communities to pivot towards more digital means of interaction, and access of information. What Klinenberg might make of these recently emergent forms of connection is not entirely clear, and possibly speaks to how challenging it can sometimes be for libraries — as one part of social infrastructure — to address issues caused by the failure of another — our mixed for-profit and non-profit health care system here in the U.S. libraries. 

The library system in the city I call home, Seattle, already had a fairly robust range of digital resources and platforms available to users, and expanded into programs such as virtual story hours, author events, and other online meetups. (SPL eventually moved to curbside service, and — after several months of limited hours — reopening with masks and other protocols in place.) However, I wonder about other, particularly smaller or less-resourced systems, which may not have been able to adjust as easily to the demands of the pandemic. As long as they keep their focus on connecting users to materials and each other by whatever means they have available, however, libraries will continue providing a valuable service to their communities.  

REFERENCES

Klinenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the people : how social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life . Crown.

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2 Responses to CONTEXT BOOK REVIEW – Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People

  1. Great analysis, Marc. I will definitely be adding this book to my reading list. I also work in public libraries, and, like you, have spent a lot of time over the past year and a half thinking about how our likely pandemic-filled future will affect public libraries. I am drawn to libraries due to their socialist nature–with equity issues centered–and have found that during the pandemic the libraries where I work (which range from small to medium) have been much less accessible to the houseless and other marginalized folks. At one of the libraries where I work, with the current as well as future pandemics in mind, we are installing permanent furniture fixtures that are more conducive to serving the public during a pandemic, but that I think are less conducive to the hyperlinked library model. I share some of your concerns and am interested to see how libraries develop in our times, but, like you, I still hold hope that we will remain an important space for community growth.

    • Marc says:

      Shannon,
      Thanks for your comments. It seems like the response to the pandemic has been somewhat mixed across different library systems. While some have seen it as an opportunity to ask how they can pivot and redesign themselves to better serve everyone (including houseless neighbors), some just aren’t. And in Seattle, where I live, the system has gone back and forth; one of our branches, the Ballard branch, has shared space and provided services with a houseless/unsheltered community there, but I also know that as the system was somewhat shut down, some sheltered folks in the neighborhood have been pushing more aggressively for the community to be dispersed, with the branch struggling to figure out how to provide support with minimal operations. Really, our system’s relationship with houseless patrons is similar to that of the larger community: some fairly informed and compassionate support, and some rather carceral/unwelcoming response through patron policies that aren’t trauma-informed or thoughtful around these community members’ experiences. I remain cautiously optimistic that we’ll all learn the lesson of more mutuality, but it isn’t guaranteed without folks continuing to make the case and highlight the importance of community care, as we move further out of the lockdowns.

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