Klinenberg (2018) argues that a community’s social infrastructure–“the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact” (p. 5)—can be a matter of life or death for its residents. Due to climate change, catastrophes such as heatwaves, floods, and hurricanes are becoming more common (Klinenberg, 2018, p. 186). These events can bring communities to the brink of collapse. The connections that social infrastructure foster makes a community more resilient to these disasters, just as the absence of these connections leads to people being isolated, making that community more vulnerable as a whole (Klinenberg, 2018). Klinenberg writes:
When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to face interactions—at the school, the playground, and the corner diner—are the building blocks of all public life. (Klinenberg, 2018, p. 5)
However, social infrastructure is more than just disaster planning; it also helps communities dealing with problems such as aging populations, inequality, and ethnic divisions (Klinenberg, 2018, p. 7).
Libraries, of course, are a vital part of social infrastructure, because they are places where people make relationships with each other, and, importantly, they are open to all (Klinenberg, 2018, p. 37). While Klinenberg includes some touching stories of people discovering their love of reading and learning at the library, from a social infrastructure point of view, one of the library’s most important functions is providing a physical space for people to interact with fellow community members they wouldn’t normally interact with (Klinenberg, 2018, pp. 37-38). Groups that are often subtly (or not so subtly) shown they are unwelcome in commercial “third places” are welcome at the library: the elderly, teens, the poor, and those experiencing homelessness (Klinenberg, 2018). Leferink (2018) makes a similar argument for the importance of physical gathering spaces, writing that they shape who we are as communities.
Mattern (2014) writes that libraries are a network of different infrastructures. In other words, libraries do a lot of things. In fact, they may do too many things, and how they balance everything that is asked of them with the funding available is something for librarians to wrestle with (Mattern, 2014). Klinenberg (2018) and Mattern (2014) both make the point that the library does a lot for a lot of different people, and that they do, and should do, unexpected things. Klinenberg’s point of view can be freeing, because he essentially argues that the only thing a library must do is to keep bringing the community to the library, which will bring them to each other. Libraries tend to focus on literacy and learning, because they have always done those well, and people still want those things. However, there is almost nothing that libraries could not potentially do, and Klinenberg discusses many ways that communities strengthen themselves, all of which libraries can be a part of if their community needs them to be. This includes, but is not limited to, calming green spaces, community gardens, working together to physically revitalize a neighborhood, being a staging area for disaster relief, providing space for coffee shops, providing space for cafes, being a work space, being a gathering place, being a place for relaxation, and hosting video game sports leagues (Klinenberg, 2018).
Each library will have to decide for itself how to balance its many roles within the community. Casey and Savastinuk (2007) write that we must look outward. That means paying attention to the community. What services each library will provide depends on what individual communities need. Access is important as well. Stephens (2016) points out that breaking down barriers to accessing the library is key to keeping the public’s interest (p. 80). It is also important for the health of those communities, whether they now it or not. As vulnerable communities become even more vulnerable, access to libraries, and the social infrastructure they are a part of, is essential.
Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service [PDF file]. Medford, N.J: Information Today. Retrieved from https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Library2.0Text.pdf
Devaney, R. (n.d.). Carnegie library [JPEG file]. Retrieved from https://georgetowner.com/articles/2019/05/09/apple-store-moves-into-former-carnegie-library/
Klinenberg, E. (2018). Palaces for the people: How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. New York, NY: Crown.
Leferink, S. (2018, January 24). To keep people happy…keep some books [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/blog/main/to-keep-people-happy-keep-some-books/
Mattern, S. (2014). Library as infrastructure. Retrieved from https://placesjournal.org/article/library-as-infrastructure/?cn-reloaded=1
Stephens, M. (2016). The heart of librarianship: Attentive, positive, and purposeful change [PDF file]. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/awarqt5rdxcmzet/9780838914649.pdf?dl=0#