Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.
When I started working professionally and earning a paycheck I got in the habit of buying the books I wanted to read and basically stopped going to libraries of any kind altogether. That lasted until just a few years ago when my daughter learned to read and became an avid bookworm. Now it’s unusual if we go more than a few weeks without visiting one or more branches of the Brooklyn Public Library system.
We’re lucky that the library system in Brooklyn is relatively well funded. You can reserve, borrow and renew books via the system’s web site. You can also do the same with e-books using the reasonably good if imperfect Libby app from Overdrive (I’m in the middle of a Lee Child book on my phone right now thanks to this). Pretty 21st Century, right?
A Brooklyn Public Library card in and of itself is kind of a remarkable thing too. To begin with, the current design sports an illustration from Maurice Sendak’s immortal “Where the Wild Things Are,” making it easily the most aesthetically sophisticated card in your wallet. That card also lets you access the free Kanopy streaming movie service which has some great classic as well newer independent films—basically it’s like Netflix, but you don’t have to pay for it and the content is actually good. And finally the card also gets you free access to thirty-three New York City museums.
All of that is a remarkable deal, but what has struck me most about coming back to public libraries is how so many people get so many different uses out of the buildings themselves. As a public space, they’re unlike any other. As Klinenberg writes:
Libraries are an example of what I call ‘social infrastructure’: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people…
I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.
For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.
For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, 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. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.
In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another.
I’ve seen for myself real life examples of virtually all of these use cases. It really opened my eyes to how vital a civic institution the libraries in my community are. But I take mild exception to the emphasis that Klinenberg places on a library’s ability to “address all manner of personal problems.” That phrasing gives the impression that a library is a place you go principally to solve some kind of challenge.
While that’s often true, it’s also true that a library is a building that’s uniquely open to any purpose you bring to it. Your business there could be educational, professional, personal or even undecided, and you don’t need to declare it to anyone—you can literally loiter in your local public library with no fear of consequences.
Even more radically, your time at the library comes with absolutely no expectation that you buy anything. Or even that you transact at all. And there’s certainly no implication that your data or your rights are being surrendered in return for the services you partake in.
This rare openness and neutrality imbues libraries with a distinct sense of community, of us, of everyone having come together to fund and build and participate in this collective sharing of knowledge and space. All of that seems exceedingly rare in this increasingly commercial, exposed world of ours. In a way it’s quite amazing that the concept continues to persist at all.
And when we look at it this way, as a startlingly, almost defiantly civilized institution, it seems even more urgent that we make sure it not only continues to survive, but that it should also thrive, too. If not for us, then for future generations who will no doubt one day wonder why we gave up so much of our personal rights and communal pleasures in exchange for digital likes and upturned thumbs. For years I took the existence of libraries for granted and operated under the assumption that they were there for others. Now I realize that they’re there for everybody.