Note — Apr 07, 2019

In Praise of Public Libraries

It’s a bit weird how many people (including some politicians) seem to think public libraries are dead, considering all reports point to the opposite; they are packed, offer more diversified services, and are now one of few places where everyone can walk in. Here Sue Halpern weaves together books by Susan Orlean and Eric Klinenberg with a film by Frederick Wiseman, and her own story of the founding of a rural library, and shows us the great importance of libraries and other social infrastructures.

A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal. Even our little book-lined room, with its mismatched furniture and worn carpet, was, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg reminds us libraries were once called, a palace for the people. […]

“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” […]

“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life…[but] if states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.