The relationships that underpin a strong community don’t happen by accident. 

They require “social infrastructure” – the physical spaces in which people have direct, face-to-face interaction. Communities emerge from places like schools, playgrounds, parks, athletic fields, sidewalks, courtyards, community gardens, churches, civic associations, markets, cafes, diners, barber shops, bookstores, and libraries.

Libraries are the focus of two books I read recently, which together gave me a profound new appreciation for their importance as social infrastructure. 

Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People (affiliate link) and Marilyn Johnson’s This Book is Overdue! (affiliate link) explore a world of urban controversies, exciting new ideas, changing demographics, and impassioned librarians I never knew existed.

This article is a summary of the main ideas I encountered in these books, along with our experience at a recent training we delivered to the staff of the Palm Beach County Library in South Florida.

Libraries as social infrastructure

Social infrastructure is different from the more widely known “social capital.” Social capital is a measure of the strength of people’s interpersonal networks, while social infrastructure refers to the physical conditions that determine how much social capital develops in the first place. It is more fundamental, and more tangible.

The study of social infrastructure asks, “What conditions in the places we inhabit make it more likely that people will develop strong or supportive relationships, and what conditions make it more likely that people will grow isolated and alone?”

The mere existence of public spaces doesn’t ensure that social capital will emerge. It depends how they are designed. Many modern public spaces are designed for maximum efficiency – dropping off the kids at school as efficiently as possible, getting people their coffee at the cafe as quickly as possible, maximizing the flow of shoppers through checkout and out of the store. 

But designing for maximum efficiency also tends to keep people separate and discourage interaction, which is, after all, highly inefficient. This explains why so much of our shared infrastructure doesn’t promote shared values. 

Klinenberg writes:

“[Social infrastructure] encourages people to form bonds that extend beyond their immediate families, not because they set out to “build community,” but simply because relationships naturally form when people engage in sustained, repeated interaction doing things they enjoy.”

He continues:

“The social cohesion that is essential for democracy emerges from shared participation in meaningful projects, not just from a commitment to abstract beliefs and values.”

Libraries are one of the last remaining places where people of all ages and backgrounds can find “shared participation in meaningful projects.” 

They help build friendships and support networks among neighbors who may never otherwise meet. They teach valuable life skills to kids and adults alike. They provide things to see, things to do, and programs to take part in for people who may be lonely, disconnected, or disadvantaged. 

The role of libraries

From these books, I understood for the first time the connection between what goes on in my local library, and the maintenance of a healthy democracy. These are the five pillars I identified as the role of libraries in modern society.

To protect free speech and truth

The “post-truth” era has made almost every source of information into a weapon. There are few disinterested parties we can go to for sound advice. Librarians have remained a neutral party in this war, trusted by the public more than any profession except nurses.

As E.J. Josey said, “Information justice is a human rights issue; the public library must remain ‘the people’s university’…and librarians can get involved and shape the future or they can sit back and watch the changes.” We cannot have justice in society unless we have justice in our access to information.

To provide space for intellectual exploration

Schools have become increasingly metrics driven in recent years, in a race to meet educational standards. But this has made “learning for learning’s sake” increasingly hard to find. Libraries provide a place that is safe not only physically, but also intellectually. A place where no one will question your choices, scrutinize what you’re reading, or force their priorities on you.

Marilyn Johnson recounts the words of a young woman named Shannon who found in her local public library a place of refuge and intellectual freedom:

“I never, ever encountered a librarian who said something like ‘Why would you want to do that?’ or ‘I can’t let you use that machine, you’re too young.’ I was shy, but they never made me feel weird. Nobody treated me like I was special or supersmart, either. They were just neutral. And that, I think, was a real gift. It made the library a space of permission, not encouragement that pushed you in a certain direction, where you feel like people are watching you and like giving their approval, but just freedom to pursue what you want.” 

To help people improve themselves 

Libraries are the original advocates of self-improvement. Klinenberg quotes from a conversation he had with a New York City librarian named Andrew: 

“At the library, the assumption is you are better. You have it in you already. You just sort of need to be exposed to these things and provide yourself an education. The library assumes the best out of people. The services it provides are founded upon the assumption that if given the chance, people will improve themselves.”

Andrew continues:

“…a lot of adults who use the library aren’t just people who are trying to improve themselves in terms of, say, intellectual capacity. They’re trying to improve themselves because they need an environment that’s not like every other environment they’ve ever known, that judges them, that takes advantage of them, that doesn’t want anything to do with them, doesn’t understand their role in society.”

This self-improvement is not just an individual pursuit of reading books. It happens in the activities that define the daily life of a library: book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles, and classes in art, music, current events, and computing.

To develop young people

Libraries are one of the very few public spaces where children are still free to roam, while still under adult supervision.

Children’s libraries give children their first small taste of independence, giving them library cards and the choice of how to use them. They offer study help and after-school programs in art, science, music, language, and math.

As they grow up, libraries can recommend books, authors, and genres to teenagers who may be seeking answers to questions they don’t even know how to articulate. They provide a refuge for young people who want to study or socialize without being hassled. And they train young citizens by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and return it for others to use.

To serve everyone

This is perhaps the least tangible, but most important role of libraries in modern society.

It feels like a radical statement today to say that “Everyone is welcome.” Regardless of whether they are a citizen, a voter, a taxpayer, or a convicted felon, the library is free to everyone who walks in the door. In a time where market logic drives so much of what we do, libraries bestow dignity on everyone equally. They give us a chance to recognize the humanity of others, and in so doing, recognize it in ourselves.

The foundational principle of the library is that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage and knowledge. Libraries are the guardians of the tangible artifacts that make our human rights enforceable. The library is one of the very few places left that serves everyone equally, regardless of their social status or ability to pay.

If we don’t invest in social infrastructure, the material foundations of our social and civic life erode. If we defund our libraries in favor of “looking things up on the Internet,” we will lose one of the few places dedicated to training people in the values and skills of democracy.

If you liked these ideas, I’ve started this list of “Cool Twitter librarians” you can follow to get more exposure to innovative thinking on public libraries.

Thank you to Brendan Schlagel, Jessica Burton, Andy Sparks, Bushra Farooqui, James Alkire, Doug Crane, and Lauren Valdez for their feedback and suggestions. Any errors, omissions, or indiscretions are purely mine.

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