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kottke.org posts about Eric Klinenberg

In Praise of Public Libraries

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2018

Eric Klinenberg recently wrote an opinion piece for the NY Times called To Restore Civil Society, Start With the Library.

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.

Khoi Vinh, who until fairly recently had taken public libraries for granted, followed on with some additional thoughts.

Even more radically, your time at the library comes with absolutely no expectation that you buy anything. Or even that you even 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.