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We Are All Welcome in Libraries – A Conversation with Eric Klinenberg

by on May 22, 2019

By BRENDAN DOWLING, freelance writer living in Los
Angeles. Contact Brendan at brendowl@gmail.com.
Brendan is currently reading Middlemarch by
George Eliot.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (2018) persuasively and forcefully argues that the strength of
communities is in direct proportion to the strength of their institutions, like public libraries, that promote social connection among its members. Klinenberg combines academic research with journalistic reporting, having spent over a year interviewing those on the front lines of shared social spaces: library employees, architects, religious leaders, and educators.

The resulting book should prove valuable to librarians in terms of not only advocacy, but also ideas for furthering their community outreach. Critics have heaped praise over Palaces for the People, which has already been longlisted for the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. The New York Times Book Review stated, “anyone interested in cities will find this book an engaging survey that trains you to view any shared physical system as, among other things, a kind of social network.”[1]

Brendan Dowling spoke with Klinenberg via telephone on October 1, 2018.

PL: What exactly is social infrastructure?
EK: I use the concept to refer to the places and organizations that shape the way we interact. But the argument I make in the book is that social infrastructure is just as real as the infrastructure for power, water, or transit. We haven’t been able to see it very well because we didn’t have a concept for it, but once we learn to see it, it’s suddenly everywhere. The notion is that if we invest in social infrastructure—if we build it well, if we maintain it—we make it more likely that people will have pleasant and recurrent interactions with friends and also strangers. If those interactions
happen enough, they develop into relationships and sometimes
even community. But also if we don’t invest in social infrastructure—if we let it fall apart and get degraded—then we become more likely to become isolated and atomized. In the book I introduce different kinds of social infrastructure, and as you probably know, the paradigmatic case is the library.

PL: How does social media play a role in social infrastructure?
EK: I love social media. I use it a lot. I think it can be great for connecting us to people we might not otherwise meet. It can be a lot of fun too. But social media’s not a substitute for face-to face interactions. A lot of people make mistakes by spending so much time on social media that they neglect the people who are in front of them all the time. More of us are figuring it out, as relationships we spend so much time on in social media are pretty unsatisfying if they don’t lead to face-to-face interactions. No one understands the value of real social infrastructure, like the physical places where we meet in real life, more than people like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page and Sergei Brin at Google, because they’ve spent billions of dollars to build these incredible office campuses, the best social infrastructure that money can buy. They do that because they know how much it benefits their companies and employees. It makes everyone feel better, work better, and feel happier and more productive too. I think we
should all pay attention to the fact that the people who ask us to spend most of our time on social media are also spending the most to build real social infrastructure.

PL: Can you spell out what’s at stake if we don’t invest in social infrastructure?
EK: I think we can see it by looking around the country right now. When we don’t invest in social infrastructure, we make it all the more likely that people have trouble connecting and that communities that could develop into strong sources of mutual support and social cohesion fall apart. To take the most basic example, I see the library as a powerful form of social infrastructure. For me, investing in a library system means updating the building so that all the vital systems work. Sometimes that means renovating the building. If the building needs more bathrooms, you put in more bathrooms. If it needs to improve access to people with disabilities, you do that. If it needs better lighting, furniture, technology, or books, that’s part of the investment in social infrastructure. So too is investing in library staff. If you don’t fund the library adequately, not only is the physical plant run down, but you don’t have enough staff to keep the library doors open. That means working people don’t have opportunities to go to the library when they most need it. It means libraries can’t do the kind of programming that they like to do, fewer classes for children and older people, and less outreach in the neighborhood.

To give you an example, yesterday I wanted to take my daughter out for a walk in New York City. I had read an article about a new Amazon 4-Star store that opened in SoHo. This is a new store owned by Amazon where everything they sell has been given a four-star rating or higher by Amazon users. My idea was I wanted to take her there and then take her to the local branch library so that we could have a conversation about the differences between the places—how the places themselves are different, how the people are different, and how the two places think about the relationship to information and goods. Obviously one place is for more affluent people. One place wants to sell you things and make money from you, and one place wants to give you things.

So we went to the Amazon store, which was a beautiful shop. It had all kinds of great products—a few books, but lots of other toys and fun things for kids. She thought it was really interesting and she liked being there. I was really excited to take her to the library and show her all the amazing things that the local library offers that are just as good if not better, plus they’re also free. But when we got to the library, the gate was locked, because it’s Sunday. Most branch libraries in New York City are closed on Sundays, because we don’t invest enough in libraries so the library system doesn’t have the resources it needs to keep the staff on Sunday or to keep the heat on on Sunday. So my plan was ruined (laughs). But we actually ended up learning something, which was if we invest in public system, it’s there for us. We can use it. We don’t have to spend as much money. If we don’t invest in it, the only option we have is the marketplace.

PL: You mentioned branch libraries. You spent a lot of time at the Seward Park Library for your book. Why was that library so emblematic of how social infrastructure operates?
EK: The Seward Park Library is on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. What’s amazing about it is that it’s been a major social institution on the Lower East Side of New York for a century. It’s a Carnegie building, so it has those great high ceilings and big windows, kind of a regal design. It’s truly a palace for the people. Of course, it’s fallen on some hard times and could use some updates, but what branch library couldn’t?

The Lower East Side is historically a very diverse immigrant neighborhood. It’s got high levels of poverty. A lot of people don’t have access to home Internet service. It has a lot of foreign language speakers—Chinese-Americans who speak Mandarin, Russians, and Latinos. It’s a neighborhood that has a lot of very old people and a lot of very young children. So the library’s this amazing institution because it serves everyone. From the very earliest point in the morning, even before the doors officially open, young children come in on special school trips. The doors open at ten, and there’s this rush of humanity that comes through. From then until closing, it’s just a hotbed of activity. They teach English as a Second Language. There are immigration and citizenship classes. They have art classes for adults and for kids, all kinds of youth literacy programs, reading groups, and movie nights. There’s even a librarian who’s organized a tea time, to help users feel a little more dignified. It’s an amazing and beautiful institution.

It’s also one where everyone feels welcome, and that’s not true for every institution on the Lower East Side, because the Lower East Side is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. A lot of the new commercial establishments that are there—coffee shops, restaurants, and ice cream parlors—are very clearly not welcoming to the less wealthy residents. Public spaces, as we’ve learned this summer watching the video of two African-American men arrested in Starbucks for waiting too long for a friend, can be inhospitable for many of us. The library’s never like that; the opposite is true.

PL: In the book you point out that aspects of visiting the library that some people might view as negatives, like encountering a homeless person or a person living with mental illness, you view as positives. Can you talk about that?
EK: Well, it’s not wholly positive, because in an ideal world, we would have a stronger safety net and better institutions to help people who really are in need. If you have a serious drug addiction problem or a really serious mental illness and you can’t function well in public, then we need to do a better job of taking care of you. But that said, most people who have a problem with addiction or a problem with mental illness are okay most of the time. The library belongs to them just as much as it does to the most affluent philanthropist who contributes to its renovation.

I think that’s a wonderful thing about democratic culture. We’re all welcome in libraries. We all have access to it. We should all be treated the same once we’re there. We should all be given the same respect. It’s in places like libraries we learn to live civilly and act civilly with people who are different than us—members of different groups, different styles, different ways of conducting themselves, different ways of dressing, and different smells. We all come together. It’s true that occasionally there’s a real problem that emerges and security needs to be called in, but I spent almost every day for a year in a library and what was amazing to me was how rarely those problems happened. What’s most remarkable is how well people get along in libraries.

PL: You’ve already touched upon it in terms of how they’re open to everybody, but how are libraries uniquely positioned to fill those roles as other public spaces aren’t?
EK: First of all, they are programmed for different people with different needs and different interests. Most libraries have fairly open and flexible space. That means they can adapt to different situations and they can try to meet the different needs of their communities. But they have this principled commitment to open access, to service, and to dignifying patrons, regardless of their class, age, or station. That means as institutions they have tremendous capacity.

Librarians are essential. It’s not just the physical space that matters, it’s also the people who work at libraries and make them function. The public service work that librarians do is essential to our democracies. It’s essential to our communities. For many individuals, it can mean the difference between success and failure, or even life and death.

PL: You talk in the book about the work that the Waterville Public Library is doing with Colby College. How do you see libraries playing a role in the relationships between a community and local universities and colleges?
EK: Well, town and gown relationships can be contentious and acrimonious, in part because there’s not a lot of common ground. Public libraries, like the one in Waterville, can be shared spaces. They can provide a forum for people in different communities and adjacent communities to get together and share in conversation. No side has the upper hand, it’s no one’s home turf. It belongs to everyone. Libraries are a place that have won the respect of people from all parts of our communities because we know that their goal is to serve everyone equally. Libraries call upon us all to be at our best. They expect the best of us. They’re here to help us become the best version of ourselves. I think they’re really well designed and well programed to broker peace between members of the community that don’t always see eye to eye.

PL: Where did you get the title of your book from?
EK: There are two sources of it. I came across the idea in an interview I did with a librarian at Seward Park named Andrew Fairweather. He was explaining to me why he started this teatime program. He told me that his mother is British and when he was a kid she would always tell him and his brother that there’s nothing more dignified that you could do than have your morning cup of tea while reading the newspaper. He always felt that way and loved the idea. He knew there was a group of patrons that would come every day, go upstairs, grab a newspaper, and read it. He thought that serving them tea would make them feel even better about where they were and who they are. So he started this program. As he was describing the roles the library could play in recognizing people and respecting people who are often used to being unrecognized or disrespected, he explained to me that Andrew Carnegie, whose philanthropic contributions helped build more than 2800 libraries around the world, liked to call libraries “palaces for the people.” When he said that, everything snapped into place.

PL: Towards the end of the book you talk about communities needing to commit to pro-building in order to prepare for climate change. Is there a way for libraries to be a part of that?
EK: Very much. In fact, I knew I was going to write this book when I was showing a design team of architects and engineers around New York, I was the research director for an Obama administration program called Rebuild by Design. I was trying to help these teams come up with innovative design ideas for climate security. A team told me they wanted to build a resilience center. They described all the ways in which a neighborhood institution could promote resilience and security for a community during crises, and also help out everyday. They described a building type that, in my view, would function very much like a library already does. So I suggested to them before they came up with the design idea, they could look more closely at the neighborhood library.

Libraries are already resilience centers during everyday life and during disasters, but there are things they could do to make them work even better. One of them would be to make sure they all have back-up power generators so if there’s a blackout in a neighborhood, the library’s a place where people could reliably get power. Another is to improve their technology access and maybe even set up wireless mesh networks, so that the library’s a place where you can get reliable internet access even if the main system is down. Another thing is to make sure they have more flexible space that can be converted into a relief center if necessary. Yet another is to make sure that they all have updated bathrooms and maybe more
bathrooms that work for everyone.

PL: How do you see public librarians and people who work in public libraries using the information in your book?
EK: I think many of us feel this sense of despondency, that this is a very dark time. In many ways, it feels like society is broken and clearly a lot of us feel that the infrastructure is broken, and that the systems that allow us to live modern lives don’t work very well. I think there’s a desperate need that many of us feel to figure out how to rebuild things, how to make the places we live in work better. It’s my hope that understanding the concept of
social infrastructure gives all of us a new set of options for what kinds of projects we want our government to invest in, our philanthropic sector to invest in, and our community organizations to invest in.

But also I think by naming and identifying and illustrating all the things that libraries do to help communities, the book can be a resource for libraries and librarians. It could potentially be something to draw
on, call attention, and debate over during the next round of budgeting for a library system. Potentially it’s also a reminder for people who aren’t already using the library that there’s this amazing resource at their disposal that they might be walking by every day.


  1. Pete Buttigieg, “The Key to Happiness
    Might Be as Simple as a Library or a
    ,” The New York Times Book Review,
    Sept. 14, 2018, accessed Nov. 15, 2018.