Essay On Visit To The Library

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.

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They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.

This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support.

The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.

Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture.

Eric Klinenberg (@Eric Klinenberg), a professor of sociology and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” from which this essay is adapted.

An earlier version of this essay included outdated information about a policy at the public libraries in San Jose, Calif.But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance.Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up.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.Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down.In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or Mc Donald’s.These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact.

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