I love podcasts. A new one I’ve been listening to is 99% Invisible. The host Roman Mars has a sultry voice that’s easy on the ears. I recently listened to his interview of sociologist Eric Klinenberg the author of the book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life.
Klinenberg coined the term social infrastructure while he was researching the deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995. During this catastrophic event, over 700 people died, and overall, death rates were higher in poor neighborhoods. However, some poor neighborhoods had lower death rates. What was the difference that saved lives? Better physical and social infrastructure that brought people together. During the scorching heat wave neighbors knew who would be at risk.
Klinenberg asserts that libraries are the most effective social infrastructure. In his research for the book, he visited libraries around the country to see what they were up to. Many people believe libraries are relics of the past, but he found many libraries are offering innovative programs that help vulnerable populations including:
- Early literacy
- Job search services for former convicts
- Resume help
- ESL instruction
- Citizenship classes
- Rooms for teens to socialize in after school
This list is proof that libraries are no longer book mausoleums with hushed voices. In the podcast he describes a program offered by the Brooklyn Public Library which runs Library Lanes, a virtual bowling league. Teams of senior citizens compete against teams at other branches. The teams play using Xbox game systems. They even wear bowling jerseys!
Pop up Art School, has taught art workshops in over 40 libraries in Massachusetts. In our travels, we’ve visited teeny-tiny and dilapidated libraries and architectural beauties that are brand-spanking-new. This weekend, we taught at the Scituate Public Library rebuilt in 2017. The building elegantly balances large open spaces with comfort and warmth. It has a variety of public and private spaces including a fireplace flanked with easy chairs, an art gallery, and a dedicated table for playing chess. Patrons can even sit on the balcony and relax on the white rocking chairs.
In my town, we are lucky enough to have a mayor who advocated to rebuild the main library. The new building will have 2- story windows facing a playground and park. The landscaping plan includes butterfly and sensory gardens with an amphitheater and picnic areas. There will be an auditorium with a separate entrance for groups to use the auditorium after hours. Our town has historical artifacts they housed in a basement room that was difficult to find. The new building will have a local history room with glass walls and doors. In addition, the building will be LEED certified. I hope the town will continue to fund the new library when it opens, so it can offer a diverse range of programs to contribute to the social infrastructure of the town.