Eric Klinenberg, author of the new book Palaces for The People, advocates for libraries as part of social infrastructure that promotes interactions between people from all walks of life.
But he says he was a latecomer to public libraries, since he grew up in Chicago in the 1970s when the libraries were in bad shape. The earliest library he used was the wonderful one at his school, where he spent countless hours doing homework and reading books about sports. Klinenberg reports that Chicago’s libraries “are now much better. The city leadership recognizes what a vital role branch libraries can play in neighborhoods, and while they don’t have all the resources they need, they’re much better than they were when I was a kid.”
His relationship with libraries has changed, too, as they are now essential in his life as a scholar and writer. “I became a scholar because I learned to love libraries,” Klinenberg says, citing the main library at Brown University and the Harold Washington Library in Chicago where he worked on his first book about a catastrophic heat wave. While working on Palaces for the People, he spent nearly every day in a branch library, most frequently in the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side. “I got to know a bunch of urban libraries, including the Queens Library. Talk about a ‘palace!’”
He selected the Lower East Side’s library for his book as he wanted to “focus on a library that serves a diverse community, including a lot of immigrants, and I wanted to observe a neighborhood that is transforming.” The Lower East Side had all of that and the benefit of being within walking distance of his office at New York University, where he teaches. East New York, also studied in the book, “was a longer commute. But I wanted to see the Library Lanes program in action and the team there is amazing.”
He came to know the Queens Library system through an invitation from Julie Sandorf, the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, who he describes as one of the city’s greatest advocates for libraries. “One day she asked me if I wanted to see the most dynamic, multilingual, buzzing library in the country. Of course I said yes. The next thing I knew we were touring Queens Library. I even took an extended video of a walk through the stacks of foreign-language books. It’s a long one, as you can imagine.”
Klinenberg praises the diverse use of libraries and their different roles for different community members: “Libraries do so many things. They’re necessary for older people looking for companions, especially those who live alone. They are so important to young children, not only because they teach early literacy but also because they expose them to different languages and people from all walks of life. They’re vital for mothers and caretakers, who establish bonds of solidarity and mutual support that make looking after infants so much less stressful. They’re havens for teenagers, who in the library find a place to study, play video games, and be with each other, rather than being out in the streets. In disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, libraries are lifelines. They provide all kinds of relief, from WiFi to warm meals and companionship. We’re so much better off because we have them in our neighborhoods.”
His greatest hope for the book is that it will help people see and understand what he calls “social infrastructure”—the places and organizations that shape our interactions. He also wants readers to “know that we can, collectively, demand that our government provide all of us with the kinds of shared spaces and public goods that make life better—not just libraries but also parks, playgrounds, schools, and good transit. All of us deserve palaces, not just the most elite and affluent. New York City was built on that vision, but in recent decades we’ve let it slip away.”
Klinenberg is a voracious reader who uses reading for many purposes; “Reading is how I learn—about the world, about history, about people who are like and unlike myself. Reading is how I entertain myself. It’s how I initiate my civic engagement. It’s how I figure out who I am and what I want to be. It’s how I find out who won the Cubs game last night, too.” He encourages others to read because “it makes the world bigger, more interesting, and more meaningful; it makes your mind sharper and more powerful, too.”
Klinenberg’s research about libraries surprised him, especially the fact “that so many people are using them, for so many different reasons, in every part of our city. Honestly, I had no idea how active and busy they are. I don’t think our political leaders do, either. That’s actually one more thing I hope my book does: give every political official new reasons to support our libraries, at far greater levels than they do today.” He notes that, “In literally every branch library I visited, I saw people engaging each other in ways that still inspire me. It’s a dark time for democracy in America, but in libraries, I find reason for hope.”
He advocates for more funding for libraries, saying, “They need a massive injection of capital to meet the needs of contemporary patrons. Every branch is different, but too many need renovations in too many places, from the bathroom to the computer room and down to the systems for air conditioning and heating. What every branch shares, though, is the need for more hours of open operation. All of our libraries should be open seven days a week, not five or six, and they should stay open until late in the evening, so everyone, including people with day jobs, can use them.”
His advice for readers? “The next time you enter your library, stop for a moment and check out all the people who are using it, for all kinds of reasons, each in her own way. Pause and consider where they would be—where you would be—if we didn’t have our libraries. And remember that next time there’s an election. Make sure libraries get the love and support they need.”
Photo of Eric Klinenberg by Lisa DeNeffe.