Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wants to see America invest more in its crumbling social infrastructure. Photo by Jeff Fantich

In his Kinder Institute Forum talk, sociologist Eric Klinenberg discussed the amazing power of the public library system, as well as the biggest threats to this vital and sorely neglected part of America's social infrastructure.

What if public libraries didn’t exist?

Consider an alternate history in which libraries never evolved into public spaces where everyone enjoys (mostly) unfettered access to information and services, and instead remained private collections accessible only to universities, clergy and the elite.

That’s the reality sociologist Eric Klinenberg wanted the capacity crowd to imagine during the Kinder Institute Forum on Wednesday night.   

“Can you do that?” he asked. “We do not have a thing called the library. And you have invited me here tonight to make a presentation. And I pitch for you … the idea of the library … for the first time. And you guys get really excited about it.”

The public library as the cornerstone of social infrastructure

Klinenberg, an author and sociology professor at New York University, was in town to discuss his book “Palaces for the People,” in which he contends the future health of democracy depends in large part on the quality of the country’s social infrastructure — shared spaces like public libraries, places of worship, child care centers, bookstores and parks. His research has shown that neighborhoods and communities flourish or flounder depending on the strength of their social infrastructure. 

The title comes from a phrase used by Andrew Carnegie to describe his vision for public libraries as beautiful, uplifting places that make life better for all people. Carnegie donated a portion of his wealth to build a number of public libraries in the U.S. and around the world in the 20th century. Though much of the focus is on the crucial role libraries play in improving the quality of life for many who rely on their staff and services, there are also powerful stories centered on social infrastructure such as a floating school in Bangladesh, an arts incubator in Chicago and Wilcrest Baptist Church in Houston’s Alief neighborhood.

Klinenberg thinks places like public libraries and parks can help mitagate inequality, political polarization and the decline of civic life in the U.S. Photo by Jeff Fantich

After asking the audience to imagine this alternative history, Klinenberg walked them through the process of taking this big new idea for libraries to state leaders and ask for funding to …

  • build them in “every neighborhood of every city, in every suburb and every small town in the state.”
  • stock them with “books, periodicals, music, computers, crafts, all kinds of furniture and machines.”
  • staff them with librarians, whose job is to “greet everyone who comes in and say, ‘how can I help?’ And not to judge them, not to monitor them, to respect their privacy and be decent and kind and generous no matter how much trouble that person’s in right now, because that’s their job.”

Also, he added, access to libraries would be based on just one thing: being human.

“Which means, by the way, that the library is going to be open to everyone, regardless of their age, their race, their ethnicity, their social class or their citizenship status.

“Oh, and people can take home anything they want,” he said. “And, to make sure that they bring it back, let’s use an honor system. And when we can take it home, they can take it home for free.”

(By the way, Klinenberg, who is much funnier than most people might expect a sociology professor to be, delivered his talk with the timing and polish of a standup comedian. He may or may not have picked up some pointers from actor-comedian Aziz Ansari when they worked together on "Modern Romance: An Investigation," a book that examined how technology has changed the nature of dating and courtship around the world.)

A crazy, radical idea, right?

The point Klinenberg wanted to make was this: If there was no such thing as a library, and someone proposed it today, there's a 99.9% chance they and their “radical and crazy idea” would be laughed out of the room.

But, as we know, it’s not a crazy idea.

“The crazy thing is that it exists," said Klinenberg. "There’s a public library in every neighborhood in Houston.”

In fact, he maintains, people in the United States have access to a public library system that’s unlike anything else on the planet.

But why does it exist?

“It’s not Andrew Carnegie,” Klinenberg said. “That’s not the reason we have this system. You know, he was responding to something, he wasn’t creating something.”

The public good is important but it’s not free

The reason we have this “crazy, radical idea that is part of every American community," he said, is a commitment to the public good that was made generations ago.

“People said, if you want to live in a great society, if you want to live in a great city, a place that generates opportunity, a place where people feel like, no matter what’s going on, there’s a chance that I can make something more of myself, there’s a chance that we’re going to be better.”

"We built libraries. We built public schools. We built public parks, right? We built a social infrastructure that makes us who we are at our best moments today."
Eric Klinenberg

However, it took more than just believing in the public good, Klinenberg explained. People had to act on those beliefs and be willing to invest in themselves and others through the taxes they paid to help fund the public good. 

“And I might be less wealthy myself because of this deal, but I’m going to live in a society that invests in everyone and gives other people a chance, and it’s going to be worth it to me,” he said, imagining their reasoning. “And we believe that! We built libraries. We built public schools. We built public parks, right? We built playgrounds. We built athletic fields. We built a social infrastructure that makes us who we are at our best moments today.”

But, Klinenberg pointed out, the public goods that exist were inherited, and not enough is being done to maintain and improve what already exists — much less build more — for the generations to come. A retreat from public spaces and an aggressive pursuit of lower taxes that gut funding for social infrastructure in communities is a dangerous recipe for isolation, particularly for older and more vulnerable residents.

Building walls won’t make America great again. And social media isn’t where people will be able to find meaningful community engagement, Klinenberg noted. Instead, there has to be more investment in the country’s crumbling social infrastructure to restore the physical places and organizations that shape how people interact, enrich their daily lives and enable the creation of connections that, in some cases, literally save lives.