Podcast Thoughts: 99% Invisible:346 - Palaces for the People

This podcast was inspiring and really got my thoughts whizzing in my head. The core argument is that with increasing urbanization, atomization, and privatization, there are fewer opportunities for community, and instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, governments should simply fund and create more libraries.

I buy a lot of the argument, partially because it resonated with me personally. When I was living in California, some of my best times were spent sitting cross-legged on the floor of the local public library, barely noticing the sun fade away. Except now I’m thinking that fighting for public funding is a long and arduous process. To really get this idea off the ground quickly, a privatized model might work better.

Thus imagine a semi-private library that is open to the public, but allows you to borrow books if you pay a membership fee. I would have to do a bit more fact checking, but I believe most local libraries are already funded this way, except the ‘membership fee’ comes from local property taxes and such.

I think a potentially good application would be libraries in urban Shanghai, where there are a few large centralized libraries, but not many smaller, more local libraries. And I also believe there is demand – I remember walking into bookstores where there were so many people sitting in the hallways simply reading that it was difficult to navigate. Specifically for China, I hypothesize that an English-language focused library might work out.

I also think that such a private library could have event spaces open to the public, bringing in local writers, musicians, and other programming. Also could offer other media - video games, movies, tv shows, comics, newspapers, etc.

Over the course of his life, Carnegie helped to fund more than 2,500 libraries around the world—about 1,700 of which were in the United States. He called greatest of them “palaces for the people.” The great Carnegie libraries had high ceilings, big windows, and spacious rooms where a person could read, think, and achieve something that they felt proud of. Although it should be noted that these palaces were not always for everyone. Many of the great Carnegie libraries remained racially segregated throughout the early 20th century, and they later became battlegrounds in the civil rights movement.

The first time Klinenberg thought about social infrastructure was when he was a graduate student doing a research project about a terrible heat wave that took place in Chicago in 1995. It was a disaster that killed more than 700 people, and as a social scientist, Klinenberg was interested in understanding the patterns that emerged from it.

Chicago Sun-Times front page from July 17, 1995, reporting numerous deaths from the Heat Wave of ’95. The first pattern he observed was the most predictable, which was that poor or segregated neighborhoods on the South Sides and the West Sides of Chicago had the highest death rates by far.

But when Klinenberg looked more closely at the patterns, something really puzzling emerged. There were a number of working class neighborhoods that demographically appeared as though they should have fared very badly in the disaster, but actually proved to be strikingly resilient, and even safer than some affluent neighborhoods on the North Side.

Even more interesting, there was a pair of neighborhoods where the demographics were identical. Each neighborhood had the same proportion of old, poor, and African-American people, and was separated by just a street. They were literally neighboring neighborhoods, but one had an astronomically high death rate and the other was one of the safest places in Chicago.

Klinenberg started spending time in the neighborhoods, and what he observed was that the places that had low death rates turned out to have a robust social infrastructure. They had sidewalks and streets that were well taken care of. They had neighborhood libraries and community organizations, grocery stores, shops, and cafes that drew people out of their home and into public life. What that meant was that on a daily basis, people got to know each other pretty well and used the social infrastructure to socialize. When this heat wave happened in Chicago, neighborhood residents knew who was likely to be sick and who should have been outside but wasn’t. This meant they knew whose door to knock on if they needed help.

Meanwhile, in the neighborhoods that had really high death rates the social infrastructure was depleted. There were a lot of abandoned properties, empty lots, and abandoned houses. Sidewalks were often cracked and broken and there was very little commercial life. This all meant that people were likely to stay home, and this was a deadly thing to do during a heatwave.

Years later Klinenberg was working with designers in New York who were thinking about how to respond to Hurricane Sandy. One day Klinenberg was taking one team around a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they had an idea for something called a “resilience center.” This resilience center was going to be a nice building staffed by welcoming personnel and was going to have all kinds of special programming for kids, and access to Wi-Fi and computers. What they didn’t realize was that they were basically just describing a library, which offers all of those same resources. Klinenberg came to realize he needed to remind people of the extraordinary things that libraries do as social infrastructure that is taken for granted.

Libraries have also now become the places where formerly incarcerated people come more to search for jobs or receive help on their resumes. Carnegie probably would not have anticipated that libraries would become the places where there’s more instruction for English as a second language or more citizenship classes than any other public institution. He wouldn’t have seen all the teenagers coming to the library at the end of the school day to play games, or just because it’s the safest and warmest, or just to play games.

Libraries have reinvented themselves, and one of the things that is so striking about them is that the local staff has the capacity and agency to develop programming that works for the community that they’re in. The library can lend tools and it can lend clothes to people who need better clothes for a job interview. It can do programming and all kinds of languages.

When it comes to sources of social infrastructure like parks and libraries, one urgent question we should be asking is, “How are we going to pay for this?” Carnegie was a philanthropist, and his philanthropic dollars went into building a number of branch libraries. Today, it’s strange that we live in a world with titans of the information age, such as Mark Zuckerberg, who have made billions of dollars off of social media and computing but haven’t made contributions to social infrastructure in a meaningful way. Zuckerberg’s use of the concept of social infrastructure has been promoting the platform Facebook as social infrastructure. He believes that Facebook is where people should go for meaningful social interactions.

Klinenberg points out, though, that if you go to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, the amount of money Zuckerberg has put into physical structures of social infrastructure for his employees is astronomical. There are bike paths, and yoga studios, and shared spaces for serendipitous encounters.