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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.
During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs.
But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.
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.
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.
For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.
In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age.
A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so.
In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function.