Libraries as social infrastructure

Where do we invest our public resources to achieve the greatest benefits to society? This is a question that our public officials constantly ask themselves and others in making the decisions necessary to fund government. As the Texas Legislature reconvenes on January 8, our state lawmakers will again be considering the Return on Investment — or ROI — of all the programs funded by state dollars.

A recently published book offers a new perspective on how to think about the investment of public funding to achieve more vibrant and sustainable communities, better educated citizens, stronger democratic institutions and greater civic engagement. The title of the book says it all: Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg (Crown, 2018).

In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg explores the concept of Social Infrastructure, that is, “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.” Social infrastructure fosters contact, mutual support and collaboration. Social infrastructure leads to more resilient communities through social cohesion that addresses a broad array of challenges from crime to education to healthcare.

Sound familiar? It should come as no surprise that the first chapter of the book focuses on libraries and that libraries are prevalent throughout the book. In fact, the title is borrowed from Andrew Carnegie, the philanthropist who funded the creation of hundreds of libraries across the country, who observed that the monarchs of Europe had their gilded and marble palaces, but in the United States, libraries are the palaces of the people.

Klinenberg writes that “the library is among the most critical forms of Social Infrastructure that we have” and quotes the Pew Research Center’s study that showed that more than 90 percent of Americans see their library as “very” or “somewhat” important in their community many other major institutions (government, churches, banks, corporations) have fallen in public esteem “except libraries, the military, and first responders.”

Klinenberg goes on to describe the social infrastructure represented by libraries:

“. . . in cities across the United States and around the world, neighborhood libraries and librarians do all kinds of unexpected things for surprisingly large numbers of people. Their core mission is to help people elevate themselves and improve their situation. Libraries do this, principally, by providing free access to the widest possible variety of cultural materials to people of all ages, from all ethnicities and groups.”

Klinenberg’s argument — supported by substantial evidence — is that by investing in social infrastructure via such organizations such as libraries, we have an opportunity to strengthen our communities in transformative and foundational ways. Investment in social infrastructure leads to lower crime rates, greater local economic growth, lower rates of mental illness, and other positive effects. He posits that investing in social infrastructure that brings people together and builds stronger communities is just as important as roads, bridges and other types of physical infrastructure.

TSLAC, as well as the libraries and archival institutions across Texas that we support, fall into this category of social infrastructure. By training librarians, providing shared access to online resources, delivering recorded materials to visually impaired and disabled Texans and providing access to public records and archives, we are strengthening communities, encouraging civic engagement and bringing Texans together. We have demonstrated that every dollar invested in library service yields $4.64 in return, but that ROI does not even include the incalculable benefits of access to life-changing and affirming programming, civic interaction and information for persons of all ages, in all parts of the state, and all social and economic backgrounds.

We hope the decision makers in Texas will agree.

See also: “Worry less about crumbling roads, more about crumbling libraries,” by Eric Klinenberg, in Citilab, September 21, 2018. 

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