The following article was written by Jill Fuller, coordinator of marketing and communications for the Bridges Library System based in Waukesha, of which the Watertown Public Library is part.
In his seminal 2018 book, “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” sociologist Eric Klinenberg states that most people, regardless of their class, race, age, or political persuasion, believe “their communities feel weaker.” Social isolation has been a feature of communities long before the pandemic hit.
In figuring out the reason, Klinenberg turns to the concept of “social infrastructure.” He defines social infrastructure as any physical place that allows community members to interact in a public area, like libraries, parks, community gardens, athletic fields, and schools. He shows that these communal areas are vital because they foster the formation of social ties between people who live near each other, helping people feel personally invested in the places they live. The book highlights studies and examples showing that robust social infrastructure plays a significant role in enhancing health and wellbeing, reducing crime, and contributing to the economic growth of a city, neighborhood, or community. It’s a compelling case for something we came to understand intimately this year: we need our neighbors. We need connection to thrive.
Public libraries are critical to fostering this connection, according to Klinenberg. “Libraries…are essential not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for buffering all kinds of personal problems- including isolation and loneliness,” Klinenberg writes. During the pandemic, the libraries in Jefferson County heard from patrons who depend on their library for information, entertainment, and connection to others. Grandparents attended virtual library programs with grandchildren who live far away. Book club members used their virtual meeting time to talk with each other, not only to discuss books.
As our country continues to grapple with the economic impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, we must look forward and begin to craft solutions to support everyone in our community. Local, state, and federal support is crucial to ensuring the longevity of social infrastructure. As trusted centers of community life and essential infrastructure, supporting libraries is a perfect place to start.