• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Palaces, Game Rooms, Whatever....

The importance of libraries.


October 8, 2018

Eric Klinenberg’s new book, Palaces for the People, is a love letter to public libraries. The title comes from Andrew Carnegie, who wanted the public libraries his foundation endowed to be palaces for the people.  The idea was that whatever somebody’s worth in the market, s/he was worth being treated with respect as a citizen and as a human being. Public libraries manifested that idea with a ubiquity and audacity that’s hard to imagine today.

I’ll admit being a huge fan of public libraries. The Seymour Library, in Brockport, New York, was a frequent destination throughout elementary and middle schools.  Fairport Public, with its vertigo-inducing striped carpet, was an island of sanity in junior high and high school. When we lived in Somerville, NJ, we paid the extra $100 per year for membership in the Bridgewater library because its children’s section was so magnificent; even with the fee, given our kids’ book habits, it was the best deal in town.  When we moved to Massachusetts, the Agawam public library was where we borrowed the first book The Girl ever read herself. (For better or worse, it was also where I finished my book manuscript.) It was where we went for heat and shelter during the five-day power outage one October. We were able to get warm, to read, and to feel welcome, and we didn’t have to buy anything to do it. 

That’s the part of public libraries that Klinenberg rightly highlights. The unifying theme of his book is “social infrastructure,” or the physical places that people come together and interact.  As he notes, it’s the location where “social capital” either happens or doesn’t. Their location outside of the market economy allows public libraries to function as sanctuaries for people for whom the market economy is otherwise inhospitable.  His story of the video-bowling tournament for seniors that several libraries host is itself worth the cost of the book.

The book is excellent, and it goes beyond public libraries to discuss public schools, childcare centers, flood planning, and even the proposed border wall.  But it’s at its best when it discusses public libraries as places, rather than simply as services. They don’t treat people as consumers, even as they allow people access to all manner of media.  They treat people as worthy members of a community.

Klinenberg’s book arrived -- yes, from Amazon; yes, I know -- just after an inadvertent demonstration of its thesis. Sometimes palaces can be relatively modest.

On Friday afternoon, after a statewide meeting, I had another meeting at the Freehold campus of Brookdale. Freehold is a branch campus housed in a single building.

A first-floor office suite that used to be the headquarters for the Rutgers partnership -- vacated when the partnership moved to the main campus -- has been converted to a student hangout space. There’s a game room, a lounge, and some open space. It includes several large comfy chairs, and they have plans for a tv and a video game console.

This was Friday afternoon, around 3:00. The dean opened the door, assuming that the place would be empty.  But when we walked in, we saw about a half-dozen students relaxing on the chairs, chatting with each other and checking their phones.  This, on the slowest time of day of the slowest day of the week. The dean later commented that even in its relatively underdeveloped state, the room is nearly always in use. 

Students are voting with their seats. Even at days and times when they’re normally nowhere to be found, they appreciate a safe space in which they can just stretch out, chat, relax, and maybe play games with friends without having to buy anything. It meets a need.

Community colleges were generally built as “commuter” campuses, with the expectation that students would mostly show up for classes and leave afterwards.  And many do. But even commuters sometimes need to pause, to catch their breath, and to spend time with friends.

That kind of space is often scarce, especially at branch campuses or extension sites.  It doesn’t monetize as directly as classroom space, and there’s always pressure for something more utilitarian. But as Klinenberg notes, sometimes the payoff to “soft” uses is substantial, even if indirect. He notes, for instance, that even after controlling statistically for race and class, neighborhoods with coffee shops have significantly lower murder rates than similar neighborhoods without them.  Caffeine withdrawal can’t be the entire story.

Palaces are lovely, but sometimes people just need spaces.  Those spaces can be smallish, cheap, and basic, as long as they convey caring.  A space that welcomes people meets a need. In an age of political separation, that’s almost radical. 

Klinenberg notes that the root of the word library -- liber -- means both “book” and “free.”  I couldn’t help but notice that it’s also the root of the word “liberty,” and even of “liberal.”  Those of us who care about the arts of liberty -- the liberal arts -- should take care to remember that human connection is one of the most basic elements of liberty, and that it needs spaces in which to happen.  Palaces are great, but even the occasional vacated office will do.


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