(Roughly) Daily

“A public library is the most democratic thing in the world”*…

 

Bates Hall, the reading room at the Boston Public Library, 2017

 

[Sociologist Eric] Klinenberg is interested in the ways that common spaces can repair our fractious and polarized civic life. And though he argues in his new book, Palaces for the People, that playgrounds, sporting clubs, diners, parks, farmer’s markets, and churches—anything, really, that puts people in close contact with one another—have the capacity to strengthen what Tocqueville called the cross-cutting ties that bind us to those who in many ways are different from us, he suggests that libraries may be the most effective. “Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture,” he writes. Yet as Susan Orlean observes in her loving encomium to libraries everywhere, aptly titled The Library Book, “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.”

As Klinenberg points out:

“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life…[but] if states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.

To glimpse what he means, one need only dip into Frederick Wiseman’s epic and inspirational three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary Ex Libris, a picaresque tour of the grandest people’s palace of all: the New York Public Library system, a collection of ninety-two branches with seventeen million annual patrons (and millions more online). Wiseman trains his lens on the quotidian (people lining up to get into the main branch or poring over books), the obscure (a voice actor recording a book for the blind), and the singular (Khalil Muhammad discussing the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and without saying so explicitly (the film is unnarrated), he shows the NYPL to be an exemplar of what a library is and what it can do. Here we see librarians helping students with math homework, hosting job fairs, running literacy and citizenship classes, teaching braille, and sponsoring lectures. We see people using computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and, of course, books. They are white, black, brown, Asian, young, homeless, not-so-young, deaf, hearing, blind; they are everyone, which is the point… 

Read this paean to that paragon of “Public Goods” in full: “In Praise of Public Libraries.”

* “A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”         – Doris Lessing

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As we check it out, we might spare a thought for an author shelved in any good library: Aphra Behn; she died on this date in 1689.  A monarchist and a Tory, young Aphra was recruited to spy for King Charles II; she infiltrated Dutch and expatriate English cabals in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.  But on her return to London, George II turned out to be a stiff; despite her entreaties, the King never paid her for her services.  Penniless, Aphra turned to writing, working first as a scribe for the King’s Company (the leading acting company of the time), then as a dramatist in her own right (often using her spy code-name, Astrea, as a pen name).  She became one of the most prolific playwrights of the Restoration, one of the first people in England to earn a living writing– and the first woman to pay her way with her pen.  She was buried in Westminster Abbey, where the inscription on her tombstone reads, “Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough against Mortality.

 source

 

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