In times of crisis, when budgets are tight, often public libraries are seen as expendable. While our advocates know the value of libraries, it can be hard to convey their importance as an essential service, especially to government officials who are not library users and only see libraries as repositories for things. However, libraries’ greatest strengths are in the connections we make with the people we serve. We are a critical part of the social infrastructure of our communities, and our role in this infrastructure helps our communities be more resilient through hardships and adversity.
Social infrastructure is a term that refers to the spaces and organizations that support and grow social connections. These can be parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, schools, churches, daycares, and, of course, libraries – places where people can meet up with their friends and create new ones, learn, share ideas, and feel connected to their neighbors (3). In fact, libraries are one of the most impactful pillars of social infrastructure within their communities. As librarians, we have long recognized this need and intentionally create spaces and events, even when our buildings are closed, where all citizens find belonging, especially people who are more likely to be isolated, such as new mothers and seniors.
Not only are these events entertaining and educational, but they can literally be life lines for our most vulnerable neighbors. For instance, new parents can benefit from storytimes held in person or virtually, especially if they feel overwhelmed, alone, or are suffering from postpartum depression. By meeting other caregivers of young children, they can share their experiences, get advice, and feel supported and welcomed in an environment where a crying baby won’t elicit any dirty looks. Even common storytime activities, such as group singing, are proven mood-boosters. Not surprisingly, a study has shown that attending storytimes and rhyme times can improve maternal mental health (2).
As Eric Klinenberg notes in his book Palaces for the People, communities with thriving social infrastructure have been proven to be safer, healthier, and more resilient in times of crisis than those without. When citizens are able to connect with each other, resources are better able to be shared and at-risk populations are less likely to be left behind. Communities with strong social infrastructure are more desirable places to live, and this is often reflected in their stronger economies.
When we advocate for libraries in times of crisis and recession, we must stress that libraries have a large return on investment. They are not just buildings with things, or nice, yet non-essential, services, but are instead necessary for the places we live to remain communities, places where residents are connected to and invested in their neighborhoods and each other, places that will survive.
Sources and Further Reading:
- Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, 2018
- Library Rhyme Times and Maternal Mental Health: Quick Guide to the Research, https://sharedintelligence.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/rhyme-times-quick-guide-to-research.pdf
- Social Infrastructure and the Public Life of Cities: Studying Urban Sociality and Public Spaces, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gec3.12444
- #LooktoLibraries in Times of Crisis, http://www.ala.org/alsc/publications-resources/look-to-libraries
Address the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group; III. Programming Skills; V. Outreach and Advocacy