The Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh was one of hundreds built with funding from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

CHECK THIS OUT: Palaces for the people

Anne DeGrace writes about the importance of libraries as social infrastructure

When Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie began building libraries in the 1880s, he was paying tribute to his own famous quote: “Do your duty and a little more and the future will take care of itself.”

Carnegie did more than “a little more.” He built more than 2,500 libraries around the world. He called the greatest of these libraries — with their high ceilings, illuminating windows, and vast spaces for folks to read, study, and think — “palaces for the people.”

I love those synchronicities that push you to jump in and explore something. Recently, the Nelson Library acquired Eric Klinenburg’s book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life; it’s been on my list to read.

Then, last week a woman stopped me on the street to tell me about a podcast in the series 99% Invisible entitled “Palaces for the People,” which describes Klinenberg’s findings as a social scientist. And in I jumped.

The podcast and the book talk about the connections made in shared spaces such as libraries as antidotes to isolation and polarization, to inequities in education, and even to social issues such as crime.

Shared spaces are used by people of all ages, abilities, social backgrounds, genders, and races, which means we bump into all kinds of people and gain greater understanding and acceptance.

Flash forward to post-Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when Klinenberg was working with designers who wanted to build “resilience centres”: buildings staffed by welcoming people, with programs and resources, computers and Wi-Fi. That this is basically a library, as Klinenberg pointed out, suggests that a reminder about what a library can do is never out of place — and is, in fact, essential.

The Province of Ontario has just effected a kind of reverse-Carnegie when it cut 50 per cent of public library funding. With those cuts will go things such as inter-library loans or programming for kids and seniors. Think: social isolation, and that education gap. Perhaps the hardest hit will be libraries in small northern communities and First Nations libraries. For community wellness and resilience, it’s a tragedy.

And yet there are those looking to the future with the hope that libraries will be there for our grandchildren and their children; these visionaries see libraries as the hope for our planet: a place where divisions are bridged, ideas are formed, and people work together for the greater good.

One thousand trees have been planted in Norway for a project called the Future Library, which will see a book commissioned from a different author each year for 100 years, with the first one published in 2114. All will be printed on paper produced from those trees. Until then, the manuscripts will be stored in a library in Oslo. The first author commissioned was, fittingly, speculative fiction author Margaret Atwood.

In case we aren’t here to read it, a 30-million page library recently took off for the moon aboard Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft. The Lunar Library, in the form of a DVD-sized metal disc, has been dubbed a “civilization backup.” It’s hard to imagine humanity’s collective wisdom all in one place, but the fact that a non-profit foundation saw fit to develop a space-based archive designed to survive the next six billion years says something about the preservation of knowledge.

Will the future take care of itself if we all do our duty, plus a little more? That’s hard to say. Whatever a library might look like in six billion years, my hope is this: that it is truly a palace for the people: a place to enjoy, learn, and connect with one another, whoever and wherever we are.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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