By Don McKay, AIA, Principal, Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects
The provocatively titled book Bowling Alone uses declining participation in bowling leagues to illustrate the erosion of in-person social intercourse in America. The author blames this development on technologies like television and the internet that make it easy to spend our leisure time alone. Since the book’s publication in 2000, social media and our ability to curate what we read, watch and listen to when and where we want have accelerated expectations for individualized experience. We are increasingly aware of the consequences, good and bad.
One consequence that may be personally satisfying, but socially harmful, is the “echo chamber,” that popular metaphor for a closed system that amplifies or reinforces a certain, often narrow, point of view. The term may be new, but echo chambers are not—they seem part of that tribal mentality inseparable from the human condition. What is new is the social influence exerted by echo chambers that are nourished by the internet. Echo chambers are designed to exclude and polarization naturally follows.
Public libraries are an antidote to echo chambers. They are inclusive institutions—they literally welcome everyone. They have a democratizing influence by providing access to resources we may be otherwise excluded from by lack of income or social status, resources that help us better ourselves and our communities. By design, public libraries have resources for all but the most extreme interests and points of view.
Unlike the exclusivity favored by echo chambers, public libraries embrace individualized experience to foster inclusivity. This has not always been obvious. Post-war libraries were designed as homogenous environments that differentiated between children, teens and adults only in the types of collections found on the shelves. Just as post-war educational models gave way to new models intended for the digital age, so did public libraries’ services and environments evolve to meet new societal needs.
Today’s public libraries feature differentiated environments that support individualized experiences for children, teens, adults and the elderly, for school students and the home-schooled, for businesses and the unemployed, for book clubs and artists, for readers and makers. In light of the loss of in-person social intercourse cited by Bowling Alone, public library environments offer a significant, if unanticipated, benefit—they are physical places, settings for in-person social interaction.
Public libraries seem to have intuitively recognized the advantage of being a public place, but they have struggled to explain it. ‘Community center’ is one popular characterization that public libraries have used to rebrand themselves, but this, while true, fails to distinguish libraries from park district and other facilities that claim a similar role. The recent characterization of public libraries role in our ‘social infrastructure’ comes closer to the mark, adapting the widely understood concept of physical infrastructure to a less tangible, but equally important type of infrastructure.
The more we embed ourselves in virtual social worlds, the more we may appreciate the value of real places. As algorithms increasingly guide us to everything from music to dates that fit safely within our comfort zones, real places like public libraries will become more important for in-person social intercourse, often unpredictable, that is necessary for a healthy and civil democracy.