Think of a book in your local library’s circulating collection—maybe it’s a classic like Moby Dick, or an SAT prep guide. Maybe it’s the childhood favorite The Snowy Day or a true-crime thriller. That same book has been shared by all manner of individuals, and has crossed into so many different kinds of homes. Taken together, library collections pass from the hands of a public high school student to a small business owner to a local city counselor. They link strangers together in a chain of stewardship – library patrons resist the temptation to dogear a page and take care to keep it clean and unmarked for the next borrower, set a reminder in their calendar to return it on time so the next reader can satisfy their curiosity. What else in our community do we do that with?
Public libraries circulate portable civic infrastructure by sending public things into private spaces. Every library book in someone’s home adds a new category to their conception of ownership – “ours,” alongside “mine” and “yours.” The “our” that library books evoke can sow and sustain the seeds of support and care for one another and for greater public concepts of our communities, our cities and our planet.
Our public libraries are physically embodied connective tissue: roads that connect people to information and ideas, to resources and opportunities. They are bridges that connect people to each other, knitting us together through shared spaces and resources, shared experiences and common interests and endeavors. In these uniquely welcoming and inclusive public spaces, patrons read, study and gather inspiration alongside a cross-section of their community. In addition to these everyday encounters, library programs create opportunities for patrons to talk and act together, across their differences.
Public libraries and their grounded, portable and invisible civic infrastructure give us another, better way to relate to ourselves and to each other — not only as consumers, but as citizens. Not as competitors in scarcity, but as co-stewards of shared abundance. Contemporary libraries’ values of universal welcome, equitable terms of access, and a compact of mutual trust with their community members can positively influence patrons’ ways of relating to public institutions more broadly. The principle that every community member has an equal and unchanging right to be present at, and participate in, the library highlights the civic power of individuals – as citizens who give life and vibrancy to public infrastructure by using it and infusing it with their needs and hopes.
This invisible infrastructure supports a much broader web of connections between individuals and public institutions of all kinds. In combination, public libraries’ unique form of civic infrastructure makes a rare, nearly magical contribution to civic life and civic spirit. It reinforces a sense of “we” and “ours” in our communities, and positively impacts the way we see ourselves and each other. This contribution is embedded in local communities, but also has a cumulative impact that extends all the way to the national level.
In collaboration with library professionals across the country and the Our Common Purpose Project at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, representatives of the New York Public Library and Memphis Public Library are currently partnering on Libraries as Bridges, an initiative aiming to both strengthen and better communicate the civic impact of our nation’s public libraries.
Libraries as Bridges is a learning network composed of library professionals that seeks to articulate and advance the role that libraries play in promoting social cohesion, civic renewal, and the ideals of our democracy. The initial work focuses on building an online toolkit where practitioners can connect to case studies and best practices for library programs with civic impact, guidance for communicating with external stakeholders and collaborating with each other.
While the core of this work centers on conversations with library staff across the country, incorporating the perspective of civic and political leaders is crucial to achieving the initiative’s goals. Libraries As Bridges will create new opportunities for dialogue with local leaders across the country as work progresses, helping to collaboratively harness libraries’ civic impact to the fullest potential.
Daphna Blatt is the Senior Director of Strategy & Public Impact at The New York Public Library.