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Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

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An eminent sociologist and bestselling author offers an inspiring blueprint for rebuilding our fractured society.

We are living in a time of deep divisions. Americans are sorting themselves along racial, religious, and cultural lines, leading to a level of polarization that the country hasn't seen since the Civil War. Pundits and politicians are calling for us to come together, to find common purpose. But how, exactly, can this be done?

In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg suggests a way forward. He believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks where crucial, sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the "social infrastructure" When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.

Klinenberg takes us around the globe--from a floating school in Bangladesh to an arts incubator in Chicago, from a soccer pitch in Queens to an evangelical church in Houston--to show how social infrastructure is helping to solve some of our most pressing challenges: isolation, crime, education, addiction, political polarization, and even climate change.

Richly reported, elegantly written, and ultimately uplifting, Palaces for the People urges us to acknowledge the crucial role these spaces play in civic life. Our social infrastructure could be the key to bridging our seemingly unbridgeable divides--and safeguarding democracy.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published September 11, 2018

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About the author

Eric Klinenberg

17 books182 followers
Eric Klinenberg is Professor of Sociology; Public Policy; and Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University. He is the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (The Penguin Press, 2012), Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media (Metropolitan Books, 2007), and Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2002), as well as the editor of Cultural Production in a Digital Age and of the journal Public Culture. His scholarly work has been published in journals including the American Sociological Review, Theory and Society, and Ethnography, and he has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The Washington Post, Slate, Le Monde Diplomatique, The London Review of Books, and the radio program, This American Life.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 558 reviews
Profile Image for Aja.
555 reviews253 followers
January 25, 2019
I didn't think that I could dislike a book as much as I dislike THIS book, but yes, I really disliked this book. Wonderful ideas and some really interesting points but I do not trust ANY book which talks about race and sociology without talking about white privilege and white supremacy. Correct me if I'm wrong but it seems this man wrote an entire book about community while NOT ONCE naming white supremacy.

This book tries to play the rule of "both sides" and let's all come together and sing kumbaya while never naming that it is consistently the political right who votes against social services which actually help ALL people. That to me is intellectually dishonest. It's great to focus on how people of color consistently fix our own communities through personal efforts but to never talk about why the oppression exists from the get go seems again intellectually dishonest. You can't talk about "rough neighborhoods" without talking about white flight and how when whiteness leaves, there goes the money with it. If you're going to talk about zoning but you don't want to talk about racism and white supremacy and the part they play in it, miss me with all of that.

Apparently NOBODY segregated the pools which lead to an epidemic of brown children not knowing how to swim. I had no idea that my parents putting us all in swimming lessons growing up made us the exception as black people and not the rule (because we were privileged). But it was important to my parents because we grew up in a town that had many lakes and they grew up knowing that black kids often drown because those resources aren't available to us. But who did this? Who held the power and who made these rules?

Don't ask me to hold hands and come together and sing kumbaya if you're going to be intellectually dishonest about whiteness and white supremacy, Eric Klinenberg.
Profile Image for vanessa.
972 reviews150 followers
November 27, 2018
3.5. Overall, the ideas Klinenberg poses and the research he references are interesting and gets one thinking of what we need to do to create a better future society. Social infrastructure is a philosophy I can get behind and the stories he shares from fieldwork (especially more personal vignettes) were insightful. But I will say I wish this was structured differently. After listening to the first chapter, which is exclusively about libraries, I expected (and wanted) the rest of the chapters to focus on a singular infrastructure (parks, community gardens, schools, etc.). Instead, it was more jumbled and mixed. I understand that these stories can be intertwined in different infrastructures, but didn't like how we'd be talking about gardens and then we'd be back to libraries. Maybe it's because some chapters would be slimmer than others, but it seemed to me less focused and in need of a bit more editing/organization. I think the first chapter is the most worth-it part of this book.
Profile Image for Doni.
583 reviews
September 19, 2018
I enjoyed his tribute to libraries; was skeptical of his pro-corporate solutions such as Gates' donations to create smaller schools. Liberal, not radical, and therefore insufficient targeting of capitalism's fundamental flaws.
Profile Image for Emily.
1,052 reviews13 followers
March 12, 2019
No rating cause I was skimming a bunch toward the end. I wanted to like this, and it's got such important research in it, but I raised an eyebrow at the beginning when it said something like "this isn't about Trump vs Clinton, or Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter, but rather..." and I'm like a) it kind of is about those things though? and b) are you really going to treat them as equal? I don't even hate the Trump vs Clinton thing because, fine, it's fair to say we're talking about politics outside specific elections, but the BLM comment pushed it to "we're not talking about politics, period."

And that left me on high alert for the handful of "this happens on both sides" and "polarization" comments throughout the book. There aren't even that many, but enough to chip away at my confidence in the sociological rigor of his conclusions. Like there's a great discussion of online spaces for marginalized folks to find each other, followed by simple praise for Nextdoor bringing neighbors together with zero mention of that platform's well known racism. Or a chapter about the market of ideas on a college campus, with a mention of "both sides" lamenting "inhospitality to debate" as if radical conservatives aren't showing up on campuses and using "debate" to create a truly dangerous atmosphere for queer, trans, and immigrant students.

The point of this book - that physical environments matter to social cohesion, and we must invest wisely in them - is so important. I just couldn't get past wondering how much stronger the argument could be had it been written without that sense of moderation. If it had been written by someone who knows firsthand the importance of queer spaces or Black spaces or spaces for folks with disabilities that are intentionally unshared, and how much work it takes to build those spaces in this culture. If it had admitted that this is an inherently political subject because massive disparities in power created the problems it's addressing.
Profile Image for Sharon Orlopp.
Author 1 book312 followers
September 29, 2022
Eric Klineberg is a Professor of Sociology at NYU and an author of several books. Palaces for People is how Andrew Carnegie described free public libraries when he generously donated funds to build over 2800 libraries across the nation.

Klineberg's interest in social infrastructure occurred when he researched (boots on the ground as well as literary research) why certain adjacent communities within Chicago fared poorly or fared well during the heat wave in 1995 that killed over 700 residents in Chicago. The majority of neighborhoods with heat wave mortality were African American with poverty and violent crime. However, there were several African American neighborhoods with similar poverty and crime that had the lowest heat wave death rates.

The key differentiator between similar neighborhoods was the social infrastructure---physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact---convening and relationship building spaces. Libraries are at the core of social infrastructure.

Klineberg shares examples of different physical drop off and pick up spaces at schools and childcare. Some spaces encourage natural conversations and relationship building with parents as they greet their children and other spaces focus on speed and efficiency.

He provides an example of how Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood that was a food desert, created farms to grow local produce with the help of an organization called Growing Home.

Social infrastructure is definitely a factor in building bridges in communities and strengthening civic life and relationships. Other critical factors include equitable job opportunities, economic development/growth, transparent and truthful news reporting, building trust, etc.
Profile Image for Stephanie (That's What She Read).
428 reviews1,086 followers
January 5, 2019
I couldn't think of a better book to read in January. I really feel inspired to become more involved in my community. This book is about the importance of social infastructure and how it can significantly improve the lives of those in communities and bring down crime rates. I loved the chapters about libraries. I wish Parks and Rec was still on because I can't even imagine how much Leslie Knope would've loved this. If I had one criticism of the book, it was that I wish it the chapters stuck more closely to topics. The library chapters seemed to focus on libraries, but then it seemed to go all over the place from there. Recommend if you're curious about the effect of social infustructure or need a reason to feel inspired to go out and connect to those in your community.
Profile Image for Adrian Hon.
Author 5 books66 followers
January 19, 2019
An engaging, readable argument for why we should build more “social infrastructure” like libraries, community gardens, parks, sports facilities, etc – but with a curiously meandering structure that flits between ideas and subjects.

Random thoughts:

- Klinenberg is a good writer but he is overly fond of personal anecdotes and stories. These are helpful for introducing laypeople but they detracted from the strength of his argument.

- Too often, we hear about how he was visiting this or that other city while writing another book, making you wonder just how rigorous his research was.

- Even more odd are the couple of times he uses the plot from *novels* to make a point. It’s just bizarre – how am I supposed to be convinced by that?

- I don’t know why Klinenberg bothers with a pretence of political neutrality. Yes, he wants to appeal to readers of every political persuasion, but come on – it’s pretty obvious who he votes for, and who most readers would vote for. He does a disservice to his subject and his readers by pretending that both Democrats and Republicans care equally about funding social infrastructure.

- His most egregious and pointless bit of ”both sides-ism” is equating the chair of the California Democratic Party (no, I don’t know who this is, either) saying “fuck Donald Trump” and giving him the middle finger, to Trump leading supporters in a chant of “lock her up.” One of these things is rude, I guess; the other demonstrates a total disregard for democratic principles and a disturbing shift to authoritarianism.

- He has a strange obsession with Silicon Valley. I’m not sure it deserves as much attention as it gets in the book.

Ultimately, the most memorable parts of the book are about libraries. I would love to read 300 pages about the importance of libraries towards social infrastructure, not just 50-60 pages scattered here and there.
Profile Image for Daniel Beck.
78 reviews6 followers
January 31, 2019
Look, if you're on Goodreads, you probably already know that public libraries are important institutions. But this book provides some good reminders of why that is.
Profile Image for HAMiD.
413 reviews
March 9, 2021
دیوید بلینگتون استاد سرآمدِ مهندسی در دانشگاه پرینستون زمانی نوشت، زیرساخت ها شیوه ای برای نمادین کردن دوره های تاریخی و بیان ایده های مسلط در مورد چگونگی سازمان دادن به اقتصاد و جامعه هستند. راه آهن، بزرگراه ها، پارک ها و شبکه های برق معلوم می کنند که در زمان ساخت آنها ما که بودیم و امید داشتیم چه بشویم. سامانه هایی که در سالهای پیشِ رو می سازیم به نسل های آینده خواهند گفت ما که هستیم و نگاه ما به دنیای امروز چیست. اگر از رفع اختلافات اجتماعی در حال تعمیق بازمانیم، آنها حتا ممکن است تعیین کنند که "ما" چگونه می خواهیم به زیستن ادامه دهیم... بازسازی زیرساخت هایی که به حل مسایل حل ناشدنی پیش روی ما کمک کنند مستلزم به کارگیری تمامی انواع هوشمندیِ جمعی درباره ی آسیب ها و امکانات در حال ظهور در شهرها و نواحی گوناگون است. ما نیازمند مهندسی عمران هوشمند برای تعمیر شبکه های حیاتی ای هستیم که وضع شان خوب نیست اما نیازمند مهندسی مدنیت در آن دسته از جوامع از جمله جامعه ی خودمان هم هستیم که در آستانه ی از هم پاشیدن قرار دارند. این تلاشِ سترگی است و با توجه به ستیزه ها و شکاف های حال حاضر، فرآیندی زمان بَر است. اما دیگر نمی توان بیش از این سراغ آن نرفت. پرسش این است که کِی و کجا کار را آغاز کنیم

سپاس بسیارم از سعید کشاورزی برای سپردن کتاب
Profile Image for Indra Nooyi.
Author 5 books17.1k followers
June 10, 2021
In a time where America seems to be dividing itself along so many different lines, Eric Klinenberg’s “Palaces for the People” examines how we can heal these fractures by nurturing more shared spaces. An uplifting look at the power of community — I encourage everyone to read it.
Profile Image for Carol.
270 reviews26 followers
October 7, 2018
Gives perspective and case studies regarding social infrastructure. Especially relevant to public libraries and other civic institutions looking for ways to be more welcoming and responsive to their community. Very timely and useful.

I took a star off because I found the text somewhat rambling and roundabout. I thought it would be much more useful to divide chapters by type of institution, so those reading for institutional purposes could easily find what they're looking for. I did see an indication that the finished copy will have an index, so that should help.

I received an advanced copy from the publisher via Netgalley for review consideration.
Profile Image for Cara.
167 reviews2 followers
January 30, 2019
Such an interesting book that touches on my favourite aspect of social infrastructure: libraries. This book is so timely given the current political climate...do we want higher walls or more social cohesion?
Profile Image for mary.
153 reviews
February 20, 2021
As an avid supporter of public infrastructure and spaces, I was really excited to pick this book up. But I felt that this was catered very much to the more moderate folks. It really glossed over just how much structural racism and white supremacy continue to uphold the very disparities that were highlighted in the book. I also was disappointed with the organization. It felt like it was hopping all over the place and I thought it would be more structured like how the first chapter was primarily about libraries.

I think this is a good book for probably someone extremely new to the intersection of planning and society but otherwise falls flat for folks like myself looking for more grit and boldness in approach when addressing inequities.
137 reviews2 followers
January 16, 2019
"Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that -- even in an age of atomization and inequality -- serve as bedrocks of civil society. Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private, and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line."

This book is about more than libraries but (unsurprisingly) I found the sections on libraries to be the most interesting and inspiring.
Profile Image for Joe.
400 reviews
January 8, 2019
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes a persuasive argument for the strengthening of America's "social infrastructure" - the places where people gather to share experiences across social divides and strengthen the bonds that help us in divisive times. It is a timely examination of what qualifies as "community" in the age of social media and a useful tool that public officials should use for cultural and social planning. Recommended.
Profile Image for Zach.
83 reviews18 followers
May 14, 2019
3.5. A lot of great theories and causal links but not a lot of concrete takeaways. Also, a little long in the tooth and repetitive as the end drew near.
Profile Image for Kat ❅.
864 reviews73 followers
June 9, 2020
Like many readers, I'm obsessed with libraries. They are one of my favorite to work and study and at this point in my life, having had to move several times, I'd much rather just get books at the library rather than own them. This book shows how libraries and other public spaces can be important for things beyond their described purpose. Good social infrastructure can be crucial for reducing crime and bring together people who normally wouldn't interact. I have person experience with this. I go to college at the University of Minnesota. The campus comes right up to the edge of downtown Minneapolis, a city that's been in the news a lot recently for obvious and important reasons. One of my favorite places to go was Minneapolis Central library. This library is in the heart of the city and draws in every type of person who lives in the city. Even though my campus is very close to downtown, it's still very separate. It is the public library that gives me my best connection to the people that live in the city around me.

I have long supported investment in public infrastructure. Public transport is important, libraries are important, parks are important, and so on and so on. It's one of the issues I have with recent tech companies like Uber. Uber can sometimes be seen as a solution to the problem of public transportation infrastructure when really it, as discussed in the book, separates people further as people who have money to take Ubers remove themselves from public transportation.

I think this book is great for people like me who love the type of social infrastructure discussed in this book and would like more tools for discussing the reasons why this sort of infrastructure is so important. I would definitely recommend this book.
Profile Image for Jud Barry.
Author 6 books18 followers
March 11, 2019
Klinenberg imparts an impassioned and inspiring message about the need to shore up American society with places that will build community by bringing people together. The book meanders somewhat, though, and always seems to return to what becomes almost a refrain: "like, for example, libraries."

He means, of course, public libraries: no small quibble. None of his library examples are academic or special libraries, where so much funding is private or nonprofit. This in no way denigrates the work of those institutions. It is only to say they do not have a mission to serve the general public in a community context, as do public libraries.

Public libraries are largely funded by local tax revenues; their operations are overseen by a publicly-appointed board. There is considerable variation in the level and type of state tax support. Federal support is small in terms of dollars, but is strategically important for the development of tech-based processing networks and distribution of information. Public libraries are a public expense accepted by the large majority of American taxpayers, Republican and Democrat.

And yet -- with their rugged, self-help-through-self-education ethos that is as American as Benjamin Franklin -- public libraries are an increasingly anomalous feature in a political landscape that--seemingly, and increasingly--wants to raze the very idea on which they rest: that the government can and should invest public money in cultural infrastructure for the improvement of citizens' lives. Or, as Klinenberg muses parenthetically, "(If, today, the library didn't already exist, it's hard to imagine our society's leaders inventing it.)"

As a career public librarian, I often had this thought. Traditional conservatism of the kind that favored localism over centralization has morphed into an antipathy to government at all levels. This radical anti-civic ideology is what the "Reagan revolution" accomplished: spreading the belief that "government can do no good" at any level whatsoever.

And yet there is the American public library standing in direct contradiction of that ideology. When Andrew Carnegie wanted to bring self-education to the masses, how did he do it? He did not just scatter his money. He entered into a quid pro quo arrangement with local governments: if I build it, you must make sure they come. Years later, when Bill Gates wanted to do something similar with the potential of the Internet, he did a similar thing with local governments and their libraries: if I enable connectivity, you must maintain it.

This is the American face of culture that could be massively enhanced if Americans only allowed themselves to recognize "the commons" as a place deserving public investment. Sadly, historically-deaf Americans--in the grips of libertarians passing themselves off as conservatives and terrified of a nonexistent "socialist" bogeyman of their own fiendish imagination--will attend the final demise of the civic sense that has been a root of Americanism since Plymouth and the Declaration of Independence.
Profile Image for Bev.
2,864 reviews253 followers
March 9, 2020
Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, examines how our social structures--from the library to schools to community gardens--can help mitigate problems and challenges of our divided civic life. He posits that neighborhoods, regardless of economic or over-all social standing, which have strong social infrastructure do better at taking care of one another when crises strike and also do better at resisting crime and other negative social impacts.

This was an interesting thesis, which once thought about made a great deal of sense to me. I was very interested to dive in and see what research he did and how the research supported (or didn't) his theories. However, as with other readers on Goodreads (I peeked at reviews when I finished the book), I found the chapter on libraries the most interesting and most compelling. The other chapters seemed to treat their focus in a much more cursory way and managed for the most part to loop back to talking about libraries.

Klinenberg seems very invested in libraries--and why not, libraries are very important to communities. But it seems to me that he would have done well to either rein in his enthusiasm for libraries in a book with a broad premise (such as this one purported to be) and give more thorough, organized attention to the other social structures OR, perhaps, to write a book that focused only on libraries and their importance to the social infrastructure of their communities. He also spent far less time than I anticipated on how these social structures help address inequality.

First posted on my blog My Reader's Block.
Profile Image for K C.
21 reviews1 follower
February 21, 2019
I put this as read but this was a DNF for me after 30% through the book. Had to read it for a report so I skimmed the later chapters and read the conclusion but it was such a disappointment. I didn't feel like there was any sort of critical analysis in the book. It talked about the concept of social infrastructure which is fine and all but failed to talk about other systemic factors like antiblack racism, sexism, and capitalism that affects social structures.
Profile Image for Jackie.
263 reviews12 followers
September 18, 2019
The points were good but the organization of the material was hard to follow
9 reviews
June 1, 2020
Eric Klinenberg's latest book is an excellent examination of how our political perspectives, resilience to crises, and overall quality of life are affected by social infrastructure--the physical spaces and material elements that help us connect with each other. It was a bit painful to read during a time in which our biological need for distancing has necessarily been prioritized over our social need to gather, but in this way it is also particularly timely. Over the past fifty years, American society has seen the gradual abandonment of common spaces like parks, public pools, and community centers and with it a corresponding rise in social fragmentation and instability. Klinenberg argues that a wide range of issues, including the opioid epidemic, generational inner-city poverty, institutionalized racial inequality, and environmental injustice due to climate change can all be linked to the degradation of social infrastructure.

In particular, Klinenberg highlights the public library as a poster child for this trend. While state and local governments continue a long trend of slashing library budgets, cutting staff, and reducing hours, attendance is increasing. And it's no wonder: while still fulfilling the primary task of providing access to information, libraries have evolved to offer a wide range of other social services, including job training and placement, education programs for teens who want to learn coding or new mothers learning about early childhood development, and social gatherings for seniors. Libraries remain one the of last public meeting spaces for civic engagement; it's often where town halls are held and voting takes place. This book is something of a love letter to the library, an invocation for all of us to realize the special value of these public places, and plea for their survival and renewal.
Profile Image for Micah.
Author 6 books174 followers
June 13, 2022
I disagree with a number of the arguments that Klinenberg makes here about scale, like his section extolling small schools. I don't share his faith that smallness and decentralization can make public institutions like schools better. And I found some of his appeals to private foundations in the conclusion to be sort of sad, evidence of how the same neoliberalism that has desiccated our social infrastructure has also desiccated our political imagination about how to rebuild social infrastructure.

That said, the fundamental premise of this book, a defense of social infrastructure and its role in creating and cohering our society, in a way that doesn't just meet our most immediate needs but also connects us to each other and overcomes the sense of isolation that so many millions of us feel, is one I very passionately agree with. And several of the many sections of the book that focus on libraries had me near tears.

After finishing the intro and first chapter, I found myself thinking about the fact that a better world is not only possible — we already have many of the institutions, like libraries, that could be at the heart of that better world. We just need to fortify and expand them.

The book is a kind of roundabout argument for socialism, or at least for social-democratic institutions that socialists like me want to preserve and beef up. And the principles at the heart of those institutions are socialist ones that insist that our lives are better lived together, through common public goods that bind us to one another.
Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,419 reviews537 followers
October 11, 2022
This book felt overly long and meandering. I didn't feel that Klinenberg had much of a thesis beyond, "hey, the US should put some money maintaining and creating infrastructure projects like libraries and parks." There's no analysis. There's little historical background, which is vital to understanding how public physical spaces developed in the US. The tone is sometimes almost a memoir, sometimes that distant third person popular in STEM journals. The amount of emphasis placed on different components seems entirely random; one successful project will get barely a paragraph, whereas another will get half a chapter despite being less ambitious and entirely unsuccessful. Failed projects would actually have been useful to examine, but Klinenberg applies no critical analysis to anything.

Read the first chapter, which sums up the entire book perfectly well, and skip the rest.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
September 2, 2019
The book was drier than I thought it would be so despite my great interest and agreement with the topic, it took me a while to finish this one. I am glad I did because I agree with Klinenberg that libraries are magical places and the lack of public spaces where people can wander is hurting communities. I like the examples he gives of public spaces that have fostered community building and the opposite too (suburban school pickups for example). On this topic, I would also recommend Zadie Smith's first essay in her book Feel Free about the public library. It's the best writing I've ever read about what libraries are.
Profile Image for Sarah C..
62 reviews2 followers
February 11, 2020
I really really enjoyed this book and learned more about what is at stake when public institutions that bolster community aren’t visited, aren’t financially supported, or are generally overlooked. The strongest example woven throughout is the public library, though Klinenberg makes good cases for many other scenarios where people find friendship and connection in unexpected (though intentionally designed) places. This book lacks a significant conversation on race, which is woven throughout the book in a somewhat elusive way. It would’ve benefitted from more research on how race factors in to social infrastructure and inequality in civic life.
Profile Image for Scott Rhee.
1,820 reviews64 followers
March 11, 2020
I went off Facebook for a variety of reasons, but what cemented my decision to severely limit my use of that particular social media platform was a post about my love of libraries and, specifically, my local library, which, at the time, was the main topic of discussion in town as city council was deciding where and when to build a new state-of-the-art library.

I was not against the new library at all. In fact, I was strongly in support of it. As much as I loved the little building where I spent an inordinate amount of my time, I knew that it had become simply too small to adequately support all of the services and events that the library offered to my community. After-school hours pulsated with hordes of squirming middle-schoolers. Week nights and weekends were abuzz with meetings of the Democrat Club, the Republican Club, the Garden Club, Girl Scouts troops, book clubs, etc. The few computers were always in use, often with lines of more people waiting to use them. People from all over stopped in for passport photos and free tax info. And, of course, there were always those of us who still read and checked out actual, honest-to-God books with words on paper.

No, my post was simply about how excited I was that our small community would be receiving a new library. One would think, however, based on some of the remarks, that I was advocating for the mass raping of household pets.

While most people agreed with me, I was struck by the number of angry people who did not want a new library and, in fact, did not want a library at all, it seemed. Comments were along the lines of “libraries are obsolete”, “a useless drain of taxpayer money”, “nobody reads anymore”, “nobody but old people go to libraries”, “libraries are (sic) dum”, “I hate libraries”, yadda yadda, etc.

All of which set me off and made me make comments which I immediately regretted and turned me into that thing I never wanted to see myself become: a troll. This is neither here nor there, however, and completely beside the point.

My point: I love libraries. I have always loved libraries, and I always will. I am most passionate when I am advocating for the importance of libraries. I think libraries are important and integral to the health and well-being of any community.

Eric Klinenberg agrees with me.

He is the author of the wonderful book “Palaces For the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life”. If you’re like me, you may have been caught up on one tiny phrase in that title: what the hell is social infrastructure?

(If, on the other hand, you’re not like me, and you already know what social infrastructure is, then I commend you. Congratulations on being that much smarter than me, you smarty-pants...)

Anyway, social infrastructure (as opposed to regular infrastructure: the physical things like roads, bridges, sewer systems, electrical grids, etc. that essentially get us through life in the 21st century) is, according to Klinenberg, “the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. (p. 5)”

Social infrastructure refers to, more often than not, public places---such as schools, libraries, community centers, parks---where people of a diverse range of socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds can meet and forge relationships. Occasionally, social infrastructure can refer to organizations and businesses---coffee shops, bookstores---insofar as they provide opportunities for public gatherings outside of and apart from profit-driven motives. And, despite how much Mark Zuckerberg really wants us to believe that he’s not driven by profit, social media platforms such as Facebook can also be considered a social infrastructure, just not a very good one.

Klinenberg’s interest in social infrastructure and, specifically, libraries came about by accident. As a graduate student, Klinenberg---a sociologist---was studying the after-effects of the deadly 1995 heat wave that hit Chicago and killed over 700 people. Not unexpectedly, his data revealed that, in general, areas of poor, low-income, non-racially-diverse populations fared the worst, while affluent, predominantly-white areas fared the best. This wasn’t a surprise.

What was surprising was that a few pockets of very low-income and predominantly-black or Latino neighborhoods fared better than some affluent neighborhoods. What was different about these neighborhoods to make them such outliers?

Klinenberg’s research discovered that it was these neighborhoods’ healthy social infrastructures that contributed to their survival. In these places, things like libraries and community centers provided safety nets and social hubs where neighbors could coordinate ways to help their neighbors. In many poor neighborhoods where such social infrastructure didn’t exist, many people---the elderly especially---died alone in their homes because neighbors did not think to look in on them.

Klinenberg’s book is more than a love letter to libraries. It’s a scientifically supported examination of how and why libraries are vitally important to the health, protection, and aggrandizement of society. Just as our police force and firefighters are important in our community, libraries are equally important but don’t often get the credit.
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77 reviews
January 20, 2023
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that a book titled “Palaces for the People” is a love letter to libraries. That is probably the most noticeable element tying this book together. I appreciate the research referenced and field experience of people engaged with the social institutions the author discusses, but he certainly does seem to come back to the library most chapters. The book is helpful in making one think about what makes effective communities in a time when that is less prevalent but possibly more needed than ever. And in making an argument for government spending to create not just civil infrastructure and not just social nets, but social infrastructure. The time the book was published certainly breaks through, as a few topics breezed on at the end are tangential (Trump, Facebook) and surface level. Whereas possibly more relevant could have been potential references and exploration into why BIPOC communities are primarily affected by lack of infrastructure, social or otherwise, impacting low income and ignored neighborhoods. In all, I did enjoy the read, and think this is a good book to casually pick up for encouraging civic engagement, considering what the government can provide to its residents if given the chance, and reminding us that fostering a diverse community is beneficial to all.
23 reviews
July 12, 2019
Personally I don’t think “Libraries and other places you actually interact with your community are good” should be that hard of a concept to grasp, but apparently it is and Klinenberg does a good job making the case for investing in them far more than we currently are. I also appreciated the late chapter laying out a vision for incorporating social infrastructure into climate adaptation projects rather than treating them solely as a civil engineering challenge.
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