The Case of Libraries and Civility in Klinenberg’s “To Restore Civil Society, Start with the Library”

With the notable rise of digitalization, it is easy for one to assume that the introduction of electronic books would take over and decrease the demand of print books. However, recent studies show that Americans still prefer print books over any other reading format “with 67% of Americans having read a print book in the past year” (Perrin, 2018). Irrespective of the increase of technological advances in education, public libraries are somehow irreplaceable as they offer much more than just print books and open access to education. Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist and a current New York University professor, published “To Restore Civility, Start with Library” in the New York Times to emphasize the importance of the role of that public libraries play in communities and the benefits they provide for people of any age or social class. He argues that public libraries need to be valued and supported because they serve as the foundation of civility (Klinenberg, 2018).


Klinenberg begins by targeting elected officials who claim that public libraries are no longer in need of support, due to the new digitalized world where interactions have become virtual. He insists that the problem is not that they are no longer useful, because the rates of activity in libraries are increasing in some regions. Rather, he asserts that the main issue is that libraries are underfunded and they are being so overused that library systems and librarians are overwhelmed.

He goes further and argues that the neglect of libraries is a result of two particular things. First, the library’s services are free of charge and have open access, hence, the system doesn’t match the logic of the dominating market. Second, the failure to acknowledge the impact of the services that are offered contributes to the disparaging of libraries. Libraries are not just instituions that provide access to books, they serve as physical spaces that form the way people interact with one another, offering “companionship for adults, childcare for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants, and welcoming public spaces for the poor, homeless, and young people” (Klinenberg, 2018).

Moreover, Klinenberg points out the public library is not conflict-free, as it welcomes unprivileged people that seek refugee in the library. Yet, the disputes are usually handled in a civil way and the library resumes its normal functioning. He also claims that contrary to American cities that remain unequal and dividing despite undergoing ethnical, cultural, and racial growth, libraries embrace differences between people and encourage the flourishing of openness and diversity. They allow people of different interests and social class to unite and engage in the culture. Libraries serve as a space where people from different generations and circumstances can connect and retain the sense of belonging.

Finally, Klinenberg concludes that it’s essential for us to be attentive of the privileges that public libraries provide, and contrary to what cynics say, the government can contribute to help public libraries get the acknowledgement that they are worthy of, as public libraries play a huge role in the civil society.


As a Sociology PhD graduate and a current professor at New York University, Klinenberg’s acquired education and experience garner him enough credibility to target such a social topic. In addition, the tone in which he addresses the issue is significant. His article begins with a strong force, questioning whether the public library is obsolete or not. He subsequently addresses the belief of influential individuals in the society, such as elected officials, that public libraries no longer need support and refutes it by providing valid evidence that it is indeed the time to stop neglecting libraries. The syntax, the question itself, and level of formality makes his tone an assertive one, full of confidence and assurance. It clearly states his position regarding the subject, compelling the audience to take him seriously and hold him in high regard.

To validate his arguments, Klinenberg builds a strong base. He particularly uses valid statistics, such as, “about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a major impact on their community” (Klinenberg, 2018), that logically supports his claim that public libraries are indeed in a high demand regardless of the existence of online access to education. Moreover, to prove the people’s need for public libraries, he provided an example about the public’s negative response to an article published by an economist, which suggests that Americans would prefer a market-free option. In addition, he provides examples from his ethnographic research about how elders often feel less lonely as a result of the cultural events organized by the libraries, children learn responsibility by borrowing and taking care of public goods, and how public libraries welcome poor and homeless people.

However, Klinenberg’s appeal to pathos is minimal. Although the usage of “we” in powerful sentences such as “we should take the heed” and “if we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need” (Klinenberg, 2018) might make the reader feel responsible to act upon what is being said, I think they are not enough to influence the audience, especially because Klinenberg is advocating a change in how public libraries are perceived. His call to action would have been much more powerful has he emphasized our signifcant role in making the change. The appeal of pathos, if executed properly, emotionally stimulates the audience in a way that they would be more likely to accept the claims and act upon what is requested by the author (Dlugan, 2010). Moreover, Klinenberg involves himself in the narrative when he uses the first-person point of view. Although personal experiences may not be as reliable as facts and statistics, the fact that he was involved in ethnographic research in libraries in New York City makes his experiences more credible. His credibility allows the reader to engage more when he attempts to appeal to their emotions. Together with strong ethos and logos, pathos can have a major and a powerful influence on the audience.

Klinenberg’s article builds a solid argument on how public libraries should be appreciated and supported because they serve as a bedrock of civility. Although cynics may claim that public libraries have lost their value and no longer need reinforcement, it is our responsibility to stand up for our community, which is in need of the privileges that public libraries offer. We need to preserve the openness and the diversity that these libraries provide, as they are essential tools for building our cultural knowledge and cultivating professional and interpersonal skills. We have to acknowledge the fact that these libraries exist as physical spaces that allow us to interact with people of all ages and social class, without any discrimination.

One Comment Add yours

  1. I personally feel hard copy of books than e books. May be the feel of holding a book is much different.

    Like

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