The Case of Libraries and Civility

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.

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.

3 Comments Add yours

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

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am another who prefers a printed work, I like to be able to read, to pick up and re-read and if I own the book to feel free to make notes on pages. The loss of libraries is regrettable, more so because not only are they repositories for the written word they also serve as places where people can meet and exchange ideas about culture. The assumption that libraries no more than places where people come and go to exchange books is usually made by folks who have never really used a library themselves. Thanks for the article 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As someone who moves to a different country/city at least twice a year, I find libraries extremely important.
    Not only because their existence means that I don’t need to carry too many books with me as I move, but primarily as a first point of contact. At the library, I find out about the local history, about events, about social, political, environmental and cultural programs. The library is a place of knowledge and exchange.
    And almost always when I visit a library, I notice a librarian or other staff member helping someone in need, be it with computer lessons, with writing a CV, or telling them which agency they can contact for help. It’s like a low-barrier first stop for many people.


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