By Colby King
A few years ago I wrote about mail as a social infrastructure. I relied on a book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg Houses for the people: how social infrastructure can help tackle inequality, polarization and the decline of civic life, in which he defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape human interaction” (p. 5). I recently saw a vivid illustration of how Klinenberg’s original theme, libraries, function as social infrastructure, and I want to share the story and discuss its context.
My wife and I take our daughters, who are 5 years and 21 months old, to the local public library and borrow books. Our old man was especially happy about it. She finds a new book from Princess in black series at each visit.
On a recent weekend afternoon, I took both kids to our neighborhood playground. Among the kids on the playground was a girl just a few years older than our 5-year-old, who really wants to hang out with the older girls because she thinks they’re cool and knowledgeable and wants to learn everything she can. from them. This older girl was friendly with her and they ran around the playground while I pushed the baby on the swing.
They went up the stairs to the slide and my daughter noticed that the older girl had left the book she had brought on the stairs. She recognized that the tag on the spine meant the book was from the library and excitedly asked, “Oh, what’s that library book?”
The older girl explained that this was a section for older children. “Is it about a mermaid?” asked the daughter, noticing the mermaid on the cover. “Yes,” explained the older child. “It is called Emily Windsnap’s tail and it’s part of a series.”
The daughter asked more questions about the series, how much the older girl had read, and how often she went to the library. She asked enough questions about the book that she convinced this older girl to sit on the playground and read the first chapter of the book to her. She was impressed. After finishing reading the chapter, the older woman promised that she would return it to the library when she finished so that her daughter could borrow it.
Their interaction showed a lot about how libraries function as social infrastructure. A library tag on the back of a book was a marker of what was cool and interesting. A shared appreciation of a library book helped both children bond. Their plan to have my daughter retrieve a book when an older child returns it reveals how the library functions as a center of community life.
This interaction occurred during a contentious debate over library books. In a scene that has become nationally known, last December in Pineville, Oregon, concerned residents spoke at a meeting urging the Crook County Library to flag LGBTQ-related books and remove them from the children’s section. Last summer, more than 200 community members attended the Ashland Public Library Board meeting in Ashland, Ohio. Concerned participants described some library books as pornographic and said the books should be moved to the “parents’ shelf” or removed from the library. The chairwoman of the library board explained that the publisher and library staff consider the identified books to be health books and explained that those books are not kept in children’s fiction or playgrounds. The board chair also explained that they expect parents or other guardians to be with children when they browse the library.
The American Library Association reported that last year saw a record number of attempts to ban or restrict books across the country. Last spring, that debate arose in Greenville County, South Carolina, which is Spartanburg’s neighbor to the west. The Greenville County GOP has passed a resolution calling on the county council to move books they believe contain “sexually charged” content from the children’s section of county libraries to the adult section. One problem as stated Greenville Newsis that “there is no sexually explicit material in the children’s section of any Greenville County Library branch.”
Recognizing trends in these and other incidents, a coalition of educational organizations, civil rights groups, religious institutions and others gathered here in South Carolina last fall to commit to free speech and the free exchange of ideas, including the League of Women Voters and South Carolina. The ACLU founded Freedom to Read SC. Josh Malkin, director of the ACLU of SC, has been involved in this effort, as has the Greenville Library Freedom Advocacy Group (FLAG), whose members have been working consistently since last year to resist censorship efforts at the Greenville County Library. Despite some success last fall, Josh suggested on local news that censorship efforts are likely to continue. They continued. This spring, a year after the resolution, the Materials Committee of the Greenville County Library System has now voted in favor of a proposal to limit access to transgender-themed material.
A friend told me last week that community members plan to speak at the Spartanburg County Library Board meeting to raise similar concerns about materials at our local library. Notice of the meeting in Post and courier noted that 11 people spoke during the 30 minutes for public comment. Four speakers asked for the books to be moved, using many of the arguments seen elsewhere. Seven speakers asked to leave the books.
Among them was Amberlyn Boiter, who is the president of PFLAG Spartanburg and the board of the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network. Amberlyn was born and raised here in South Carolina and has a two year old daughter. In her comments, Amberlyn noted that her daughter “…has two moms, and one of those moms is transgender. It’s not age or sexuality inappropriate, just who her parents are. Additionally, she explained, “If you’re transferring books that have characters like members [my daughter’s] family, you tell her that her family needs to be hidden.
I was among the seven who spoke to keep the books. I spoke about the need to protect public institutions. I shared my feeling that segregating materials would be censorship. I argued that our public libraries must be rich, diverse, and reflective of our community in order to serve our community well. I then shared a story about my daughter on the playground making friends and building community through their shared interest in a library book. We have been dismissed while the board continues to meet and are waiting to see if any action is taken. Our social worlds are separate and often polarized, but social infrastructure, like public libraries, helps us overcome these dilemmas. Illustrating this, Klinenberg recently pointed out to this piece The New York Times. collected photographs taken at libraries in seven states, documenting “the smoke and rumble of buildings that were once famous for silence.” As Klinenberg explained in his book, “Social infrastructure is extremely important because local, face-to-face interaction—at school, on the playground, and at the corner diner—is the foundation of all public life” (p. 5). ).
Photo courtesy of the author
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