On Civil Society | Eric Klinenberg: Palaces for the People | Sept 11, 2019

Eric Klinenberg: They don’t have any more
claim to the computer or to the table or to the bathroom as the person who’s the most
down on their luck. And there’s not a lot of places in our society
where that’s the case anymore. And so, in a way, the library is part of the
reality principle that I think we all need to observe. It reminds us of what kind of world we’ve
built and I think it helps us to remember what it means to try to organize a civil society
where we all have a chance. [music] Zahra Ebrahim: I wanted to start with, in the
process of putting this book together, what was most surprising as you sort of pulled
together all of your research over the years, and you’re putting this language to it, what
was most surprising or disarming? EK: Well, thank you for that, it’s a nice
introduction and I wanna say, before we get into it, that I’m really excited to be here. I’ve never been in this building before. This is a gorgeous public space. ZE: This is our agora. EK: It is an agora. I’m a little blown away by just all of this,
it’s really extraordinary. And I kinda wanna just sneak off stage and
go snoop around, but I’m gonna have to do that another time. ZE: Wait, shall we turn this into a [01:22]
____? EK: That would be fun. So I really am excited to have this day in
Toronto, I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. And as to your question about the surprise,
you’re gonna think I’m just kind of playing to the audience here. But the truth is, you know how there’s people
who grow up in libraries and they have these amazing library stories, and you ask like,
Oh, tell me about the book that you associate with the library or a librarian or something
you discovered there and you find that people just have these amazing life stories that… Anyone here have a library… Remember, anyone here remember getting their
first library card? I’m just curious, a lot of people are like,
you associate some book with the library or something you discovered, anyone have an experience
like that? EK: I have nothing like that in my memory. I was not that kid in any way at all. I grew up in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. And we had a kind of eviscerated public infrastructure. The city was broke, everybody with money was
leaving. Public institutions were in a horrible disarray
and so the library was not really a part of my life. And the idea for writing this book about social
infrastructure really came, I think you hinted at it, because when I wrote my first book,
this book about a heat wave disaster in Chicago, the thing I paid a lot of attention to is
the way that the social infrastructure of neighborhoods shape people’s capacity to live
well or to survive really big catastrophic situations, so the kind of blockbuster finding
in the book was that there are all these really poor and vulnerable neighborhoods in Chicago
and many kind of looked identical demographically, but it turned out that there were widely varying
experiences that they had during this crisis. EK: And the thing that really determined who
would live and who would die was the quality of what I came to think of as social infrastructure,
like the gathering places, gathering places for your… Physical places where people interact. And I decided to write a book about this idea
and really at some point, I thought to myself, I have to have one big institution, one big
place that’s like the spine of the book, that crystallizes what the best kind of social
infrastructure looks like. And it was through a search for that, that
I came to the library as that place, and I hadn’t really expected it, so I wound up spending
pretty much every day for a year, in different public libraries, not grand ones like this,
but more like the kind of branch libraries. EK: And honestly, the biggest surprise, and
it was a revelation, is just how lively and dynamic and adaptive the library is as an
institution. Because I think I was like many of the people
in the world who think of it as, who used to think of it as a somewhat antiquated institution,
and is this extraordinary discovery for me. So, I know for some people who have been spending
time in libraries, a lot of that might not be the most exciting insight, but for me,
it was extraordinary, and it led to a kind of a sharpening of this language and argument
about the value of not just places, but also public goods more generally. ZE: Well, just it did make me think about
some of the… When some of my favorite people across the
city started saying, “Have you read this book, have you read this book, have you read this
book?” I noticed what a diverse group it was, so
the first time, it wasn’t just the community development folk, it wasn’t just the planners,
it wasn’t just the tech entrepreneurs, it was everyone saying, “Have you read this book?” ZE: And what surprised me or what I was intrigued
by was I was thinking about this builds on conversations that have been happening in
planning and community development, the Jacobsian mindset around eyes on the street, this sort
of brings a lot of that together, and a lot of what you talk in the book about is still
sort of capital P public institutions, so the library, the park, some of the publicly
funded and governed spaces. ZE: Has it at all, have you at all had interactions
with community development folks or folks working at the grassroots level who are leading
some of the infrastructure development? You talk a little bit about it around the
parks project, so I was interested to hear about what the feedback you’ve been getting
from the community development folks or the sort of non-capital I institutional. EK: Yeah, very much, and I would say one of
the fun things for me about the last year, ’cause this… Just so you know, the paperback of the book
that they have over there literally came out yesterday. This is the first event I’ve done, so it’s
like I’ve been living with this book for a year now, but this is like the second, this
kind of second round is… So this is where we’re launching the paperback
to have these conversations, and it’s been fun to see all the different kinds of actors
and institutions that are interested. So that means everyone from national governments
that are thinking about how do you do planning and society building and civil society rebuilding,
thinking about social infrastructure as a critical kind of infrastructure, as significant
as the infrastructure for transit or for communication, what happens to the way we think about planning,
if we do social infrastructure seriously, but also in our neighborhood organizations,
or small businesses that are trying to think about how they can create a gathering place. EK: And so, I have had those conversations
and I think the concept lends itself to small-scale development. I was just reading an article about a group
of young people in their 20s in Somerville, Massachusetts who decided that they wanted
to have a better gathering place in their neighborhood and it wasn’t being provided
by local government, and so they wanted to start some kind of small organization that
could be a hub where people could come together. And it’s tricky when you do that with a business
because… And there was a really nice article in the
Globe and Mail that kinda went over this a little bit today. But as wonderful as a coffee shop can be as
a social infrastructure, there’s still a price of admission, right? You still have to have, “No, I think I just
paid $6 for this very delicious coffee in the library.” EK: And that’s a lot of money for a
cup of coffee. And there’s some commercial sector operators
that wanna be gathering places, but the way they signal to people outside the door who’s
welcome and who’s not welcome, it’s pretty apparent, right? And of course, you probably read the story
about the Starbucks in Philadelphia last year that didn’t kick out two African-American
guys whose friend was late, they arrested them for sitting at the table for 10 minutes. And so, commercial and non-profits can work
really well, but they have to be accessible. And so I think that’s one reason why in the
book, I love Jane Jacobs and I don’t wanna say anything critical about Jane Jacobs at
all in this city of, or adopted city of hers. I’m like, “What are they… ” ZE: It’s her city, it’s her city. EK: It’s her city, for sure. I think the difference between the emphasis
in my book, and the emphasis in her great book is that I’m really trying to point to
the role of the state and to this importance of the public sector for supporting gathering
places and institutions. Unlike her, I have less confidence in the
market to just deliver the things that we need. And I’m betting, I don’t know if this is true,
but I’m betting, if she were around today and she could watch some of the things that
have happened in her old neighborhood, in New York, in Greenwich Village where I live,
that she would probably have a different view too. ZE:Yeah, and that was actually gonna be my
next question. I think there’s something about… I’m always trying to look at these things
with a scrutinizing lens because I, like you, am n evangelist for social infrastructure. I really do believe in it, I’ve been part
of it. And I remember early in my career, one of
the distinctions I made between the human right to housing, because I was working in
the architecture and planning space, was that architecture is a human right, that beautiful,
dignified space, not just any place to live, but a place that is dignified, is as much
a human right as shelter is. And so that part of the thesis really resonated
with me. ZE: The part that I wanna resolve and understand
is these social infrastructures that exist in our cities and neighborhoods outside of
the core, in the case of Toronto, largely got degraded because of state divestment,
because of racism, because of white flight, because of all those different things. And so you touch on it a little bit in the
book, in the example about the pools, which was very vivid and I appreciated that. But I’d love to dive a little bit deeper into
that. Your trust and faith in the state to not repeat
some of the patterns that got us to this degradation of our social infrastructure in the first
place. EK: So I don’t think it’s a kind of blind
trust and faith. It’s more like… ZE: Yeah, yeah, optimism. EK: The state. Well, no, it’s more that I think the state
is something that we as citizens can act on, we can make demands if we organize, for not
just the construction of accessible spaces. I can’t make that demand of the private sector,
like Starbucks doesn’t care so much what I have to say about how they design their space
or organize it, right? But I can, I have the capacity, and we collectively
have the capacity to make a claim on the state. So it feels to me like it’s available as a
target for civic action in a way that the private sector is not, and so… And it also has resources. And it’s now, our governments are using their
resources in ways that I don’t really support, subsidizing fossil fuel industry, for instance,
but other things as well. EK: In my country, the big issue is the military,
and giving back money to very wealthy people. So it feels to me like it’s important to call
out the state for what it can do and also to organize on it. But I wanna say one thing, and this is really
crucial, it’s not just about building and designing things that are beautiful and work
well, although I share your view that those things are important. One thing that’s really important, and I think
that we don’t talk about enough is the importance of maintenance. Talk about boring, but talk about significant. I mean, what does it mean to maintain a public
park, or to maintain a library? So you keep it up well. EK: And I say this as someone like who, again,
I grew up in a de-industrializing American city that was once extraordinarily prosperous,
that fell apart, and that managed to revive itself through, in some way, rebuilding public
infrastructure, but maintenance is crucial. And it’s not sexy to talk about maintenance,
it’s very sexy to talk about design, but maintenance… And then also, and I think this is especially
important to talk about in the context of a library or a swimming pool, programming. Programming means the design of activities,
and it also means human resources, it means human staff, it means jobs, people. And so while we’re all sitting together gathered
in a library today, let’s all pay attention to this incredible design, but let’s also
look around at the librarians who are here, not getting especially wealthy, I think, right? ZE: It’s super different in Toronto. EK: To do it. You do have very wealthy librarians, they’re
like bankers in New York City, I know, yeah. ZE: Yeah, basically, basically. EK: So, I’m just thinking about the HBO television
show about the cabal of librarians who are running Toronto. But the value of librarians to program a place,
to make decisions about who’s welcome and who is not welcome, if anyone is not welcome,
or to provide help and guidance, to do programs that keep people stimulated. A lot of my field work for this book took
place in these neighborhoods in New York City that are incredibly diverse, but that have
a lot of ethnic and linguistic segmentation or class segmentation once you get inside
of it. So if you have librarians who specialize in
working with young people and their families and are committed to making the story time
multilingual, so you go to story time in the morning, and we’re talking about kids who
are two, three, four years old, and you tell the story in English but also in Mandarin
and also in Spanish, that changes the room. EK: Now you’re creating an opportunity for
people to come together, who might not come together just on the playground. And I can’t tell you how many relationships
I saw develop because two caretakers share a smile because their kids do something cute
and then that turns into a play date, which then turns into something else. And those relationships are really important. Or, you talked about human dignity. So I think… One of the debates that comes up often in
cities where I give talks is what happens now that the library has become this kind
of place of last resort, because we have so many holes in the safety net. You know, the people who are homeless or who
suffer from substance abuse problems, or unemployed or have, struggle with mental illness come
to the library as a safe haven. And how does that change the dynamic? And I think, first of all, those are also
people. And they deserve a place too, right? EK: And we haven’t exactly built cities in
the private sector to accommodate them. But also, it’s not the building, it’s not
only the building that conveys that sense of dignity to someone who’s down on their
luck, it’s also the librarian who maintains the dignity of that person by smiling and
interacting with them and treating them as just as much a human being with just as much
a right to the table as everyone else. And that was an amazing thing that I experienced
so many times going to branch libraries in New York City, where there are kind of high-end
professionals who use it as a free WeWork space, you know? ZE: There’s a few of them here right now. EK: Yeah, and they don’t have any more claim
to the computer or to the table or to the bathroom as the person who’s the most down
on their luck. And there’s not a lot of places in our society
where that’s the case anymore. And so, in a way, the library is part of the
reality principle that I think we all need to observe. It reminds us of what kind of world we’ve
built, and I think it helps us to remember what it means to try to organize a civil society
where we all have a chance. ZE: Yeah, it has been part of the discussion
around this book. You talked about social capital in the book. And to me, what you’re talking about is… Part of that is the programming sort of feeds
our social capital and feeds our capacity to develop it. Someone asked me a question this morning about
the degree to which we think that modernism notoriously failed because people vote with
their feet and these spaces, though beautiful, didn’t elicit a sense of belonging for folks,
and so there was a level of sort of social, of nudging that needed to happen to signal
to people that they could appropriate the space as theirs. ZE: One of the things, so I’m fully with you
on programming. The other thing that I love and because I
identify as an introvert, I really love to the… EK: You’re an introvert? ZE: I’m an introvert. EK: There’s not a single person in this room
who thinks you’re an introvert. ZE: I know that. It’s… I’m working on it… I’m working on communicating with more precision
like you. But one of the things that I was really struck
by in the book where it reminded me of was that, the thing I love about the library is
that I can have unprogrammed, unprogrammed, ungoverned time with people. I have a degree of autonomy in terms of choosing
how to… How and where to direct my energy, and I can
do nothing around everyone else. And so I think there’s… For me, there’s an interesting dynamic about
the library, which is… And the other part of it was that thinking… I loved the question, libraries don’t ask
you, librarians don’t ask you, “Why are you doing that?” There’s no judgment in your choices. And so, to me, I’m interested in exploring
with you sort of the dynamic between… I do think the programming is really important,
days like today, that bring us together. I also think that it liberates us from coming
together with people for only a program, and that’s part of what I found so interesting. EK: That’s right. I think part of the program of the library
is the openness to discover, right? That there are all these different places
that you can go, and that the library staff, and again I don’t know the Toronto situation
with the Canadian library world as well as I know the American and the US library world,
this kind of respect for the dignity of persons which includes commitment to non-surveillance,
commitment to privacy. You’re, I think, invoking a conversation I
have with… There’s a character in the book, a woman named
Sharon, who wrote about, or who told me about in our interview her experience growing up
in the library. EK: Her parents did expect her to go spend
her afternoons in the library, and she said one of the things that was really remarkable
about her, she was quite precocious, she wanted to become the Dean of the Humanities at Columbia
University, and so she was a real, a real reader, but the librarians never judged her. When she would ask, “How do I find films from
the 1930s?” No one ever asked her, “Why do you wanna know
that?” It was just, “How can I help you?” And that was a remarkable thing. And there’s something else that she said,
and some of the other people I interviewed said for this book, and that is that, remember
I asked you a few minutes ago, how many of you remember getting your first library card? EK: The thing about library, getting this
card as a young person, and I got to see a lot of young people getting their first library
cards. I did a photo essay with this incredible photographer
named Joey O’Loughlin that was in Slate. And you should look at it if you haven’t seen
those photographs, ’cause there’s some photos of kids getting their library cards for the
first time. But one of the things that’s so extraordinary
about that moment is, for many of us, it’s the first time that we… That first of all, that we are recognized
as individuals with our own capacity to make choices and to program ourselves by figuring
out what we wanna read or watch. So when you get that library card, you’re
being kind of officially acknowledged by the government and by society in some way, and
that’s an amazing thing. EK: But you’re also getting incorporated into
our ideas about what it means to be in civil society, what it means to be in a community,
to use a kind of fuzzy and vague word, because you go and explore and you pick, you know,
the first Harry Potter book. And you start to read it, but you learn also
that you have to return the Harry Potter book in a few weeks, you should take good care
of it, because there’s another girl who’s waiting to get the copy of Harry Potter when
you’re finished with it. So you feel the sense of both the generosity
that we as society are capable of, but also the obligation, responsibility that comes
with that. EK: And then you also have a self-interest,
because you get halfway through Harry Potter and you can’t wait for the second book, and
you know that your only chance of getting access to the second book of Harry Potter
is if the girl who’s got Harry Potter now returns it on time as well. So there’s a way in which that kind of individual
programming leads us into this path towards recognizing ourselves as a member of something,
as members of something larger than our own private lives. And I just can’t think of a place in our world
today that does that better than the library. And so when I wrote that article in the New
York Times that was about… If we wanna restore democracy, start with
the library. EK: That is really the spirit of this, that
we are really in a crisis of democracy, it’s not just true in the United States, it’s true
globally, we have a crisis of democracy, things that we took for granted, I think, until just
a few years ago are suddenly up for grabs, and we’re seeing the kind of rise of authoritarianism
all over the place. And so for me, it’s not that I’m so glib as
to think that if we just build more libraries, if we just designed them better, that we’re
going to do it, but I think we have a really urgent project of figuring out how we’re going
to revive this kind of democratic spirit and this commitment to open societies that made
places like Toronto and Canada what they are, and I don’t see how we do that if we don’t
begin with the library. Because it doesn’t get better than this. ZE: I think we all, I think a good portion
of us sitting in this room would probably agree with that. I think, you said private lives that I just,
it reminded me of the moment in the book where the librarian says, “You have to work really
hard to get kicked out.” And I appreciated that… EK: I can attest to that, having spent a lot
of time in libraries. You really have to work hard to get kicked
out of a library. FS: Well, and then it’s… To me, it made me think of how we witness
moments, very private moments in public at a library. And that’s the other part of it too is that
you witnessed someone having a really difficult day and you’re co-existing with that even
if you’re not engaged with it. And it’s one of the few places in our lives
where a more kaleidoscopic range of emotions and experiences are side by side. I think that privacy, like you were talking
about surveillance, but I also think just witnessing a more broader spectrum of people’s
emotions and lived experiences, I think, is such a beautiful part of it. EK: Yeah, so I’m glad you picked up on that. So two things I wanna say about this. One is that, as you know, there is… Some of you might have seen this thing a couple
of years ago, there was an article in Forbes that came out, and this economist wrote that
the library is obsolete as an institution, and he said until you show me the cost benefit
analysis that identifies the public benefit from investing in libraries, I think we should
knock them all down and replace them with Amazon stores. He literally wrote that, right, at first I
thought… ZE: Counting to three. EK: Well, I thought it was some friend of
trolling me online, ’cause they knew I was writing this book, but it turned out it was
real, and I think he was really expressing something that is in the zeitgeist of the
moment, especially for very affluent communities, and I think this is an issue for libraries,
that there are a lot of people who run the biggest businesses and have degrees from the
fanciest universities and they even run our big philanthropies and they certainly are
running our government in the United States today, and they are opting out of the public
realm by using the marketplace. And they are, they’re saying, I don’t need
to go the library because I have Amazon, I don’t need a shared space because I have my
country club or I have Starbucks or something like that. EK: And here is a way in which the incredible
ascent of the marketplace and of the market as the place that governs us and takes care
of our needs actually hurts public institutions like libraries, because what happens is as
elites stop coming to our shared places, as they build private infrastructures for themselves,
and this carries into, by the way, the private airplanes and the Ubers and Lyfts and all
these things, as elites move out of this kind of shared public realm, they then both disparage
what we have here, and also make moves to try to pull support from it, show me the cost
benefit analysis and if you can’t, replace them with an Amazon store. EK: And so one of the things that I wanted
to do in the book is just document how vital and essential social infrastructure, shared
gathering places, including libraries, are for the 99% of us. And I really think that one of the problems
we have right now in the way that we make allocations of resources is that too many
of our thought leaders and elites don’t recognize what happens in places like libraries every
day. And it really seems to me, it became an urgent
project for me to tell the story of what you find when you walk into cities like Toronto
and the branch libraries and the main libraries on a daily basis. EK: And by the way, in terms of this Forbes
story, just because I don’t wanna leave you on that. What happened after this Forbes article came
out, it was kind of amazing. The librarians of the world united and they
got on to Twitter and they started posting these incredibly eloquent testimonies about
the things that happen in libraries, like more early literacy than anywhere else, more
English as a second language than any other public institution. In the US, more citizenship classes, companionship
for older people. Free WiFi access. There are libraries in New York City that
lend people outfits that they can wear to job interviews. The libraries in Berkeley lend out tools and
seeds. EK: It’s an incredible set of things that
happen in libraries. And they just started writing these things
one after the next. And they were so amazing that within 24 hours
Forbes took the article down, they literally brought it down, right? And I’ve come to think of this as the only
good thing that’s ever happened on Twitter, right? But I got really excited, I got really carried
away about my excitement, I was like, “Oh… ” ‘Cause I do think there’s this thing happening
in the world right now, and I’m sure you can relate to it, where on the one hand you wake
up and you think, “Oh, my God, we’re doomed. We have 12 years to reduce our carbon footprint
and we might not even have democracy. God knows what’s gonna happen.” EK: But then on the other hand, there’s all
this incredibly good stuff happening. This like energy and enthusiasm and social
movements that really are very promising. And so, I don’t know if you, can you relate
to me at all on this, I can’t tell, you kinda go back and forth between these things. So I, so I just gotta get excited, and then
I realized, “Oh, I should go through this thought experiment,” that I wanna ask you
to do this thought experiment with me, because I think it’s really useful to do. EK: So, imagine for a moment that there is
no such thing as a library. Imagine that the library does not exist, okay,
it’s never been invented, and we are all sitting here today in an Amazon store. So imagine that for a second. And I come to you from New York, and I’ve
got this idea, and I pitch you the concept of the library, and you guys get really excited
about it, and we decide that we’re gonna go to Trudeau and we’re gonna say, “Okay, we’ve
got an idea for you, Prime Minister,” and here’s the pitch we’re gonna make to him together,
okay? Think about as a thought experiment. EK: We’re gonna say, “Okay, dream boat Justin
Trudeau, here’s what we want you to do. We would like you to support with federal,
with public resources, this thing called the library. And we want you to build in every neighborhood
of every city in Canada and in every small town too and suburb, we want you to build
a library, and the library is gonna be this, it’s gonna be a building, it’s gonna be kind
of appropriately sized. Some of them are gonna be giant and have interior
elevators and kinds of windy cool staircases, but others are just gonna be modest little
buildings, that’ll have a few rooms, depending on the size, and inside these libraries, we
are going to have books and films and music and periodicals and arts and crafts, all of
our shared cultural heritage available. And the libraries are gonna be staffed by
public employees paid by the government with our tax payer dollars. These are gonna be magical people, we’ll call
them librarians, their job is gonna be to ask people how they can help and not to judge
and everybody’s gonna be welcome in these libraries. It doesn’t matter what your social class is,
what your race, what your ethnicity is, doesn’t even matter what your age, doesn’t matter
if you’re a citizen.” EK: “Oh, one more thing, by the way, Mr. Trudeau. Everything in the library is going to be free. You can just take them, and let’s just use
an honor system… ” ZE: At that point you might wanna keep saying
Dreamboat Trudeau. EK: “We’ll use an honor system to figure out
whether or not people are gonna bring stuff back.” So imagine today we pitch that to Justin Trudeau,
and the library didn’t exist. As much as you all love this guy, how many
of you think that even Justin Trudeau would say, “Yeah, let’s do that plan.” That one of the things… That would be like one of the craziest ideas
that would ever come out of this room, right? And it’s completely radical, the concept of
the library, and the crazy, crazy thing, the crazy thing about this proposal is that we
already have it. There’s this completely radical and insane
idea that’s already real. And then we have to say, “How is it real? Why did that happen?” EK: And we even have it in the capitalist
utopia of the United States of America, right? This library. And the reason why it happened is because
generations ago, we built up this idea of the public good, and it wasn’t just an idea,
it was a commitment. So we made a collective decision that we would
invest our shared resources, like our tax dollars would go to supporting these public
goods that would be accessible and available to everyone, and we did it because we thought
we wanna have good societies. And a good society means opportunity, it means
decency, it means generosity to the people, not just to the plutocrats, like it means
really using public resources for each other. And we pushed our elected leaders to do it. And we pushed our elected to do it. And so that’s where we have this and the question
for us now, is what’s the legacy that we’re leaving to the people who come next? EK: What are we doing to make sure that the
libraries and institutions like this continue to exist and are better for generations to
come? And I think that’s a burning question that
all of us need to be asking. ZE: Well, and I’m gonna sneak in one more
question before we go out for only one or two audience questions, we’re really sorry,
we’re limited on time, but in the spirit of getting better, we know that progress has
blind spots, and there’s historic evidence of it, and even to use an example, today in
in Toronto, we’re huge advocates for something like lane-way housing, where we turned garages
into small homes or granny suites or additional opportunities to create density. In the way that we are developing it in Toronto,
we’re still figuring out how to not make those who own property just wealthier by being able
to add a secondary suite to their site and adding affordable housing caps to those sites
to make sure they are, they add to our affordability. ZE: So, in progressive efforts, we often have
these blind spots that we trip over, and we know that the libraries are a sacred space
and so much of our social infrastructure is a sacred space, but most certainly we can
do better. So as we sort of transition into the broader
conversation with the audience, I’m wondering, what’s with you, what’s still present with
you when you think about blind spots and opportunities in our social infrastructure that we haven’t
yet addressed, and in this new paradigm, in the new era, as we continue to fight for these
pieces of social infrastructure that really can contribute to our lives, what… EK: That’s a great question, it’s a hard question
and I guess I’ll say two things. First is I went to Helsinki a few months ago
because they built the world’s great new library called the Oodi library, and you should look
at photographs of it, it’s like a floating spaceship right by the train station, it’s
a gorgeous building, and it’s so amazing to see all the things that they have there, everything
cutting-edge and generous and glass everywhere. You feel like you’re floating. But for me, the most impressive thing in the
whole library was the sign on the outside that listed the hours that the place was open. Because the library is open at 8:00 AM, and
it closes at 10:00 PM every day. EK: And on the weekends it’s open at 9:00
AM, and it closes at 9:00 PM. And that’s a story of access, right? And so we actually have some really beautiful
libraries in New York City that are beautifully designed and they’re decently managed and
well-maintained, but they’re closed too much of the time. So I think one of the things I’d really like
to see us do with our social infrastructure is make sure that they’re accessible. I think access is one of the big issues of
our time in general, and when we cut the budget for the library and don’t pay librarians to
work, it means that all of us suffer something. Sundays in New York City used to be the busiest
day for branch libraries, ’cause it’s time for families to be together and to be with
their neighbours. Now in New York City, almost every branch
library is closed on Sunday. Same for late hours. EK: And what that means is if you’re a working
person, who works from 9:00 to 5:00, you don’t really get a chance to use libraries, so I
think that’s one big thing. And I think the other thing I’ll say is, it’s
not enough to just build a place that’s accessible to people who feel like they can go anywhere. We really have to think about how racially
divided and divided by class we have become, and to look for gathering places that will
generate some kind of integration, and that’s where programming again can be very useful,
because sometimes it’s not enough just to build a swimming pool, the story in my book
about the US is like it took a lot of work to try to get people to come together in swimming
pools, because for decades public swimming pools, which are a great social infrastructure,
were racially segregated by law. EK: And if not by law, then by practice. So it’s not enough just to build something,
you have to make it work for everyone. ZE: Great.

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