According to the bipartisan standards by which political “truths” are measured and spoon-fed to us, truth has come to sound more like something to aspire to rather than a lived, tangible reality. If you are like the average person, surfing the internet feels like a part of being alive. You might feel as if you’re always consuming a lot of information (primarily tweets and scandals rather than Dostoyevsky), but nevertheless, reading is a part of your day.
Especially given the ubiquity of the internet amid the ongoing pandemic, one can assume that many Americans have spent even more time with their thoughts hovering in virtual space than they did before. And, that’s in a world which unapologetically centered the internet during pre-pandemic times.
As someone who relied on libraries as sanctuaries of focus before quarantine, I had to implement huge adjustments in order to focus at home. More than that, I simply yearned for the feeling of holiness that would pass over me as I opened a hard-bound book from a time period that lapsed before I was born. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce anything close to it in quarantine, and indeed I have not.
In direct opposition to a work of writing that is developed over many weeks, months and sometimes years, social media, like advertising, is constantly being run through a machine of algorithms and analytics. So, what are we missing? Reading “for pleasure” is more than a pastime — the slow simmering of processing what we read can become a catalyst for the mind’s steady growth. It is also a portal through which knowledge can be tested; that is, if we are granted access to that knowledge in the first place.
I’d like to make an abrupt suggestion, which is that we make a cultural shift toward an idea that isn’t so new after all: We should center the library as a mainstay of public life. Libraries are so much more than spaces filled with materials for personal consumption. Even in today’s era of rampant dis- and misinformation, libraries are still considered to be trusted, boasted public institutions.
During an extremely scary, uncertain fall semester when no one knew with any degree of certainty that America’s democracy would remain intact, it felt as if a constant swarm of information was flowing through my brain each day. It happened regardless of whether I wanted it to or not. Like many of you, I was confined to my apartment, which I often resented. I continuously engaged in what has been referred to as “doomscrolling” (or, in an extension of that same modern parlance, “doomsurfing”).
Doomscrolling felt like the only form of control I was able to exercise over the entrapment of those circumstances; I engaged in it more so as a mechanism for distraction. As we are all aware now as we were back then, there was no control to be exercised at all, by any one of us, over anything. Well, outside of the act of stepping into the voting booth — maybe even waiting in impossibly long lines to exercise our right to vote.
But then I remembered something else that has stuck with me throughout the pandemic-induced lockdown. Despite how the shuttering of libraries feels neutral, I realized that the continuous pang of absence resulting from my inability to step foot in a campus library was more than a deeply personal experience — it was the revelation of wanting to salvage the social purposes of the public library. More specifically, I remembered an op-ed in the New York Times penned by Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University professor, titled, “How Libraries Can Save the 2020 Election.” I recall being struck immediately by the content of the article at the time that I happened across it.
While citing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s decision to remove or cripple key components of America’s mail system right before the election, Klinenberg posits the importance of libraries for collective use and remedy. He writes that “there is a largely overlooked part of the civic infrastructure that is ready and able to help Americans exercise the franchise [of voting], even under these troubling circumstances: libraries.”
Immediately after reading that sentence, I pondered my own experience with the libraries of my youth — one of living inside the articulations of time-worn fonts within the concrete walls of my elementary school’s library. I recalled nostalgically that this childhood library had shelves lining the middle of the school building, and that students would walk past the bindings when going anywhere. I remembered that sometimes, when I was bored in class, I would steal away to these shelves while “going to the bathroom” so that I could read.
I also recalled James Baldwin discussing the fact that he read in his local libraries not out of a sense of boredom, but as an avenue for fighting against the limitations imposed upon him by the outside world — a world that certainly did not want him to succeed or flourish. Due to how Baldwin was a young Black man in Harlem during the 1960s, an era when the white status quo politicians aimed to viciously and purposefully oppress Black intellectuals, his life circumstances seemed to foreclose the possibility of the success he would so memorably achieve. However, while in conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Baldwin revealed that he’d read himself out of two Harlem libraries by the time he was thirteen.
Baldwin also explained to Mead that what he “had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around [him].” As far as the latter goes, I see many disturbing holdovers from the 60s when Baldwin was honing his craft. Predominantly Black schools in Detroit, Mich., are grossly underfunded due to, among other things, neglect resulting from demographic shifts related to white flight. What this ultimately means is that students from underfunded school districts have less overall opportunity to capitalize on something as intellectually essential as access to literature — a dearth of money translates easily in this case to a dearth of access.
One conspicuous connection that can be made here is that one known tool for remedying a particular social malady — that of the problem of access to reading material in schools with Black, Indigenous and other students of color — can be used to remedy another urgent problem of access. Public libraries are the systems by which knowledge and opportunities to exercise civil rights can be fairly distributed. We must commit to maintaining and expanding access through the stacks and shelves outside of the University of Michigan community.
Libraries are clearly an ideal starting point for improving access to both civic-minded activities and high-quality literature for historically underfunded, neglected communities. They always have been, and always will be.
Sierra Élise Hansen is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.