Almost 60 years ago, Charles Tiebout put forth a theory of political economy that individuals select where live by the mix of services provided and costs associated with them. People may move, vote with their feet, when their requirements are no longer met. Through the 20th century, “regular” folk often included in that mix good local schools, libraries and houses of worship, nearby transportation (either roadways or public), and ready access to groceries, drugstores, hardware stores and clothing stores. Jobs were sought, houses purchased and families raised based on these choices, the localities that provided the governmental services and the costs to attain the whole package.
As our wireless connectivity has increased, many of these interpersonal and neighborhood connections have loosened considerably. Telecommuting makes employment possible across time zones and offices are in guest rooms. Children are as likely to go to magnet schools, charter schools, private schools or be home-schooled as they are to attend the school around the corner. And for many, the UPS or FedEx driver is the regular face of the clothing/hardware/sundries purveyor. Even the general practitioner has been supplanted by the clinic-in-the-drugstore or urgent care center. There are gains in breadth of choice, competitive pricing and the flexibility to shop on our own schedules wearing (or not) whatever we may please. These conveniences and changes come at another price, a widening disconnect from our neighbors, neighborhood and the larger physical community in which we live. Person to person interaction can be messy but it does keep us human.
And then there is the library. The modern public library is now a mash-up of our new technological life and the classic community center. Think about it for a minute, where else in the community can you regularly find people of every age and (dis)ability. There are voracious readers, pre-readers and those aspiring to read with literacy training in the library. Those without home computers checking email, purchasing health insurance or looking for jobs. During school hours there are storytimes for pre-schoolers and discussion groups. From opening to close people search newspapers, thumb through books and ask librarians some of the craziest things. After school there are students looking for a quiet and safe place to do homework or meet with a tutor. Newcomers to the area or to the US seek out connections in their new home and touch base with the home they left. And there is basic civics- tax forms, voter registration information and materials on government services – all in one place.
As a home to everyone, the library is far from a panacea. The doors are open to all causing librarians to serve as peacekeepers or social workers at times. Libraries may serve as a daytime refuge for those who live in shelters or an escape from an abusive family member. It may be the primary social contact for someone living alone. Changing times and changing needs require a balancing act between unfettered access and patron safety.
At its best the modern library reaches far beyond its doors or mobile vans. It has an identifiable presence with online information channels as diverse as the people who walk through the brick and mortar doors of the traditional building. Occasional system crashes are a reminder of how dependent we have become on the 24-hour “virtual” library for audio and e-books, catalog searches, transactions and online databases. They are great additions to the many library services but can’t replace the assistance of a trained librarian and the experience of wandering through the stacks.
Now let’s go back for a minute to the idea of people choosing the mix of goods and services that define community. Over the last few years Little Free Libraries have been popping up in front yards or in neighborhood common spaces. Expressing the personality and at times the skills of the founder, each is a “take a book, leave a book” means of connecting one neighbor to another. As simple as a box or elaborate as an architectural mini-gem, each invites connection and elicits smiles from passersby. We may be spending more time attached to a device than connecting to our neighbors but every visit to the library, or exchange at a Little Free Library, reconnects us with our neighbors. Tiny Free Libraries are only one way new expressions of community are popping up in our neighborhoods. Watch for more in this space in the months to come.