The Why | Editorial

Those working in libraries think a lot about the who, what, where, when, and how involved in the day-to-day operations. Sometimes, there’s even a chance to think about the why. It can be hard to take time to step back and do so, but it’s worth it, especially when the stakes are high and change is fast and furious. And thinking about why libraries are so important has me considering social cohesion, the glue of a thriving society.

Libraries strengthen our social fabric

Rebecca Miller head shotThose working in libraries think a lot about the who, what, where, when, and how involved in the day-to-day operations. Sometimes, there’s even a chance to think about the why. It can be hard to take time to step back and do so, but it’s worth it, especially when the stakes are high and change is fast and furious. And thinking about why libraries are so important has me considering social cohesion, the glue of a thriving society.

I am among the many inspired by Eric Klinenberg’s important Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Crown), which identifies and develops insights into the vital importance of libraries as key social infrastructure. One of the studies that inspired his ideas showed that social cohesion can make a drastic difference to a neighborhood’s resilience in the face of disaster even when other variables, such as poverty, are stacked against it—and that robust local institutions make a meaningful difference to how much cohesion a community displays. If you haven’t read his work yet, do, and then be sure to share it with your civic leaders. And if you are in Washington, DC, for the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Meeting, take the time to hear him in conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (Sat., June 22, 3-4 p.m. at the convention center). I’ll be there, and am eager to hear how these two will deepen and extend the conversation for the field and beyond.

One can’t say the word why these days without a nod to Simon Sinek, whose Start with Why (Portfolio) continues to shape creative approaches, leadership, and organizational design. His insight about working outward from a core purpose informed the New York Library Association (NYLA) Sustainability Initiative, of which I am a co-creator. In fact, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, (executive director of the Mid-Hudson Library System, LJ’s Sustainability columnist, and so much more) and I will be touching upon it at the Next Library conference this month in Denmark in our workshop “Scaling Social Cohesion: Co-Creating Library-Led Community Resilience.” The title itself puts the goal—the why—first. As social infrastructure gets more and more compromised, with more to come as the effects of global warming accelerate, we’re focused on how to support social cohesion and where libraries can fit into that critical work. We have some ideas, but think a co-creation approach can provide breakthrough insights we can all use. Stay tuned to find out what we learn.

To see how social cohesion is supported by great library work, look no further than the impressive array of initiatives from the LA County Library, the 2019 Gale/LJ Library of the Year. Creating a more equitable society is the why underpinning the library’s shift in service delivery under director Skye Patrick’s leadership, and this fosters richer connections across the community.

As in LA County, libraries across the country are stepping up as a critical, unifying force, making a difference every day in cities and towns large and small. The internal and external pressure to step into emerging gaps while remaining on mission, however, can conflict with past practice, calling on library leaders to reflect and reinvent.

We decided to dig into the challenge and opportunity of libraries fostering social cohesion at the upcoming LJ Directors’ Summit. Designed to address the theme “A House United: Strengthening the Social Fabric,” the event will, suitably, be held November 7-8 at the central library of the Tulsa City-County Library, one of the winners of the 2018 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards for its design and revitalization of a civic center. While there, we’ll reflect on the why, and learn about the positive outcomes of embracing the challenges presented by a pressurized social infrastructure. Thinking in terms of social cohesion, we’ll share rich examples of just how libraries are embracing the opportunity to foster communities that are more resilient and interconnected.

In a sense, it’s the year of thinking about the power of libraries to be the glue that unites our communities. Let’s showcase and speed that important contribution.

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Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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