Skip to content ‘Palaces for the People’ frames libraries as vital civic hubs – The Seattle Public Library Foundation
Penguin Random House

Foundation donor and Legacy Society member Janet Daggatt writes book reviews that are often published in The Readers Exchange. Recently, she read and weighed in on a recent favorite of The Seattle Public Library Foundation’s CEO, Jonna Ward: ‘Palaces for the People’ by Eric Klinenburg.

233 pages, Crown Publishing, 2018.

In July 1995, Chicago suffered a devastating heatwave, killing 739 people. In short order, questions arose and a team was formed to investigate the disaster and to see how future disasters might be avoided.

Janet Daggatt / Photo by Michael B. Maine

Women fared better than men. People living alone, particularly the elderly, fared badly. Latinos fared best of all, and that seemed because, even though they lived largely in crowded tenements without air conditioning, dying alone was seemingly impossible and that single feature proved most important. Three neighborhoods were particularly interesting in this study. These three with the lowest death rate were poor, violent, and primarily Latino. It’s hard to believe, but these same neighborhoods fared better than the affluent ones!

So, how? As ‘Palaces for the People’ points out, these three neighborhoods had a strong societal infrastructure: playgrounds, restaurants and bars, stores, and most importantly, a library. These were all places for neighbors to meet, socialize, and bond, but the library stood out as the only place attracting all age groups, and it is free.

This study expanded to other large cities around the world that had survived a disaster with an eye for similar patterns. In each case, the results were the same: Residents living in cities with a strong social infrastructure, including a library, fared the best. If infrastructure is this important, with libraries the cornerstone, it stands to reason that libraries should be maintained and continue to offer their free services that include not just loaning books – the original service – but the special section for infants and children, computers, help for those learning a second language, plus their ongoing programs and lectures. It’s an institution that offers plenty of time for learning, and recreation while developing friendships. If Palaces for the People has credibility, the need for maintaining libraries is obvious.

Between 1883 and 1929, Andrew Carnegie endowed 2,811 libraries. All would gradually need financial help to continue to provide the free and expanding services. This book is not a large one, but it certainly provides an inviolate case for widespread need for libraries.

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