New York City ranks low in government spending for its library system: $32 per resident, compared with San Francisco’s $101. Photograph: Bo Zaunders/Getty Images
Those distinctions belong to other places. Seattle leads the nation in annual circulation per capita, while Columbus has the highest level of program attendance: five of every 10,000 residents participate in library activities there each year.
New York City also ranks low in per capita government spending for the system. The New York public library receives $32 for every resident, on par with Austin and Chicago but less than one-third of the San Francisco public library, which gets $101 per resident.
Urban library systems in the United States have long been public-private partnerships, and city governments have long relied on philanthropists to fund much of the library’s work. Still, it’s hard to understand why most cities give so little public support to their libraries. According to recent reports from the Pew Research Center, more than 90% of Americans see their library as “very” or “somewhat” important to their community, and in the past decade “every other major institution (government, churches, banks, corporations) has fallen in public esteem except libraries, the military, and first responders”.
Despite this support, in recent years cities and suburbs across the United States have cut funding for libraries, and in some cases closed them altogether, because political officials often view them as luxuries, not necessities. When hard times come, their budgets get trimmed first.
Today, we may have every reason to feel atomized and alienated, distrustful and afraid. But some places have the power to bring us together, and social bonding happens in thousands of libraries throughout the year.
Our communities are full of children whose future, like Cobb’s and Marcus’s, will be formed in the places where they go to learn about themselves and the world they’ll inherit. They deserve palaces. Whether they get them is up to us.
Palaces for the People: How To Build a More Equal and United Society by Eric Klinenberg is published by Bodley Head
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