Public libraries generate social capital that can save lives

Chris Cyr, Ph.D.

social_capital

When disaster strikes, libraries are there to help. In California, where many have been forced from their homes due to forest fires and power outages, libraries like Folsom Public Library have become a refuge for people who need to charge devices, use WiFi, or just have a place to go. In March of 2011, a powerful earthquake triggered enormous tsunami waves in the Tōhoku region of Japan, killing thousands of people, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes, and leaving millions without electricity and water service. In the months after this horrific disaster, as hundreds of government services, NGOs, and private and international relief agencies struggled to help communities recover, residents also looked to public libraries for help.

Why is that? Libraries don’t provide food, water, electricity, or medical services. In many cases, libraries had suffered the same catastrophic losses as their neighbors; staff had perished or been injured, buildings completely destroyed or unusable, resources gutted. Why, then, did people so quickly turn to libraries after a disaster? Because of social capital.

And while we don’t understand all the mechanics of how these bridges within a community are built, we do know that they’re an incredibly powerful part of why people value public libraries.

What is social capital?

The most well-known work on social capital came from Robert Putnam in the 1990s in his books Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone. In Making Democracy Work, Putnam compares Italian regions with similar political institutions, but different outcomes in the effectiveness of government. Putnam argues that the difference is a result of each region’s unique historical and social context, with some areas having greater levels of community trust—social capital—than others.

Social capital helps society and government function correctly. When people trust that others will put similar effort to themselves into building society, rather than just free riding off others’ effort, they are more likely to put in effort themselves. When people do not have that trust, they are more likely to look out for their own individual interest, which can sometimes go against the collective interest.

This can hold true for a local issue—like over-fishing a pond if you don’t trust your neighbors to not do so—or for something as complicated as education in an advanced democracy. We may be more willing, for example, to invest in education and become educated ourselves if we believe others will be making a similar investment.

How libraries create social capital

Libraries are one of the most tangible manifestations of civic engagement, a place that represents a social and community investment in learning and shared culture. In the past decade, there has been an increase in research on how libraries contribute to social capital in their communities. In particular, libraries create social capital through a mechanism known as bridging. This is when people in different subgroups within a community are brought together.

Our own research gives some evidence of how this can work in everyday situations. In our work with Worthington Libraries in Worthington, Ohio, on the Visitors and Residents project, we interviewed library patrons about their experiences. Interviewees mentioned a recent exhibit on the Freedom Rides and highlighted the community discussions that were part of the exhibit as especially important. As one interviewee said, “It’s a series of things that I lived through but had less knowledge of than I should have. Fortunately, it was a racially mixed audience, so that was good. There was a lot of discussion back and forth.”

This is in contrast to bonding, which happens within different subgroups. Because libraries are accessible to all members of a community, they serve as a vital space to bring people together. This connection is not just theoretical. Recent research indicates that people who live closer to neighborhood amenities like libraries tend to be more trusting of others.

Andreas Vårheim has been one of the leading scholars in this area, looking at libraries as public spheres where discourse takes place and opinions form. His research indicates that libraries have helped bridge gaps by creating social capital among immigrant and refugee populations with classes in topics such as ESL, computers, and civics. OCLC’s own Lorcan Dempsey saw this up close the last time he visited Calgary.

Unique spaces, powerful opportunities

Many public libraries have been doing great work in this area for years, obviously. Some examples of “bridging” that have come up during recent OCLC Research discussions:

These are great examples of services that build trust across community barriers that might not otherwise be broken. People from different geographies, economic strata, ages, cultural groups, and origins are brought together in a place uniquely suited—and trusted—for their needs.

Where else can this happen but in libraries? What we can do next:

  1. Conduct additional research on how libraries can function as creators of social capital in different contexts
  2. Develop ways to replicate and reproduce these efforts at scale, across libraries of different sizes facing different challenges
  3. Create the means to communicate and leverage this unique, powerful advantage to our communities, users, supporters, and funders

Libraries create social capital—something that we know is vitally important to the success of communities and nations. We need to curate this valuable resource as effectively as we do all the other materials in our collections!