Libraries As Social Infrastucture

Public buildings are physical manifestations of what Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure. Klinenberg defines social infrastructure as “the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact”.  As opposed to physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water pipes etc., social infrastructure is the spaces and places that allow for people to come together and create a community. Of all the public buildings that comprise our social infrastructure, libraries are perhaps the best current example of social infrastructure in our society.

So what can design do for social infrastructure? Design is important for any building but even more so for a library; a building that makes up such a critical piece of our social infrastructure. A well-designed library provides a safe and welcoming space for people to read, rest, gather and learn.

The building must be inviting and open to encourage the community to use it. There must be good light and comfortable places to sit individually, in small groups and large ones. The space must work for patrons and staff alike and be a durable facility that will endure decades of use. But perhaps most importantly, a well-designed piece of social infrastructure can transcend function and become a true symbol of a community.

When we started the design process for the new Kent Panther Lake Library, we began with a series of community meetings to determine what the communities priorities were and what they wanted from their new library. While there were quite a few requests for specific functions and features, what became apparent quickly was that the community mostly just wanted a LIBRARY. They wanted a library of their own; in their community. Panther Lake is a smaller community that is part of a larger city yet is distinct both geographically and culturally. It sits on a plateau above the main city of Kent and has one of the most diverse populations in the country. The new Kent Panther Lake Library acts as a focal point of the community and the genus loci of the neighborhood.

The importance of the building became apparent on opening day as did the success of the library as a community icon. While we were expecting a decent crowd of people, we were shocked at the number of community members who showed up to explore their new library. King county Library Systems staff were taken aback by the numbers of people and enthusiasm and the line to get in the library stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. This library allowed King County Library System to increase their impact in the Panther Lake community at that same time that it allowed the citizens of Panther Lake to define themselves as a community.

Architecture doesn’t make community. People and their ideas make communities. Yet what this library, and countless others throughout the world have shown, is that well-designed social infrastructure not only creates a place for community to happen, it provides a physical manifestation of the very idea of community.

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