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American democracy is fracturing. Libraries say they know how to help

Quartz: “Don’t mess with libraries. One economist learned that lesson the hard way in July after posting a story on Forbes arguing that Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money. The collective outrage of librarians and Twitter was so great that Forbes deleted the story from its site. The passionate defenders of libraries aren’t just up in arms about books. They say that in a fractured society, libraries are a crucial way to fight the ravages of scorched earth partisanship, rising social discord, and educational inequalities.

“Libraries are the last safe, free, truly public space where people from all walks of life may encounter each other,” says Philipp Schmidt, director of the MIT Media Lab’s Learning initiative, which launched a partnership with public libraries last year. “Where else can anyone legitimately go and spend time without a commercial angle anymore?”

As fault lines in the US deepen every day around class, race, political party, gender, and education, libraries are quietly providing the social glue that society seems to lack. Most have reading programs and career resources.  Some have media production studios and maker spaces. Millions use libraries for internet access, and to work. They are a first stop for immigrants, a place for parents to introduce their kids to reading—an essential gateway to learning—and where the the socially isolated go for human contact. They welcome the poor and the homeless. Some librarians and staff administer have even been trained to administer naloxene to those who have overdosed on opioids.

The library is quietly one of the places that is saving democracy,” says Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library. If that sounds like self-serving hyperbole, consider: more people visited the New York Public Library last year (around 17 million) than all museum visits and sporting events in the city combined. In 2017, more than 1 million people attended the city’s early literacy programs; in 2018, enrollment in its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) was at 15,586, up 100% from four years ago, and 523% from 2011…”

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