In a May 25 keynote on the opening day of the U.S. Book Show, sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the bestselling book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life thanked librarians for their work and stressed that as the nation seeks to recover from a tumultuous year, we will need our public libraries now more than ever before.

“I don’t know all the ways we’re going to have to build and invest and I can’t give you the full catalog of places we’re going to need to rebuild to recover,” Klinenberg told librarians. “But I will say that, as we start to rebuild, there is probably no better place to begin, there’s no better site, there is no better public works project, there is no better social infrastructure that expresses who we are and what we want to be than the library.”

Klinenberg delivered his remarks in the closing keynote of a U.S. Book Show seminar, Libraries Are Essential, that explored the state of libraries and librarianship, and highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities facing libraries in 2021 and beyond.

In his remarks, Klinenberg called libraries “the best exemplars” of our collective life, and sought to reframe the message of “social distancing” that emerged in the wake of the Covid-19.

“I knew what health officials were trying to tell us, which is to regard each other more carefully,” Klinenberg said. “But I realized the truth was, from the beginning of the pandemic, what we really needed was something more like social solidarity—some real way of thinking more considerately about each other… So what I was thinking from the beginning of the pandemic is that the real message needed to have been ‘physical distance, social solidarity,’ not social distance.”

There is no better social infrastructure that expresses who we are, and what we want to be, than the library.

Klinenberg’s talk capped a three-hour program in which a strong lineup of library leaders presented an overview of some of the key discussions now happening in libraries.

The morning program featured discussions on the state of the library profession and library education, and the future of library spaces in light of the pandemic and our nation’s social and racial justice awakening. Participants discussed a range of important issues including new programs and services, budget and economic concerns, worker safety issues, equity, diversity and inclusion, the need for universal broadband, and what the movement to invest in the nation’s infrastructure could mean for libraries.

The afternoon program focused on digital developments in libraries, including the unprecedented jump in digital circulation necessitated by library closures and other restrictions during the pandemic. And, crucially, what comes next for libraries and publishers in a post-pandemic world.

The full Libraries Are Essential program is archived and will available to U.S. Book Show attendees through the summer. PW will also make the sessions and more coverage available in the coming weeks.