Unlike his colleague Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler — another early 20th century psychologist — wasn’t interested in analyzing the psyche of individuals. Instead, he focused on the degree to which people feel nested in community. To Adler, the measure of mental health was one’s level of interest in and concern for one’s fellow humans. He was on to something.
People are hungry for community these days. Cell phones and computers keep us connected more than ever, it’s true. But they keep us connected primarily to people we already know or people we’ve never met. The irony of all that connection is that people’s circles of actual practical support may be quite small. Although relationships made online can certainly be meaningful and intense, it’s also true that people we game with who live hundreds of miles away aren’t likely to drop by for coffee or help out after a storm. The challenge of our times is to figure out how to use the wonderful worldwide resource that the Internet provides but not lose our immediate, in the flesh, daily reciprocal connection with those who live around the corner.
As Adler so eloquently stated, the feeling of belonging is central to our comfort, our safety, and our sense of ourselves as being worthwhile. When people feel part of a larger community, they are more likely to show up and to be supportive, both in times of tragedy and times of celebration. Those who are fortunate enough to belong to a community of faith know how this works. When a family is in need, people they’ve barely said hello to still respond because there is a sense that what happens to one matters to all.
There are only a few other places in present-day towns and cities where people can get to know one another over time simply by being together on a regular basis. Some towns have created lively community centers. But in times of economic hardship, recreation departments and community services often get cut back. The place that usually survives and thrives despite these challenges is the town library. It’s valued as a place that contributes to a town’s identity and that connects people with resources and with each other.
I do have libraries on my mind these days. A local, small (very small) town is trying to collect enough money for a matching grant to build a new library. The current library is certainly dear, but antiquated. It’s so tiny people have to use it in shifts. With no running water, a composting toilet, and a minimal staff, it nonetheless hosts storytimes, provides an Internet hotspot in a town where there’s little access, and creates a meeting place in a community that doesn’t even have a convenience store. (A link to a video about the library is at the bottom of this post.)
Those who use the library are passionate about it. Why? Because, despite those who see libraries going the way of video stores, a library is not just about books. It’s about community, discovery, and valuing the written word. It’s about teaching children to love books and stories. It’s about the value of those fly-bys where we have a minute with a neighbor we haven’t seen in weeks just because we happen to bump into each other when picking out a book. When people regularly connect to each other, even peripherally, they experience themselves as belonging to something larger than their immediate family and their own group of friends. It fosters community pride and community participation.
One of the few truly democratic gathering places, a library welcomes the young, the old, teens, students, professionals and tradespeople. Anyone who wants to read, to search, or to simply be in a quiet place can find information and social connection. There is room for those who want to quietly chat. There’s respect for those who prefer to enjoy the quiet companionship of being with others without verbal exchanges. Regulars soon learn who needs what and find their own niche.
For parents of young children, the library can be a lifesaver. When youngsters are antsy because it’s the third rainy day in a row, all a parent has to do is scoop the kids up and go. A library visit is an inexpensive and rewarding way to spend a few hours. The kids get to choose old favorites or new books to look at. Parents can snuggle up with children to read and look at pictures. Kids and parents can get to know other families. What started out as a stressful afternoon becomes a shared adventure.
The library gets teens out of their personal room-caves and into the community. Not every student has a computer at home. Not everyone knows how to surf the Internet for that tough history assignment or how to write a bibliography. Doing homework and research at the local library opens up the world of information and encourages kids to ask for help when they need it. Librarians show them how to broaden or narrow the search, how to look at databases and how to find new topics.
Some kids use the library inappropriately as a hangout and are inconsiderate of others, it’s true. But most of the time they can be redirected. Hopefully, they learn something about civility and community courtesy in the process.
And for us older folks? Some of us belong to book clubs and would rather borrow than buy the book of the month. Others enjoy reading the local newspapers or exploring international magazines. Still others like to reduce the isolation of working from home and set up in the library for an afternoon of working companionably with others. Those looking for work can surf the want ads, learn more about how to market themselves, and perhaps find like-minded people with whom to compare notes. Those who feel isolated at home can meet at the library to read, to chat quietly, or use a computer without the noise and distractions of the local coffee shops.
Libraries aren’t just a place to borrow books or get on a computer. They are places where we can feed the mind, affirm our membership in our community and maintain our sense of belonging. Adler would have seen them as an essential support for a community’s mental health.
To see the video from the little town that is trying so hard to make a community center and library, click here.
Here are some other fun videos about how libraries serve the community: