On Nov. 17, 2023, I got an email from the New York Public Library. According to the announcement, in less than two weeks, the city would see the last day you could enter one of their branches on a Sunday—thanks to budget cuts. In addition to the impact on libraries’ hours, NYPL explained that they needed to “reduce spending on library materials, programming, and building maintenance and repairs.” While the community reaction was instant and impassioned following the NYPL “#NoCutsToLibraries” campaign last spring, it wasn’t strong enough to prevent the reduction of funding from $36.2 million to $12.6 million a year for 2024. But it should have been.

While my New York library card and listserv subscription indicate that I’m from New York City, I’m not even from the state. I signed up for my library card just last year while I was living in Manhattan for a summer internship. Though I lived in the city for less than half the time required to be considered a New York City “resident” (184 days), one of the very first things I checked when I signed my lease was how close the nearest library was. During my three months there, the iconic flagship library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue was just a 20–minute trek from my apartment and became one of my favorite places in the city. Although NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is much grander than my local branch, I was drawn to find a parallel to my own home library, about five hours south. 

Growing up, I spent hours every week in my local library. I remember sitting in the picture book section beside my younger siblings, with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie on wooden displays and coloring books on the kids table. In elementary school, I stacked chapter books in my arms while scanning for the latest Rainbow Magic or Percy Jackson volume. In middle school, I ventured to the Young Adult section and scanned the back–of–book blurbs of dystopian hits like The Hunger Games and Divergent. As time went on, I explored more and more, and came to know my library’s layout like the back of my hand. The shifts in my frequented physical areas of the library not only mirrored my exploration of genres, but fundamentally, my growing up as a person. The timed multiplication tables I tore through at the library desks turned into pre–algebra and later, calculus. The books I left with every two weeks grew longer and longer. 

My library was a wellspring of knowledge that encouraged my curiosity. It provided me with the resources to read as many books, watch as many movies, and listen to as many audiobooks as I wanted. I vividly remember the anticipation each year of waiting for the summer reading challenge, which rewarded kids with a community–sponsored coupon booklet. In middle school, I won third place in the library’s book cover redesign contest, and my art for To Kill a Mockingbird was printed on bookmarks. For years, my Girl Scout troop held our meetings in one of the library’s meeting rooms.

Library assistant Nicholas Baptiste tells me his local library in Seattle was a fundamental part of his childhood, too. “Libraries were a real respite for me,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in a home where there were any books, and I didn’t grow up in a home where that was valued … I was drawn to literature from an early age, so as I grew older libraries did become this place where I would go that I did feel I was surrounded by something that was so attractive to me, so nourishing.” Baptiste eventually went on to study literature in college, moved to Pennsylvania, and now he works as an LA at the Walnut Street West Library, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia blocks away from Penn’s campus. “Everyday is a good day,” he says. “I never go home and have that feeling … that it’s draining, that it’s this form of drudgery. I feel like I'm part of something that’s much larger than me, that has a very noble sort of mission.”

On the surface, libraries are intellectual spaces for education and scholarship. But, they’re also centers for culture and community, and a prime example of the ever–rarer “third place.” In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term, which refers to spaces other than the home and the workplace. “Third places” encompass pubs and cafés, parks and theaters, churches and gyms and more. But why write about these places? Oldenburg argues that they are crucial to human flourishing; it’s in these more informal, neutral settings that strangers cross paths and community thrives. During my summer in New York, the library was a way to escape the heat and get to work. But it was also a place to interact and coexist with others. Even if I knew no one’s name, being in a room full of people affected my mood and how tied I felt to the community around me. 

Third places have a profound political impact, too. Any political science major worth their salt has discussed Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone in class. Published in 2000, the book links the erosion of social capital in America to a lack of civic engagement. Putnam argues that our growing lack of in–person social interaction has led to disconnection from our communities. This disconnection directly harms our democracy, which requires citizens to vote, to converse, to get to know each other.

“People usually think of libraries as, ‘oh, a place to get books’ … but it’s so much more than that,” says Erika Acosta (C ‘24). Growing up in the suburbs outside Orlando, Fla., Erika regularly borrowed books and movies, but didn’t take advantage of the other opportunities her local library offered until a few years ago. She remembers receiving an email about a summer roll–making event led by a Vietnamese chef and author. The results of her experience—a delicious snack and a glimpse into another culture—have had her hooked on her library ever since. This past winter break, for example, Erika attended crochet classes at her local library. “There’s something so beautiful about this desire to learn being what brings people together,” she says. “I don’t know these people, but I fell in love with the way they learned how to crochet. It was just really wonderful.” Erika shows me a project she’s working on—an impressively neat set of stitched rows on their way to becoming something greater. “I know you can learn it on YouTube,” she admits. “But I don’t know, I just feel like it’s different when you try to learn it by yourself versus when there’s someone teaching you and there’s a group of people learning with you, beside you.”

Fiona Larsson (N ‘25) attests to a similar experience. She comments on how the socialization she experienced at her local library in Portland, Maine proves its legacy in her relationships with neighbors. “I was there as a fourth–grader in the children’s section of the library and they would be there,” she says. “Now I see them in the grocery store.”

“I see people from all these different dimensions of my community,” Baptiste says. “They cross my path in a way that wouldn’t really be possible in any other circumstance.” He enjoys getting to know these patrons through what they’re interested in—often in short exchanges about the book, CD, or movie they’re borrowing. Over time, these interactions build and a “rapport” develops.

During the COVID–19 pandemic, many experienced a sudden and dramatic loss of the third places they had regularly cherished, struggling to replace them with online communities. “When you take something like that away from people you really notice the extent that it plays into their lives,” Baptiste says. Yet, years later, we live in an America that’s implementing budget cuts to libraries, transforming once–inviting coffee shops into to–go stops, and pushing increased dependence on a digital world that’s often more isolating than inclusive. We're experiencing a pervasive “loneliness epidemic,” and social connection is the solution—but third places seem to be disappearing, even as they’re more important than ever. 

Libraries fulfill a social role unparalleled by other third places. Unlike your nearest Starbucks, libraries hold absolutely no expectation of money–spending. They provide free technological tools and support to the public. Their existence supports literacy among the homeless and low–income and aid underfunded public schools in their efforts. Libraries encourage reading among young people, often acting as a chief formational power behind children’s love of learning. I credit my book–filled childhood—largely thanks to my library—for my fundamental skills in writing and the foundations behind my choice to study humanities in college. I also blame my library for the random snippets of knowledge that make me more confident I could win a Jeopardy! episode. “Not only is it a space to get books or get movies,” Erika says. “[But] even that isn’t something to be downplayed, because how wonderful is it to make education, knowledge, accessible to people?” 

Yet today, children seem to spend more time in front of screens than in front of dog–eared pages. In 2022, the percentage of frequent readers (kids who read five to seven days a week) between the ages of six and 17 years old was at 28%—the lowest it’s been since 2010. As much as I hate to raise intergenerational havoc, my point still stands. There is very clearly a problem, and one that stands to be exacerbated by shortened hours and limited resources for our public libraries. This isn’t just an issue for world–famous institutions like the New York Public Library; smaller branches in counties across the country are facing the same challenges.

It seems this neglect of libraries as a resource isn’t just an issue among Gen Alpha. Fiona comments on her own age group, too. “I’ve just been a little disturbed with the way that people don’t even think of it as an option anymore,” she says. “And I'm not really sure what happened, like I’m sure they loved going to the library when they were kids … I don’t think that that happened for people of my parent’s generation, I don’t think they were like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve grown out of going to the library.’” It’s for this reason that Fiona regularly encourages her friends to get library cards wherever they live. “I feel like there would be more funding to libraries if people didn’t keep forgetting about them,” she says. 

The budget cuts to libraries are not only a problem for Americans as a whole, but one that will disproportionately affect marginalized groups. People with young children—and especially immigrant families—rely heavily on libraries for help with providing reading and socialization for children through storytimes and other programming. When children get older, this need often continues because it becomes even harder for non–English–speaking parents to help their children with homework. After hearing about how I was drawn to libraries during my summer in New York, Baptiste comments that libraries often function “as an anchor” for those who might be new to a community or are only living there temporarily. “It is this very reliable place no matter where you go in the world, really,” he says. “Any community that has a public library is a place where, you know, all are welcome.”

Baptiste has noticed in his years working at the Free Library that many of their regulars are people without strong connections. Libraries are often crucial spaces for those who are homeless or suffer from mental illness, for example. “A lot of times they are sort of used to having negative or hostile interactions with people,” Baptiste explains. “But when there is a little bit of attention and focus and people are willing to listen to them, they do have a place that is open to them, that is willing to take them in, that is willing to embrace them … you see this sort of surface hardness melt, and then they are willing to become more open, and in a way, more vulnerable to you. And that’s a really extraordinary thing to experience over time.” 

Baptiste points out that senior citizens rely on libraries for similar reasons, and that they are often those he converses with the most. “They don’t have a lot of people in their lives anymore but they still need to feel like they are a participant in some kind of community,” Baptiste says. “They feel less isolated and alone in the library.”

Similarly, Fiona and I bond over the strangeness that is college—in that it’s a place where almost everyone you meet is in their early 20s. “It's really important to me to have friendships and relationships with people of different ages,” she says. “Being able to visit places like public libraries, where I can just remember other people exist, is really important to me.” 

Baptiste informs me that the threat of budget cuts is nothing new. “That's always sort of hovering in the background,” he says, “unless library administration can provide really strong advocacy.” During the Great Recession, for example, Philadelphia public libraries faced tremendous financial strain and a plan from then–Mayor Michael Nutter that proposed the closure of 11 branches. Even though the city still cut $8 million of the library’s $41 million budget in 2008, however, it was thanks to community–led efforts that the branches were saved. “If you look at libraries in a certain way,” Baptiste adds, “You don't see the real depths to which they affect a given community.” With the city’s new administration, he has hope that they will see more of the support they need. 

The libraries Erika, Fiona, Baptiste, and I grew up with are hundreds if not thousands of miles apart—but we all agree that they are more than worth fighting for. Libraries are the bedrock of our communities—serving as crossroads of education, culture, and, perhaps most importantly, humans. “Where else am I gonna meet these people?” Erika asks. “I just mourn the possibility of that being taken away from us … not only the access to knowledge, but access to a space where you can just be.”