February 21, 2015

Essay: The Chicago Public Library

“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man” — T.S. Eliot

This quote is engraved in the wall of the Chicago Public Library, which is the largest public library anywhere. Here, citizens have unlimited access to the all the information they could ever want — internet, books and news. In here, information seems democratised and free for all. It’s a sign that an egalitarian wind still blows in Chicago. This library’s an impressive demonstration of the civic commitment to all citizens having equal access to the opportunity of free education. So when I look around I have to wonder why library isn’t full. With so much poverty in Chicago, and freely available information and public services in here, why aren’t more people taking advantage of these offerings and stepping through these open doors of opportunity?

I take another look around the reading room, and watch the people. I noticed different behaviours in the reading room, and I’d like to muse on why these behaviours came to pass:

  • I notice many citizens using their time to consume entertainment in the library. Maybe they’re on a break between intensive reading sessions, but when I watch a while it doesn’t seem so. I begin to wonder if these people belong to a group that’s born into such assured comfort, it doesn’t see the need to take advantage of the services offered to it by the city. I find myself disliking this group of people, as the city’s resources may have been better spent on people who want to use the services with more impact. These privileged people stand to benefit through no merit of their own, simply because they were born in the right place to the right parents. But they are not taking advantage of their opportunities — it seems some people have grown complacent. Will their kids carry the same privilege?

  • A second group of visitors however are consuming entertainment in the library who don’t seem (judging purely superficially by their clothing) privileged enough to be written off as complacent. I wonder if there’s another reason for this — maybe their surroundings have conditioned them so they can’t recognize opportunity to learn when confronted with it. If completely outside friends’ and family’s reality to read or watch educational content in the library, then these patterns will be very hard to break out of. There are people who’s conditioning by their surroundings leads them to not take advantage of public services, although they would stand to gain the most from them. My South African friend Derrik once said that “from an African standpoint, it seems crazy that the urban poor in the first world don’t profit more from the many opportunities offered to them, because these opportunities are not available in Africa at all.”

  • A third group is reading and studying. They’re also well dressed. I’d guess they’ve have been lucky enough to have been taught to utilise the opportunities at their disposal. I’m reminded of my friend Pete, who when working as a cashier in a coffee-shop, worked so hard that he was moved first to the espresso machine, then to the back-office, then onto accounting. I would have been trying to put in minimal effort and hours on the internship – and treaded water – but he moved up because he had been conditioned to recognise opportunity and work hard with it. I’d like to think that since this group has been born into many opportunities they see it as their duty to do something worthwhile with them. This group has been taught to take advantage of public services at their disposal.

  • I begin to notice a very large group studying in the reading room that I just can’t believe has been taught to recognize opportunity by privileged surroundings. They must have learned it elsewhere. But if this groups’ peers by my theory didn’t teach them to profit, or worst case was actively conditioning them not to learn, then something like a chance encounter, a parent, or a book must have inspired them to step outside their conditioning and utilise opportunity. I think this is the group Eliot was talking about: Some people face many barriers towards capitalising on opportunity, and nevertheless persevere. When inspiration like this occurs, these people recognise what is on offer and learn to harness the first-world city’s opportunities at their disposal. If all of your surroundings are pulling in the opposite direction however, an inspiration like this requires a huge coincidence. If we segregate our cities less and mix people’s surroundings, these inspirations in the fourth group would happen more often I believe.

These four observations seem to reflect a broader trend: underprivileged citzens tend not to take advantage of public services and tend to become poorer, while the privileged are taught to take advantage of them and tend to grow more privileged. Public services seem to service the fortunate public more. But regardless of how you have been conditioned to behave once you sit down: when you enter a public library, the city is offering everyone the same opportunities — and this is what gave Eliot hope.

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