Notebook: Infrastructure (Part One)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

The author peers through the window of the Lexington, Kentucky, Carnegie Library, which was her husband’s childhood library. When the Lexington Public Library moved to larger space, the building fell into disrepair until a citizens’ group turned it into a literacy center in 1992, in recognition of Carnegie’s original vision in a state with a stubborn legacy of illiteracy.

The country is in the middle of a debate about “infrastructure” that strikes at the heart of what people think government is and should do: on the one side, leave people alone to pursue their destinies; on the other, provide the foundations for people to pursue their destinies as fruitfully as possible. Indeed, providing foundations is embedded in the very word infrastructure, as I learned from this marvelous piece by David Alff a couple of weeks ago in Boston Review: “The word ‘infrastructure’ first cropped up in France during the 1870s, when engineers needed a term to describe the gravel ballast that supports railway tracks.” Here at Book Post we’ve thought a lot (example here) about what sociologist Eric Klinenberg and others call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces where people to come together in constructive ways. In the book by Klinenberg that I can’t stop talking about, Palaces for the People, libraries emerge as an exemplum of social infrastructure, providing not only books but a rainbow of opportunities. Current US Transportation Secretary, then mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, in a review of Palaces for the People, described thinking about social infrastructure this way: “Do the features of this proposed school, park, or sewer system tend to help human beings to form connections?” Libraries don’t ever not do that. Libraries are both in and not in our current conversation about infrastructure.

The American Rescue Plan, passed in March, already made one significant commitment to this sort of infrastructure via a $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund for expanded broadband (applications must be received by August 13). Lockdown taught us how decisive the availability of internet can be in modern life—for school, for work, even for survival, when it comes to getting information and access to medical care in the midst of a pandemic. And libraries—our traditional information hubs—are our most well-established sources of public connectedness. Librarians have been arguing since before the pandemic that broadband is infrastructure, and indeed broadband, in the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress, receives $65 billion in funding. The bipartisan bill accepts a view of infrastructure on the narrow end—that is, made up of tangible necessarily shared items we need to have a functioning economy, famously “roads and bridges”—friendlier to the less-government side of the discussion, and universal broadband falls in it. Libraries are gearing up to help “put tablets, laptops, wifi hotspots, modems, routers, into the hands of humans who need them, for the big things: education, economic well-being, recovery” (source). The Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition is advocating for the infrasctucture bill’s broadband funding to be directed to “anchor institutions,” like schools, clinics, community colleges, public housing, community centers, and, yes, libraries, as well as individual homes and businesses, to amplify its reach.

Help spread the news about books and ideas
Subscribe to our book reviews: $5.99 for a month, $45 for a year
Building a connected world through reading

Advocates for universal broadband argue that our need for connectivity goes beyond a grant here and a grant there. It calls for a comprehensive and coordinated national effort. We wrote in March about a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on connectedness in native lands. One local group, Mohawk Networks, needed over of a decade of fundraising and then years more of work to string the seventy miles of fiber required to bring internet access to their customers. John Chrastka, director of the library PAC EveryLibrary, told me that truly connecting America would require a TVA-level investment, referring to the Tennessee Valley Authority, the 1930s electrification project that was a landmark in the history of public works. Chrastka laments that “libraries are underutilized as a system; they are all stand-alone projects.” His organization is dedicated to helping libraries access the local political processes that provide them with 90 percent of their public resources. He has written, “In the lived experience of boards and librarians, decisions that are made at the local level about levies and millages and warrant articles and parcel taxes are far removed from any national discussion about access or connectivity or appropriations for capacity building … Around our nation, there is a consistent unevenness to the way that public monies are used for the common good.” He notes that many of our libraries were built in moments of visionary public-spiritedness, such as the 2,509 Carnegie Libraries, financed by the tycoon Andrew Carnegie, but, as with public housing, these bursts of energy were not followed up with consistent commitment to the buildings’ maintenance and improvement and outfitting. In an editorial in The New York Times on the occasion of Biden’s announcement of his first, more capacious infrastructure proposal last March, Klinenberg asks of even that one, “why, when the United States is struggling with problems of social distrust, division, and isolation, the proposal includes so little direct investment in civic and social infrastructure—things like voting systems and community organizations, which can support political participation and civil society, and public spaces and gathering places?”

Indeed, broadband is the only piece of what we might call ideas infrastructure to make it into the bipartisan “roads and bridges” bill that has superseded Biden’s more ambitious March proposal. The original included elements of more intangible infrastructure, like care for dependents, education, health coverage, and climate mitigatation; many of these priorities have migrated to the proposed spending bill that Democrats expect to pass by a process of “budget reconciliation” later this summer, an avenue that does not require Republican votes.

The argument over whether infrastructure is only tangible, or can also be intangible, gets at the heart of the meaning of infrastructure as well as one’s vision of government and even social life. In his Boston Review article (and a more scholarly but also wonderful companion essay in the current issue of Critical Inquiry), David Alff traces infrastructure back to its historic roots in “wayfinding” and the right of passage. A highway existed because people used it, to traverse private property; it only became a physical object after its usage had been established by practice. Alff sites the late University of Chicago scholar Lauren Berlant, whose death last month set off a howl of grief among her students and friends and readers across the humanities, noting in particular her formative essay “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times” (those times were 2016).

Lauren Berlant’s work is hard to understand, and alludes to a flourishing genre of infrastructure studies that is well beyond the ken of this humble editor (one can dip for starters into this rich essay Alff mentions by the pioneering anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, whom we also lost this spring). What emerges from a beginner’s reading is an understanding that what we think of as infrastructure is about making space (think, park) and allowing movement (think, road) for people to create social experience. Making space and allowing movement calls forth the discomforts of shared experience and the relinquishing of the private, but also the opportunity for growth. We can only grow so much when we are walled off from each other. Infrastructure, from the path through the manor grounds to taxes, bites into private property, inflaming some American sanctities. (Alff’s Critical Inquiry essay compares roads and walls, in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, as responses to a plague—a not-accidental choice of subject.)

So recognizing the intangible element of infrastructure discloses something of its very nature. The intangible infrastructure promised by the reconciliation bill (care of dependents, education, health) serves economic growth just as tangible infrastructure (roads, highways, bridges) does, but thinking about intangible infrastructure, and reading Alff and Berlant, also reminds us that there is more to life than economic growth… [Once again your editor became wrapped up and went on too long. Stay tuned for Part II!]


Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture. Or sign up for our free posts, like this one, about the world of books. Recent reviews include: Brian Fagan on the pollock fishery; John Guare on Tom Stoppard.

Print: A Bookstore is Book Post’s Summer 2021 partner bookstore! We partner with independent booksellers to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”