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Libraries are in the business of community

What“s worse for your health: smoking or feeling lonely? According to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, the effects of being socially isolated are similar to the mortality impacts of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. The World Health Organization has declared loneliness to be a “pressing global health threat” and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy published a 2023 advisory report titled, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.”

While conducting community interviews for our Strategic Planning process in 2022, we kept hearing about the lack of connection people were feeling after so many of our routines and social systems were affected by the pandemic. Public libraries, when done right, are a gathering place, a community space at its finest. So, in response, we tweaked our vision statement from “Connecting People to Possibilities” to “Connecting Community.” At the library we strive to connect our whole and diverse community to knowledge, exploration, creativity and on the most basic level, each other.

In 1973, Mark Granovetter, a Stanford sociology professor, published a paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Until his research, it was generally assumed that a person’s well-being depended mainly on their relationships with their closest friends and family (i.e., “strong ties”). But Granovetter proved our “weak ties” with people in our outer circle of acquaintances in our broader community matter just as much. So here’s where libraries come in. We’re in the business of weak ties. Do you know how often library employees are the only person or one of the few people someone talks to in a day? Whether this is an interaction at the information desk in person or a call from a homebound patron, these moments of connection matter.

I’ll finish with a snapshot of a few recent library “weak ties”: In our newly formed Cookbook Club, two participants realized they were neighbors when one of them borrowed spices from the other for our Indian-themed potluck. A patron calls to ask about the status of the CDs he has on hold and ends up reminiscing about the albums and symphonies that changed his life. Most recently, a dozen seniors (and one dog) braved the snowy roads the day after a big snowstorm to watch an afternoon matinee at the library. While I was troubleshooting technical difficulties, I eavesdropped as they happily chatted away about snow totals and memories of the events surrounding that day’s film “Oppenheimer.” I felt like they didn’t even notice we were 15 minutes behind schedule. Now as I write this article, I smile thinking of myself cleaning up after the movie. There I was, out there on the front line of the loneliness epidemic, picking up popcorn from the floor. Because it turns out, popcorn is messy no matter the age of the consumers.

Darcy Poletti is assistant director of Pine River Library.