The Shared City

How the Public Library Is a Refuge for the Restless Mind

New York Public Library (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Visit a public library in nearly any major American city and it can quickly become clear that the space is being used not just for reading, nor even for using the Internet, but as a place for those who have few other choices of places to spend a great deal of time. We might imagine the obvious reasons: For those without a good home, the library is a source of shelter, bathrooms, and no-cost entertainment.

Of course, not everyone living in a state of homelessness has mental health problems, but many do. And a new study by a researcher and teaching fellow with the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Leicester in the U.K. finds that people dealing with depression and other mental health challenges are extracting a great deal higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from their time at the library. Liz Brewster stumbled upon the topic while doing research for her Ph.D. on how people with mental illness turn to books. “I was talking to them about what they got out of literature,” Brewster tells me by phone from England. “But they kept talking about what they got out of the library building itself.”

So Brewster turned to studying the topic in Sheffield, a town with a history of drastic spending cuts affecting its public libraries. She interviewed 16 self-selected library users, ages ranging from mid-20s to mid-70s, with a range of mental health challenges. What she found, and documented in the study in a recent issue of the journal “Health & Place,” was that “for many of them, the library is a therapeutic place.”

So much so, in fact, that many of them visited a handful of library branches rather than just one favorite, willing to spend time traveling to access the unique aspects of each. One thing that rang through many of her interviews, Brewster writes, is that tone of the spaces soothed the restless mind. Brewster quotes ‘Julia,’ a 50-something administrator: “I used to go in at lunchtime because it would be busy in town and then you’d walk through the doors and you’d go in whichever bit and just go — quiet.” In other words, part of the attraction of the library is atmospheric. But Brewster’s research makes plain that the appeal of the library can be much more complex.

“There was something there worth going to,” said ‘Nathan,’ mid-50s. And yet, as important a place as it was, there was little of the pressure that other high-value spaces might demand. That libraries have regulars and regular librarians was important. It was nice to be known, said Brewster’s subjects, and it was comforting to know that many library staff were aware, and accepting, of their mental challenges. Moreover, talking, an activity that can be fraught with anxiety, is discouraged in your traditional library. Call it the reassurance of the expected “shsssush!”

Also, added ‘Milly,’ it’s soothing “to be surrounded by books and people who are there for books.” And it’s empowering to know that the public library is legitimately theirs to share. It’s the sense, says Brewster, that “you couldn’t be challenged, that you didn’t have to give a reason for being there.” (It’s the sort of right that Brewster, citing other researchers, refers to as “the freedom to tarry.”) Add in the fact that the plentiful supply of books and magazines, free for the perusing, represented a panoply of choice with no attendant pressure. ‘Isaac,’ early 40s, had trouble at home deciding what to put on the TV, a struggle that made him reluctant to helm the family remote control. But at the library, “I could go, make choices, they didn’t have much consequence, because if I didn’t like the books I could just bring them back again.”

That abundance had a way, it seems, of providing focus for those for whom achieving it can otherwise be a challenge. ‘Alfie,’ late 40s and unemployed said, “It concentrates the mind — Oh, you feel you’re a different person.”

Her research, says Brewster doesn’t have implications merely for the study of mental health. Nor even of spaces. Her work, she says, suggests that we need to broaden our minds when we consider the value of public libraries, and the levels of public funding we put to them. She points to a push in the U.K. toward cost-cutting measures that challenge the standing of the library building, like the sharing of services via digitally networked local libraries. “It’s all driven by,” says Brewster, “‘that libraries are just the books.’” But they’ve never been about just that.

The Shared City is made possible with the support of The Knight Foundation.

Nancy Scola is a journalist and writer whose work on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications. She is a correspondent on technology and politics for The Atlantic. She was previously the associate editor of techPresident, a widely-read daily online publication of the Personal Democracy Forum. She’s talked about governing, campaigns, political organizing, technology policy, digital media and more on the BBC, CNN.com, MSNBC, and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and frequently appears on conference panels.

Tags: libraries, mental health