*Note: This essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on November 29, 2018. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
Americans are lonely.
A recent survey from Cigna found that most Americans have sustained feelings of loneliness and a general emptiness in relationships. Almost half of respondents said they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent said precisely “zero” other people know them well. The numbers today are even worse than in 2010, when an AARP study found that nearly 43 million adults over 45 in the US were suffering from chronic loneliness.
These numbers aren’t surprising. The Census tells us marriage rates and the number of kids per household are dropping. Roughly one quarter of the population lives alone. With fewer other people in our lives, it’s no wonder we’re lonely. But that trend brings a very dark consequence.
Social isolation kills.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, has conducted two large studies on social connection and health. The first was an analysis of 148 other studies covering about 300,000 people, and found that those people with significant social connections had a 50 percent lower risk of dying early compared to people without strong social circles. The second was a review of 70 other studies and found that living alone, loneliness, and isolation all have a great impact on a person’s likelihood of early death. One British expert has quipped that chronic loneliness is “worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Isolation leads to loneliness. Loneliness leads to despair. Despair leads to the end. Nearly 45,000 Americans will take their own lives this year, and over 70,000 will die from drug overdoses.
The good news? There’s a weapon to fight loneliness: libraries. Libraries provide year-round social infrastructure to complement seasonal parks and natural infrastructure. When there’s hail, ice, buckets of rain or piles of snow—people can still gather in the library.
Social infrastructure is the “physical places and organizations that shape the way we interact,” as the scholar Eric Klinenberg has said, and “when it’s robust, we are much more likely to engage one another and build relationships. When it’s degraded and neglected, we’re much more likely to hunker down and be on our own.” Klinenberg thinks of the “library as the best possible kind of social infrastructure” because it “welcomes everyone regardless of your age or race or even your citizenship status.”
Klinenberg echoes author Chris Bohjalian, who recently wrote, “It’s not merely that libraries connect us to books. It’s that they connect us to one another.”
And our little library in Manitou punches well above its weight with the meager resources it has to connect us to others. Let’s look at two quick snapshots in time: 2005 and 2017.
From 2005 to 2017, the Manitou Springs library’s door count nearly doubled to over 50,000 visitors.
Right now, fire codes limit the total number of people allowed in the library to 19. And the building is inaccessible to those with disabilities. So current door count figures are clearly constrained by size and accessibility.
Imagine you’re in a wheelchair, or have difficulty walking, or using the bathroom in public. Odds are you avoid the Manitou library, which is, in a word—isolating.
Because you can’t take part in all the programs. In 2005, the library held 182 total programs (for kids, teens, and adults) that brought together 1,990 people. In 2017, that number had increased to 340 programs with 8,584 in attendance.
These numbers are even more eye-popping because there’s no actual gathering space in the Manitou library. Programs are routinely forced to meet at a church across the street.
It’s a good thing the city has a shovel-ready plan to expand and fix the library. A plan that includes two community meeting rooms, with accessible kitchen and bathroom facilities, as well as the ability for organizations to self-lockup for after-hours events. A plan that includes separate children’s, teen, and adult book stacks. A plan that includes specified quiet study and reading areas.
Each one of these upgrades, individually, would have a significant impact on patrons.
But when you pull them together, what becomes clear is that they’ll have a massive positive impact on Manitou’s social life. Which is why this library expansion is so important—it’s needed now more than ever—the stakes couldn’t be higher.