Libraries, public space and obsession with cafes

A NYT article about libraries and civil society was one of the warmest and most hopeful texts from the other side of the Atlantic in the recent years. It made several key points: libraries are open, inclusive and fun spaces to interact – or to be by oneself. The growing emphasis on libraries can hopefully replace the recent obsession with cafes in many discussion circles.

On my three most recent visits to Vilnius, I couldn’t help but admire how cool the national library has become. People go there to record their podcasts, schedule meetings, work on their stuff, concentrate on reading or talking, or attend events. The building is bright and inviting. I could only dream of this when I made a few attempts to get work done at the national library in Valletta. The gloomy building was cold and dark, and although I enjoyed the selection of newspapers to read and the set-up, it was clearly built for reading something from the library’s archives. To continue discussions on public space, ignited by last year’s Capital of Culture events, Valletta should revitalise its libraries rather than move community events and discussions to cafes. Libraries should be our focus as we, as communities and democracies, seek to create the ultimate anti-Facebook.

 

I went to all Valletta 2018 discussion I could attend, and many of them had to do with community development and public space. This was a reoccurring theme between two conferences, one before launching the year and one towards its end. These discussions are likely to continue, as both legacy infrastructural projects – the MUZA museum (see an assessment by the Isles of the Left here) and the Design Cluster aim to be community spaces. At the same time, the talk about reinvigorating cafe culture and using cafes as venues for democratic debates is floating around everywhere in Europe. In a discussion in 2017 in Valletta, before the eventful year started, I posed a question: why do we focus on bringing debates into cafes (commercial spaces) rather open up museums and libraries – spaces which are already public. Some people told me it was about motivation, comfort and lubrication. I’m writing this at a cosy cafe, I’m comfortable and lubricated with two espressos already, but if I was in Vilnius, I would probably be writing this at the national library.

Before I unpack my argument about libraries vs cafes, I’ll first outline what function is implied in discussions like those that we had in these two conferences:

  • Turbulent political situation and alienation facilitated by social networks has many people longing for spaces where one could meet people outside one’s social bubble. This includes people we disagree with. Ideally, these meetings should be respectful.
  • To continue on the alienation, many people realise they don’t know their neighbours and co-residents – it is easier to keep in touch with a friend on another continent than to get to know people living next door. Many now want an excuse to be introduced.
  • Gentrification leaves many people feeling guilty for the effects their presence has on historically poor neighbourhoods, and at the same time powerless to find another option to live comfortably and affordably. These people crave to find a framework to be friendly with the remaining neighbours from the old days.
  • As another feature of anti-Facebook, there is palpable wish to convene in spaces to discuss important issues affecting us, including political issues, face-to-face instead of commenting away on our distant keyboards.

How did cafes become the mystified spaces posed to fulfill this promise? It has to do with nostalgia for the ultimate pre-Facebook social life, associated with popular imaginations of late 19th – early 20th century Paris. Artists and writers would go to cafes to observe people and create. People would gather for casual as well as formal meetings. Regulars would get treats. In this highly romanticised cafe culture, cafes are affordable enough to be democratic but sheltered from the elements and structured enough, compared to city squares. Cafes allow but do not require talking. Salons of rich people were another type of discussion space around that time, but obviously far less democratic and inclusive. Meanwhile, cafes did not require a personal invitation. One could spend as much or as little as they wanted.

I can’t trace where the idea of working in cafes comes from, but if there is anything in common between hanging out in Montmartre as an art student and swiping away on your phone as a contemporary European knowledge worker, it’s entering a cafe pretending to have come there to consume. In one Oxford restaurant, a sign on a wall asks people with laptops to move elsewhere during lunch time, because the place is trying to keep afloat as a restaurant – something along these lines. Various discussion forums are all about laptop-friendliness of cafes and restaurants. Looking at the phenomenon critically, it looks totally bizarre – why does food and laptop have to come together? I’m guilty of doing this sometimes due to certain practical considerations, but there is nothing about the concept that sounds like a good idea. Placing food and a laptop on the same table leads to crumbs in the keyboard, contamination of electronics with food bacteria, dirtying hands with germs from devices that are rarely, if ever, washed, plus lack of concentration on eating, and lack of space for people who actually want to eat.

The attraction to cafes, going there to work, socialise and network with the excuse of consumption leads to numerous other unhealthy habits. I’ve noticed that when I adopted the habit of working in cafes, I started consuming more sugar and more caffeine. Faced with hordes of people who sit around for hours, cafes try to tune into these bad habits and invite people to consume more unhealthy snacks and stimulants to keep their business afloat. It is easy to get carried away working and, since a cafe is technically a catering place, not to take a break for lunch. Which means never really leaving work, and eating overpriced and/ or unhealthy snacks instead of nutritious food.

Also, let’s not fool ourselves, the aesthetics and vibe of these places is far from inclusive. With electronics in hand, we avoid spontaneous conversation. So compared to a trendy cafe, it is easier to upgrade just about any other space into a democratic agora.

Something else should be said about discussions over food. Years ago, in the heat of the exam season, my university hosted a prominent Holocaust scholar. Fearing that, flooded with assignments, students will not turn up, the administration turned it into a lunch talk. Free food was enough for a number of us to flock into the lecture room. I vividly remember chewing a sandwich as the scholar talked about famine, disease and death in Warsaw ghetto. It was extremely awkward. It was not a quality lunch, as I barely noticed what I was eating, and it was not a stimulating intellectual experience either due to the distraction of food.

As nutrient-poor diets and excess weight become pressing public health issues, we have nothing to gain by mixing food and intellectual discussion. Coffee and lunch breaks during conferences provide a pleasant opportunity to relax, but munching on a crumbly mini sandwich while trying to network is awkward both as an eating experience and as a discussion experience. When convening people for a discussion, public spaces should offer water, perhaps herbal infusion when it’s cold, and that would do. We do not need to exacerbate our nutrition crisis by convincing people that snacking is their ultimate democratic experience.

Libraries are already there, they are open and accessible. Opening them up for discussion and community-building shouldn’t be too difficult – and it would be healthier than using commercial spaces and pressuring people to snack.

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