Blog Post

From Bookaterias to Virtual Supermarkets: Libraries & Our Public Landscape

Last week, NPR ran a story about a new program in Baltimore that uses public libraries to combat the problem of access to healthy foods in urban environments:

"Under a new city program, patrons can order groceries online and pay with cash, credit or food stamps. The orders are filled by Santoni's supermarket, a longtime Baltimore grocer. They deliver the items to the library the next day.
The Virtual Supermarket Project is part of a city push to make healthy food more accessible in communities where major supermarkets are scarce. Baltimore's health department launched it last month at two of the city's public library branches. They're located on opposite ends of town: one neighborhood is mostly African-American and working-class, the other racially and economically mixed.

These areas lack large, competitively priced supermarkets within walking distance sometimes called 'food deserts.' Both communities have plenty of fast-food and corner stores, but many tend to offer less healthy fare."

I am working on a dissertation project about bookmobiles and library extension in American culture, so this immediately caught my eye. 

In fact, it reminded me in a curious sort of way of an earlier program I'd run across in the archives last summer.  In 1947, the Nashville Public Library first proposed what they called a bookateria.  The plan," one newspaper article put it, "would be to have the books within easy reach of customers and let them have their favorite novels, mystery stories or biographies checked out with their groceries.

In 1953, the library finally put the idea into practice.  The bookaterias, in strategically placed supermarkets around town, ended up taking shape as self-service branch libraries (you filled out a card with your information, and the book's, and dropped it in a box on your way out of the store). 

As you can see in the photo, buying produce and checking out a book are made into parallel experiences.  Self-service was the hallmark of the supermarket, in contrast to the full-service general store of the past, just as it distinguished the modern library (and, of course, especially the bookateria) from closed-stacks models that had characterized many earlier models of librarianship. 

Like the bookmobile, the bookateria tied library extension to an icon of America's burgeoning consumer culture (automobiles and supermarkets, respectively) and also allied library use with the independence and autonomy associated with it.  But such autonomy has often been a mirage.  As John Urry has pointed out, the rise of the automobile and the concomitant decline of public transportation has granted car-owners immense flexibility--but it is "coerced flexibility."  The fantasy that we can go anywhere, at any time, has crushed many alternatives, and that has often meant the decay of urban centers and the infrastructures of the "walking city."  The emergence of supermarkets, which tend to assume automobility in their location and architecture, was closely related to the centrifugal force of suburbanization that was accelerated by the automobile.

The food desert has been one of the consequences of the rise of automobiles and supermarkets, with corporations putting profits first and with car-ownership assumed and then built into the environment of our cities.  People who are not profitable, and who cannot travel the new infrastructures, get left out. 

The Baltimore program and proposals like it actually--and admirably--reverse that dynamic, thus use the expansive public-ness of the public library to try to alleviate the pain of living in the gaps and fissures of capitalist circulation and consumption.  (See this blog post for a post about the possibility of using bookmobiles to do similar work in a different sort of urban environment.)

They are thus a reassertion of libraries role in supporting public landscapes in the face of capitalist indifference and what Raymond Williams called "mobile privatisation."  They are also, in their ways, challenges to the possibility of total digitization in librarianship and therefore are claims for the continued physical presence of public libraries in our cities. 

Indeed, even more than institutions devoted to the circulation of information, libraries at their finest are institutions that build and maintain communities.  And communities are built of more than simply abstract information or social networking; they are made of people with material needs. 

And the Virtual Supermarket Project stands as evidence that libraries--in their increasingly characteristic synergy of digital technology and bricks-and-mortar--can fulfill both intellectual and phsyical needs and thus help build communities that are healthy in all senses of the word.


1 comment

Surely, this is an ancient post, but it stimulated enough motivation in me to leave a comment behind.  

Very interesting to hear that the project in Baltimore is making connections between food security and the public domain of the library.  As the public resources in the United States have shrunk, while private enterprise has increasingly consolidated (including every part of the food chain), we seem to be dealing with fewer and fewer spaces that are accessible to all.  Clearly, we are seeing a reaction to such dominant trends in all the public-oriented community level projects we hear about on a daily basis.  I would argue that projects like the Virtual Supermarket, like book mobiles, community gardens, etc. are all pointing in the direction of expanding and elaborating the "commons."  

One researcher on community gardens in Brooklyn found that the long established, mature gardens might be somewhat less important as sites of food production than they are as sites of distribution for off-site food (from food banks), other services, workshops, and other events.  Likewise, when a place that is accessible to all is established, like a library, it is no surprise that it quickly becomes a "multi-use" space.

Private institutions are defined by how they strictly circumscribe the use of space.  Meanwhile, here are a few non-circulation/reference-related activities I noticed earlier this year while I was working at my local public library: online job seeking, online partner seeking, doing homework, napping, kids running and chasing, chatting up employees, using toilet facilities, staying warm, doing taxes, using the phone, childcare, etc.  I believe that new community gardens and other similarly participation-oriented public spaces could be a way to open more common space that provides at least some room to live within the difficult environment of corporatized space.

Innovative ideas like the Virtual Supermarket elaborate these trends, expanding not necessarily the physical space of public institutions but the social space and the economic utility of these spaces.  The public library in my town started an allotment style community garden several years ago.  What about a mobile multi-use commons: a bookmobile that sells or gives away fruit from a nearby orchard?