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.