Antonella Agnoli

The Social and Cultural Role of Libraries

Public libraries, at least on paper, represent perfect coworking spaces and fundamental locations to support female work. Given the recent extension of smartworking, even private companies should be interested in supporting them in order to offer their employees valid alternatives to working at home. Moreover, to limit the educational inequalities present in our country – currently accentuated by the consequences of the pandemic – it is necessary to think of forms of permanent collaboration between theaters, museums, libraries, and schools; a network able to guarantee the same services and the same education for everyone.

Let’s start with women. While it is true that the theme of this article is libraries within the variegated cultural worlds of our country, for reasons that will immediately become clear, it is appropriate to start with that "half of the sky" that is simultaneously "more" than half, in terms of population, and "less" than half, as regards income and social regard.

The impact of Covid-19 on women is before our eyes: due to the closing of essential services and the use of distance learning in schools, the months of the lockdown have forced many women to spend more time at home with less paid work, and much more unpaid work. For women, the risk of losing their job has been – and still is – much higher than for men. As pointed out by Roberta Carlini, starting with an ISTAT report dedicated to equality and the health emergency[1]: "Women represent 64.4 percent of those employed in health care and 83.8 percent in non-residential social services, both sectors that INAIL has classified at the highest level of risk for workers during the pandemic. Out of a total of 1,343,000 women employed in the health and social services sector, 417,000 (almost one-third) have a child below 15 years old, with the related difficulty of taking care of them due to the total or partial closure of schools and pre-schools."[2]

According to a study by the Genders center of the State University of Milan, the greater workload relating to assisting children with school has been borne by women (did anything really expect something different?). Almost everywhere, the "lockdown effect" has consolidated and aggravated already-existing gender imbalances.[3]

Italy is the country in which schools were closed first, and for the longest period of time. Moreover, the stop-and-go closings of recent months and the forced distancing from grandparents, who for many families are the pillar of reconciling private life and work, have once again weighed essentially on women.

Educational poverty and school withdrawal

This situation will contribute to a serious increase in educational poverty, which is already endemic in our country, in the Mezzogiorno in particular. The latest report by Save the Children explains that there will be an "increase of school withdrawal, as well as in the number of youth excluded from education, training, or work, all phenomena heavily present even before the arrival of the virus."[4] And also: "In our country, almost one out of four students in the second year of high school (24 percent) did not reach the minimum skill level in mathematics and Italian, 13.5 percent abandoned school early, and more than one out of five (22.2 percent) joined the army of NEET, those who are not in education, employment and do not invest in professional training."[5]

What do libraries have to do with all of this? They are relevant, because during the pandemic, it is essential to have facilities that offer culture, creativity, and assistance at the same time. These locations must not only be upgraded from the standpoint of infrastructure (more Wi-Fi please!), but above all they should work in permanent collaboration with schools and museums.

A great number of Italian libraries have good sections for youth, with hundreds of books that can be read, browsed, crumpled and bitten by small children. Is it so hard to imagine increasing staff, organizing daily meetings and readings, obviously with the necessary precautions? Is it really impossible to ensure that each library has a dedicated space, managed by a staff member, where small children can play and read? A space conceived for mothers as well, to guarantee the possibility for them to work at a distance (a type of work which is not at all "smart" for them today), with a stable Wi-Fi connection, perhaps with broader and more easily accessible documentation, with the possibility to chat a bit with others, and above all, in a context that does not require a forced reconciliation of office work with requests from children, and without having to share a cramped space with another member of the family.

Last spring, the percentage of Italian workers who worked from home at least once a week shot up, and for women in a couple with at least one child under 14, the percentage of remote working hit 26.3 percent; a condition that is not sustainable in the long term. Perhaps businesses would have an interest in supporting public libraries as coworking spaces, where one can see others, take a break, discover books or scientific articles that are more complex than what is found on Wikipedia; in short, a place that offers conditions in which employee work is more productive.

Naturally, libraries could – and should – do much more to help mothers with children: interactive courses on history and geography, or languages; lessons to teach chess or sewing; workshops in ceramics, woodworking, and writing. The list of what Scandinavian libraries or London "idea stores" do would occupy all of the space allowed for this article, and maybe more. Above all, libraries could (or better, should) becomes reference points, oases of culture in a world that is increasingly ignorant.[6]

The ground zero of Italian libraries

It seems naive, or at least wishful thinking, to speak now about what our libraries should do. For them, the Covid-19 epidemic has been the equivalent of a nuclear explosion, with reading rooms closed, books to disinfect, users forcibly closed in their homes, where perhaps they discover Netflix or chat frenetically with friends to keep up morale. In the language of nuclear war, ground zero is the point where the bomb explodes, the area of maximum destruction, where nothing remains. I think, however, that it is precisely from the rubble we are walking in that we can resume our journey.

To better understand the situation, though, it is necessary to recall that the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place after Japan had already lost the war. And we, as librarians who for decades have supported a model of social, inclusive, and active libraries, we already lost our war previously, when we did not succeed in institutionalizing a different approach, obtaining the necessary funds, hiring new personnel, and looking for youth who were experts in videogames and theatrical animation, instead of cataloguing.

This was a war that began in the Seventies, aiming to import to Italy the idea of the public library in the English-speaking world: a friendly library, without barriers, that focused on the needs of the user. This battle was fought heroically, we must stress, by librarians who in Lombardy, Emilia, Tuscany, and Marches worked much more than they had to; they used fantasy, culture, and empathy to transform institutions which did not receive much attention from mayors and governors of regions. But what happened from Rome on down? How many libraries are there in Campania, Calabria, and Sicily? How many hours are they open each week?

If we go to Turin, Bologna, Cinisello, Pistoia, or Fano, we find nice libraries, good librarians, and functioning facilities; but what about the rest of Italy? Libraries were the poor cousins of the complex world of culture and entertainment, and were the first to succumb. In many parts of Italy we lost. Yet we should not forget that nice, well-functioning libraries exist. Starting from these model experiences, and the work done in many small and medium cities in the Center North, where the quality of life for citizens has actually improved, we can and must start again.

Last spring, during the lockdown, there were numerous consultations between theaters, cinemas, orchestras, and museums, because suddenly everyone realized how vulnerable the entire culture/entertainment sector was. Libraries were not even invited to these meetings. Yet the cultural fabric of a country not only includes libraries and schools but cannot even imagine functioning without them. So we need to think of a future in which there is not merely consultation between theaters, museums, libraries, and schools; much more is needed. Permanent collaboration is required, above all with schools. We repeat: how can kids who are holed up at home, often with an insufficient Wi-Fi connection or simply a cell phone, make up for lost time? Distance learning is a disadvantage in and of itself: it is immensely more so if it takes place in small homes, without adequate tools, and without parents able to provide support. Inequalities, that were already widespread before the explosion of the pandemic, affect those who already suffered from difficulties, and the risk is that they may increase in the future.

The worlds of culture are not all equal

Libraries, archives, and museums have historically developed from common roots: all were strictly linked to projects for the construction of nation-states in the 18th and 19th centuries, which required entities to document national culture and carry out efficient administrative procedures. Together with mandatory education, these are institutions linked to the age of the Enlightenment, that required alternative structures to the Church to spread the knowledge produced. Modern science assumed institutions in which academics could have access to the works of their colleagues, thus contributing to create a system of communication that allowed for rapid progress. In some cases, libraries and museums were born as a single, integrated institution; for example, the British Museum was the library where Karl Marx wrote Capital.

Over time, though, these institutions were differentiated, both in their modes of functioning and in their modes of use. Large museums increasingly became tourist attractions, while archives were transformed into niches for scholars. Libraries also took different paths: open, numerous, and welcoming in Northern Europe and the United States; concentrated above all on preserving books in Italy.

In the meantime, culture/entertainment found countless platforms in which to express itself: movies, radio, television, theaters, and more. But in this frenetic expansion that now involves millions of workers, there is a big difference between the reassuring condition of museum and library employees, even if they are poorly paid and oppressed by paperwork, and that of the countless insecure workers: actors, directors, musicians, jugglers, bloggers, journalists without contracts, and grant holders in universities who are always uncertain about the renewal of funding. This variety of conditions is a resource, but also the origin of the danger of losing irreplaceable creative energies; those who work in entertainment in France have the charter of intermittent and thus a bit of salary protection and welfare contributions that do not exist in Italy. When the actors or musicians who previously succeeded in staying afloat find themselves emigrating (in the best case) or delivering pizzas (in the worst), what will happen to the potential they expressed?

In Italy, many think that culture has no purpose, outside of bringing tourists to art cities. Nobody can fail to see the palpable climate of hostility towards culture that has existed in Italy for almost thirty years. Today it almost seems that someone who simply knows grammar or has studied Dante should be ashamed of themself. From 1994 on, we have seen the gradual dissolution of some principles that were taken for granted: the value of constitutional rules, of legality, human dignity, and social cohesion constructed in democratic debate. Now the price of these disastrous choices is before our eyes.

At the same time, the lockdown has awoken interest for culture, brought the problems of art cities to the fore, and exposed the fragility of sectors such as theaters and opera. For the first time in years, promises have been made in regard to structural interventions and rethinking of the models that had been in place for decades. Without tourists, what will Florence, Venice, and Pompei become?

Recreating the cultural ecosystem

The pandemic has highlighted what should have been clear for some time: culture (meaning innovative and high-quality literature, art, cinema, or theater) can have a social role only if an ecosystem exists to support it. Left alone to the forces of the market, it is transformed into mass consumption products, or it disappears. Culture is not oil, it is not sitting there waiting to be pumped to the surface and transformed into royalties. To the contrary, to exploit it economically requires investments, infrastructure, targeted interventions, and enthusiastic and competent personnel. Above all, it requires the mental space of people, their capacity and desire for rich and complex experiences. It requires a society that thinks and loves to think; without this, there is no innovation, no development, and no way out of the crisis.

Museums, libraries, and schools are institutions that don't speak with each other. How many libraries were working together with schools, before the lockdown? And how many are thinking of doing so in the coming months? How many librarians have held operational meetings with theater companies, musical bands, choruses, young film lovers, and voluntary organizations, to offer spaces, seek solutions, and mitigate the devastating impact of the pandemic?

We need to recreate the cultural ecosystem by fostering intensive, permanent collaboration between libraries, museums, theaters, and schools. This is the role of libraries, that can be the place where social energy is activated, energy of which the country is overflowing, but that institutions do their best to suppress and sterilize.

This energy can be sought from the bottom up, or from the top down, in the relationship with volunteer organizations, but also with businesses and foundations. In Fano, the entrepreneur Corrado Montanari made 6 million euros available for what was correctly named the "Montanari Media Library." Is it not possible to follow his example in other cities? Some years ago, to celebrate the 100 years of activity of Navigazione Montanari S.p.A., the same entrepreneur decided to leave his mark on the city, and chose to do so by financing the new library and using a sponsorship contract for the intervention to restore and upgrade the building. At the inauguration, he said: "This is an investment for the future of our youth. And do you want to know something? We have certainly gotten a good deal, investing in the future of the new generations, who thus will be able to grow with greater cultural preparation and be able to compete with the rest of the world." His example could be followed, even in a more modest form, by using the government tax credit known as the Art Bonus.

While awaiting action from the business world, we can look to neighborhoods, the Italian recreational and cultural association Arci, and the third sector; in Italy, one-fourth of the population is over 65 years of age. Fortunately the majority are in good health, active, and stay in shape thanks to the Mediterranean diet. They are young old people who constitute a resource to transmit skills and abilities to those who need them; not only to their grandchildren, but also to the immigrants who only know cell phones, to care workers who barely speak Italian, and to youth with insecure jobs who are unaware of their rights. Someone who enters an American library finds dozens of volunteers who help other people every day, because the library has been able to organize things to make this possible, even during the pandemic. If we don't do it now, when?


  • Public libraries, at least on paper, represent perfect coworking spaces and fundamental locations to support female work. Given the recent extension of smartworking, even private companies should be interested in supporting them in order to offer their employees valid alternatives to working at home.
  • To limit the educational inequalities present in our country – currently accentuated by the consequences of the pandemic – it is necessary to think of forms of permanent collaboration between theaters, museums, libraries, and schools; a network able to guarantee the same services and the same education for everyone.
  • culture, meaning innovative and high-quality literature, art, cinema, or theater, can have a social role only if an ecosystem exists to support it.




"Inequalities in the health emergency," ISTAT, April 28, 2020.


R. Carlini, "Covid-19 e lavoro: l’impatto negativo sulle donne", IlBoLive Università di Padova, November 22, 2020.


In this regard, see "Covid-19 fallout takes a higher toll on women, economically and domestically," Eurofound, June 3, 2020.


"Con gli occhi delle bambine. Atlante dell’infanzia a rischio 2020", Save the Children, 2020.




F. Tonello, Democrazie a rischio. La produzione sociale dell’ignoranza, Milan, Pearson, 2019.