Reporter's Notebook

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A man drills into wood as he makes furniture
crazybear via Shutterstock

Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:

  1. The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.

    Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.

    This week The Wall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.

    The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
  1. People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hour had a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.

Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.

  1. A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit The Texas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.

    As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the The Texas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
  1. Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
The Duluth monument to the three victims of a lynching in 1920 (James Fallows)

The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library
The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

Since Jim Fallows and I began traveling the country for American Futures and Our Towns nearly seven years ago, there has been one beat that began as a surprise to me and grew into the most heartening story I’ve witnessed of American resilience. That is the story of public libraries and how they have responded to the challenges facing American towns.

If you haven’t been in a public library lately, you probably wouldn’t recognize where you were if you entered one tomorrow. This is no longer, as I wrote early on, your mother’s library. The books are still there; the readers are still there; the librarians are still there. But sharing the same space are children busy with all kinds of active—and sometimes noisy—programs, inventors in maker-spaces, historians and amateurs researching genealogy, job-seekers scouring the internet, homeless people settling in quietly for the day, women and a few men heading to the yoga space, others watching movies, young entrepreneurs grabbing lattes, people considering the art exhibits, librarians helping others research a medical issue or housing issue or how to earn a GED, tutors helping school kids with math, people checking out hiking backpacks, fishing poles, wireless hotspots, snow shovels, and seeds for vegetable gardens.

And in their offices are the librarians and staff figuring out how to fill all these wants and needs of their communities and to anticipate what can possibly be coming to their town next, like a hurricane or, God forbid, a shooting. I saw many backroom views of libraries, from the depths of their groaning archives to their automated transport and delivery systems of books among libraries. I also ran into many pop-up versions of libraries in odd places from front yards to public parks to the middle of a lake.


After telling so many of their stories one by one, I wanted to show you what some of the libraries look like. These are my amateur photos of some of the libraries I’ve seen around the U.S., and even a few others I’ve visited around the world.

The libraries were in cities as small as Eastport, Maine, population 1,300, and as big as Columbus, Ohio, population 890,000. Most cities were in between in size, largely ranging from 10,000 to 65,000.  I also visited public libraries in Shanghai, population 24 million, and across Australia.

Here are some images that stay in my mind about libraries. This first of two collections features the children’s areas and the adult spaces. Coming up next will be what’s in the library beyond books, and alternative public libraries.

The first photo here is inside the Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine.

The children’s area of Eastport Maine’s Peavey Memorial Library

Children’s rooms: Whenever I asked directors or librarians about the most important efforts in their libraries, or their top dreams and aspirations yet to come, they invariably answered some version of: “It’s the children; it’s all about the children.” And they homed in on reading readiness or school readiness or child development, particularly for the kids who need it most. Attracting children, and their parents, into libraries is a prime mission.

Brownsville, Texas, built a wonderland of a children’s room and have newly gone all out into the ultra-modern space for teenagers.

The children’s space in the Brownsville Public Library

The Space14s (get it?) in the Brownsville Public Library

A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas public library:

The children’s space in the McAllen public library

In my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, the children’s area is built on the nautical themes familiar to the kids who grow up there. (I spent many a summer day in this library, but it didn’t look like this.)

The children’s area of the Ritter Public Library in Vermilion, Ohio

The San Bernardino Public Library’s central location has poured precious resources into the children’s room, hoping to attract many parents as well through their children and the offerings there. The collaborative mural featured world-renowned artist Phil Yeh.

The children’s section in the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino

The Hughes Main Library in Greenville South Carolina:

The children’s room in the Greenville public library in South Carolina

The Demopolis, Alabama, public library was formerly home to a furniture store and warehouse. The children’s area is part of its pride and joy.

The children’s room of the Demopolis Public Library

The Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon, changes the look of their children’s space from time to time. This one was all about superheroes.

The children’s area in the Deschutes Public Library

The small Highland Park Texas Harvey R. “Bum” Bright Library  has a very cozy children’s room and a librarian who always directs children to the right books.

A happy child in the Highland Park public library

The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library in the Flatiron district, has a children’s braille collection.

The children’s shelf of braille books in New York City


Adult Spaces: The adult spaces in public libraries show an entirely different and often contrasting side of a public library. They range from extraordinarily elegant to cozy and welcoming, to dramatic, to waiting for that upgrade. Here is a sampling:

The mezzanine level of the public library in Demopolis, Alabama, in the former furniture store and warehouse, overlooks the California-craftsman style main reading room. Bill and Melinda Gates visited some 20 years ago as a kick-off to their philanthropic donations of computers to public libraries.

Overlooking the main reading room in the Demopolis, Alabama, public library

Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library of the Birmingham Alabama’s Central Library, the walls are painted with murals by Ezra Winter. They are some of the historic showpieces of the Birmingham library.

Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library in Birmingham

The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:

The spectacular reading room in the Melbourne public library

The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:

Inside the public library in Sydney

The reading room in Raymond M. Blasco MD Memorial Library, in Erie, Pennsylvania, overlooks the waterfront where the Tall Ships dock.

A public-library reading room in Erie, Pennsylvania

The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, has moved into the building of a former Walmart. The space for books is vast.

Inside the McAllen Public Library

The Brownsville, Texas, public library creates much of their own artwork. These are the end panels on the shelves in the reading area.

Endpanels in the Brownsville Public Library reading area

Overlooking the atrium in the stately Shanghai Public Library, where I watched hundreds of people working on laptops and drinking tea, in the foreign-periodicals section:

Inside the Shanghai Public Library in China

The small Elk Rapids District Library in Michigan provides a room with a view for its readers.

Rock and read in the Elk Rapids public library

A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport
A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

Continuing the photo essay about public libraries, which showed many examples of children’s rooms and adult spaces, this collection shows some of the multitude of activities happening at public libraries. It also includes some of the kinds of collections besides books, and some of the public places where books are available to borrow besides at traditional libraries.

Makerspaces are becoming popular in libraries around the country. Some are sophisticated, others modest. Makerspaces harken back to Benjamin Franklin’s early days in the Philadelphia subscription library, where he conducted some of his early experiments in electricity. Ben Franklin was the founder, in a way, of modern makerspaces in libraries.

Makerspace in the Brownsville Public LIbrary

The southmost public library near the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, has an observatory that is used occasionally. The library also hosts movie-and-popcorn events for children who are incarcerated in detention centers alone after having crossed the border from Mexico to Texas.

Outside the Southmost library in Brownsville, Texas

The modest makerspace inside the Dodge City, Kansas, library. It was put together by a young librarian who grew up across the street from the library. He has gathered mostly people’s cast off items, like sewing machines and audio recording equipment.

The door to the small makerspace in the Dodge City Library

Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.

The makerspace at the old MLK Jr. public library in Washington, D.C.

Kids’ activities are held after a summer science program in the Dodge City, Kansas, library. The library invited a traveling program from Wichita. Middle schoolers helped herd the littler kids around the “challenges” after the program. There were hundreds of people participating.

Summer kids’ program in the Dodge City library

Here’s an entry from an art competition at the Greenville, South Carolina, public library. This was sponsored by the local Michelin company, and the requirement was to use old tires in the creation.

An art contest entry made of tires at the Greenville public library

Attention Walmart shoppers: This building is now home to the McAllen, Texas, public library. The internal space is vast, enough for exhibitions and receptions. The external space boasts plenty of parking and room for concerts, catered by local food trucks.

The entrance to the McAllen public library, with food trucks and concert set-up

Libraries catalog much more than books. When some people are looking for somewhere to donate their treasures, or others can’t bear to simply trash their memorabilia, they think of the library. At the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, archivist Nathan Gonzalez addresses some of the vast holdings donated by residents of Redlands. The town is in the process of building the first Museum of Redlands, populated largely from the outgrown archives of the library, and which the library will oversee. The library already oversees the Lincoln Shrine, an entire building of a nationally-renowned collection of Lincolniana, just across the lawn from the Smiley library.   

Bob Garfield
Courtesy of Bob Garfield

From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!

From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.

When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).

American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves, a new book by Bob Garfield, passes these tests. It is short, specific, and droll. It is very much worth reading, for ideas about the next stage in the world’s recovery from failed, weak, and in other ways troubled media systems.


Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.

Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:

This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.

Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.

The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.

For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.

The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.

(By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)

I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.

A weekend market in Ajo, Arizona, in 2015, back when people were encouraged to congregate.
A weekend market in Ajo, Arizona, in 2015, back when people were encouraged to congregate. What will it take to keep small businesses like these alive? James Fallows / The Atlantic

The theme in this “Our Towns” space has been, and remains, the sources of vitality, practicality, generosity, and renewal in local-level America, despite bitter polarization in national-level politics.

The series began almost seven years ago, when smaller communities across the United States were still trying to rebuild their economies after the financial collapse of 2008 and beyond.

Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the very people and groups that led the way in local recovery—small businesses, innovative start-up organizations, locally oriented restaurants and bookshops and bars and civic spaces—are exposed to a sharper, more sudden, and potentially more devastating shock than the one they endured a dozen years ago.

National-level and international responses obviously will determine much of our collective public-health and economic future. But in the past two weeks, Americans have already seen governors and mayors, schools and hospitals, religious organizations and foundations and nonprofit groups taking the lead while the national government has faltered.

The upcoming theme in this space will be on-the-ground reports on the way the economic, civic, and medical dramas are playing out. Part of America’s future is being determined right now in the U.S. Senate, at the Centers for Disease Control, and in the White House. But what is happening in the rest of the country matters at least as much, and probably more.

Let me start with a reader’s note that directly addresses this point, and then a few resources from people who have been thinking about equalizing opportunity around the country, before the current cataclysm. The reader’s note is below.