A Third Place is somewhere other than home or work, the first two places. From the Wikipedia article summing up Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, we find the following characteristic of third places:
- Free or inexpensive
- Food and drink, while not essential, are important
- Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
- Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
- Welcoming and comfortable
- Both new friends and old should be found there
Depending on the community, lots of public libraries could count as third places, especially those with cafes and open spaces outside the normally quiet stacks areas. People generally don’t sit around the reference section merrily conversing, but there’s often space for that sort of thing.
This is even perhaps what a lot of public librarians want libraries to become, even if they don’t put it in those terms. It might make a lot more sense of some of the activities now happening in libraries if the official goal was to make the public library into a Third Place.
It would make sense of more meeting rooms, cafes, more informal spaces, less space devoted to books. Even teen rooms and such would count, a Third Place apart from home and school.
Third places are good places, and there are worse things public libraries could become. Whether those libraries would still need librarians is a different question. Probably not as many.
They wouldn’t quite be libraries anymore, not with the new mission. Sure, there would still be books and magazines and such, but the information function of libraries would have to recede as more time and space is devoted to entertainment, cultural events, etc. There’s only so much harried librarians can accomplish.
While thinking about all the possibilities and whether the Library as Third Place was a good thing or not, I discovered an article about a renovated public library in Wilmington, DE that definitely isn’t trying to become a third place.
After the renovation, the reference books are locked away and accessible only by asking a librarian. That’s a weird policy. I guess it makes the librarian more important, but it’s a silly place to enact the role of librarian as gatekeeper. It certainly makes finding information more difficult.
The other innovation is that “physical access to the library itself is not permitted to any person who fails to show a state-issued photographic identification card or a Delaware library card.”
This isn’t an unheard of policy in libraries at private universities, which sometimes require a university ID for entry, but it’s a weird policy for a public library.
I don’t know how they enforce the rule, but it seems like it would mean that anyone without a state-issued photo ID could never get a library card, because they could never enter the building. Can children ever go in? How would they get that first library card? There must be some exceptions, but the article doesn’t mention them.
The policies were enacted by the “Board of Governors.” The library is an “association library,” which I guess means they can call themselves a public library but then exclude members of the public they don’t like, presumably members of the public without state-issued photo IDs.
The article makes a lot of the fact that while the city is “majority African-American,” the Board of Governors is made up of affluent white people, 8 men and 1 woman.
Oddly enough, one of the ways some state governments try to repress the African-American vote is by requiring things like state-issued photo IDs to be allowed to vote. The ACLU mentions this specifically on a site about fighting voter suppression.
According to the ACLU, “Studies suggest that up to 11 percent of American citizens lack such ID, and would be required to navigate the administrative burdens to obtain it or forego the right to vote entirely.”
Thus, wittingly or not, the white Board of Governors has instituted a policy that seems designed to restrict library access for African-American citizens the way some states try to suppress their vote. They forego the right to use the public library.
The two themes kept playing in my mind: Libraries as Third Places and the Wilmington Public Library restricting access. Both seem to be moving away from the idea of libraries as places for books and information equally open to all.
There’s a lot to criticize about libraries moving away from being libraries, and there’s a danger that useful functions of public libraries might disappear in a transition to Third Places, but if the alternative is to make libraries more exclusive, the choice is easy.
I’d choose to keep libraries being libraries, but that might be an option that’s not available for the future. If that’s not possible, Third Place might be my second choice.