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The Library as Third Place

Inspired by this article in the Chicago Tribune hailing libraries as “havens on earth,” I wanted to write about libraries as Third Places.

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.

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Comments

  1. feldspar51 says:

    … Identifying the public library as a “third place, or even more ominously, as a Third Place (in caps) makes me say “Can’t they just leave things alone?” There is the sound here of another ideological bandwagon being assembled; another attempt in progress at being relevant or convincing the public of such. Better to say libraries are T.P.’s already and forget the subject ever came up. The library as barbershop, YMCA or information supermarket… we can’t say it’s both because we’re being driven by insecurity to create a single new image that will work better than the old one, now perceived as ineffective.

    And as long as being a library board member confers prestige, board members will work to insure it remains so or jump ship when it no longer does and migrate to other regions. Reference and local history materials are valuable and people like stealing them. Wilmington’s policies are the kind of clear bottom-line, easily defensible response that will overwhelm any faint murmuring theoretics about the right to information, etc.

    • RefDeskRef says:

      My library already fits the description of a 3rd place and it is still in the process of downsizing much of its physical collection to make way for additional open spaces, meeting rooms, and the like. No one complains about the existing configuration (although additional PC’s would be welcome). Lounge areas, public computers, and books happily coexist, and patrons regularly stop by the reference desk to express their amazement at the breadth and depth of our holdings. It really is something else. Sadly, a lot of this is on the chopping block. There is a disconnect between what users want (has anyone even asked them? no.) and what admins say users want. Although no patron has complained about the library having too many books, there was an outcry the last time we trimmed part of the collection to create more meeting space. Since we continue to move in that direction, I fear it will be the first of many complaints to come.

  2. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    Makerspace! No wait, Community Center! No, Digital Portal! Whargarble!

  3. G.B. Miller says:

    Not to burst your liberal bubble, but the myth that an ID for voting hurts people is wrong. If you need an ID prove that you’re you to cash a check, make a withdrawal, get a passport or get your welfare benefits, then you need an ID to prove that you’re you for voting.

    Do you complain about having to show ID to cash or deposit a check, or make a withdrawal? If not, then why bitch about showing an ID for voting?

    • MK Fowee says:

      “you need an ID prove that you’re you to cash a check, make a withdrawal, get a passport or get your welfare benefits” – none of these things are rights protected by the constitution. If you’re not required to have a photo ID to be a citizen of the US, then you should not need one to exercise you’re rights. And you definitely should not need one to walk into a library.

    • me says:

      Not to burst your tea party bubble but have you ever heard the term “apples and oranges”? I have my doubts, considering the ridiculous comparison you’re trying to make here.

    • Sarah K says:

      If it costs money to obtain a government-issued ID, and a government-issued ID is required for voting, then that’s essentially a poll tax. The twenty-fourth amendment has a few choice things to say about that.

  4. MJ says:

    Home is the first place and it’s still home, work is the second place and it’s still work. Library can be third place and still be library. We are currently planning a renovation at our library during which we will re-arrange the collection, reducing it slightly (in line with the reduction in circs, about 5% over the last three years) and making more space for people because we have done head count studies, and we know people are staying longer. We are moving conversational spaces away from study spaces (as requested often, and because it makes sense) and adding meeting spaces (also oft-requested). The library belongs to the community, and if the community is small, it may be the only space suitable for these other functions.

    There is a famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” It is our job as library professionals to be visionaries, to understand our communities, to anticipate their needs, and to make decisions accordingly. Third space makes sense for our community, and we think it will work nicely and still be a library. (Note – not so the makerspace.)

  5. Martin says:

    Good post. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks.
    Hangzhou Municipal library in South East China deliberately set out to make their library the third space. This conference paper provides more information http://conference.ifla.org/past/2012/162-wu-en.pdf Having spent four weeks there on exchange at the library in 2012 I would think this Third Space approach / idea has much going for it. Libraries, particularly public libraries, in the West could do worse than taking / looking at this approach. Make themselves centres of the community again as they used to be in the past. For more information on the library and their concept of the third space check out https://cora.ucc.ie/bitstream/handle/10468/1260/MOC_CulturalPV2013.pdf?sequence=1

  6. MK Fowee says:

    I don’t understand why we’re looking at this as if being a library and being a third place are mutually exclusive. Libraries have gone through great efforts in the past few years to be something other than a library (media lab, makerspace, ect.) but I don’t think that’s the case here. Libraries are great third places because they are libraries.

  7. Alex Kyrios says:

    Closed stacks in a public library? What century is this again?

    • KidLib says:

      Closed stacks could be a question of space — Boston’s open shelf collection is just a fraction of what’s in the closed stacks, which are dreary and tightly packed and lower-ceilinged, etc.

  8. Lyn Shepard says:

    I’m disturbed by this website’s failure to identify any members of its administrative staff. One gets the impression that they’re hiding from the public they profess to serve. I seek to email a specialist on eBook development and policy and can’t even find the library director by name or email. The only people identified were board members without email contact addresses. How can the public maintain any faith in libraries if this exemplies their attitude?

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