The Library as a Third Place

In his popular book, The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg gives us this idea of a ‘third place’ as a place we can gather, talk, socialize and build community. If your home and those you live with are your first place, and your workplace and co-workers are your second, your third place is the place you go to exchange ideas, spend time, think, and talk. Together.

Illustration by Aleks Banner Oldenburg is essentially telling us something we already know instinctively. By drawing our attention to this third place, and discussing how it fulfills a critical function in society, he has raised this term to the level of a generally accepted nomenclature in fields of study such as urban planning. Lots of examples are cited, from pubs to coffee houses to churches to barber shops. In fact, coffee houses are often cited as the incubator of the Age of Enlightenment across Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are even some geeks out there talking about—and using—virtual third places. The point is, these are spaces we need, and if we don’t have them, we make them.

I’ve done some projects in Western Massachusetts in towns that are strictly residential. There is no general store, no gas station, and no coffee shop or pub. I hear stories from the people there who tell me, in all seriousness, that they see their friends an neighbors once a week at the transfer station or town dump. This is a public place: it’s outdoors and normally open for a few hours each week on a weekend. It’s where people chat, catch up, trade gossip and town information, and lots of times there is a place for swapping items that are a little too good to throw away. I know of one small public library that gets lots of their puzzles from their transfer station.

Which is a good segue to my question: why aren’t public libraries included in the normal list of third places? It seems like a natural example. Even those small towns I talked about have a church, temple, synagogue, etc. where people can gather, and religious facilities are often included on the list of third places (though they aren’t strictly, in my opinion, a third place unless you consider their extra-curricular activities such as social hour). The library doesn’t have structured worship that calls for the attention of its attendees on a particular subject; patrons are free to do what they choose, making it perfectly suited to be our third place. The only obstacle I can think of is a mostly outdated notion that the library is a quiet place—not meant for the discussion, debate, and exchange of ideas that makes a third place and build community. If this is really the case, we need to fix that.

Especially in a world with hyper-connectivity, an increased pace of living, and an electronic barrage of attention-seeking stuff in our lives, having a truly quiet place is important. I believe that public library can fulfill that role and be a vibrant, active and engaging third place. There is no reason why quiet spaces for study, projects, and reading can’t live in the same building as noisier activities. Public libraries have always had areas that are louder than others. The entrance, and circulation or information desk, and the surrounding lobby areas of libraries have always been more active and noisy. The cafés that have begun to appear in libraries, thanks to forward thinking librarians like Nolan Lushington, have capitalized on this idea, but some libraries have been slow or skittish to adopt them for fear of messes to clean and coffee machines to operate. Automatic coffee machines have been a boon for dispelling this notion, and we are now beginning to see folks sitting at the library, sipping coffee and chatting with their neighbors and friends.

We’re almost there, so what else can we do to get the word out? How can we leverage this need to build community into building support and patronage for the library? Outreach. In a recent discussion with several public librarians I was involved in, it was the consensus* that public libraries are poor self-promoters. They do very little advertising, other than on their website or their blog. Some use inexpensive ways to get the word out, such as program notes on bookmarks they make and insert into checked out materials. But these types of strategies have the same failing: they only reach existing patrons. Who else goes to the library’s web site?

I’m not an advertiser, so I’m not sure what the solution is for librarians, but I do know that as patrons we can help at the grassroots level. We can ask our friends and neighbors to meet us at the library. When we say to our friends “do you want to go for a cup of coffee,” what are we really asking? We’re asking to spend time, to catch up, maintain our connections. The coffee is just a facilitator, and the coffee shop is just a place to meet. Its our third place. Lets take our friends to the library. Our library, or their library. Heck! They may even have coffee there. Or a talk, lecture, author reading, musical program, or learning event. If we’re lucky, we may even introduce our friends to the library they didn’t know they had.

It’s got to be better than the town dump.

* It was the consensus of our discussion group, which included 16 public librarians from 4 states.