by Elaine Sloan
Libraries have always represented institutions of learning, and of being places where people come to seek information or find answers. This has been true from ancient times, when scholars from all over the world gathered at the the great library at Alexandria to read scrolls, through the early twentieth century when Andrew Carnegie enabled cities and towns across America and Canada to establish their own libraries, to today as people seek information at their local public library. These libraries benefitted from the advantage of being central to their city and the people they served, and also being one of the few information sources (or reliable information sources) in town. While libraries were open to the public, they served a very specific function. People had other public places to gather in social settings—outdoor amphitheaters, parks, plazas, and the general store where one could just as easily buy a bag of sugar or play a game of checkers. Even a street corner could be turned into an impromptu forum.
Society has shifted. Today, people are generally discouraged from loitering in stores and restaurants, and a major gathering on a street corner is usually branded as an annoyance at best and illegal at worst. Cities and towns have grown immensely in population and physical area, people can get information from a variety of sources, and libraries have lost the place of prominence they once held. This loss of social gathering places within the community has led some to consider the library as more of a community center where people socialize and gather for functions other than traditional library transactions.
Oldenburg (1999) was the first person to define the term ‘third place’ in describing a public place that hosts an anticipated social gathering of people away from the responsibilities of home or work (p. 16). While not specifically mentioning libraries in his book, it has become popular to consider libraries among these ‘third places’ in society, as they also fit the description of being neutral territory and serve as a leveler in society (p. 42) for everyone who comes in the door. These characteristics of ‘third place’: an anticipated social gathering or affiliation of people, neutral territory, and a place that treats all members of society as equals are the basis for libraries being considered as ‘place’ and an important part of community.
The studies conducted by the Public Libraries Arenas for Citizenship project (PLACE) in libraries in Norway (Aabø & Audunson, 2012; Aabø, Audunson & Varheim, 2010) illustrate the idea of leveling in society perfectly with examples of an unemployed man using the computers to look for work while a recently published author uses another computer across from him (Aabø & Audunson, 2012, p. 144). Until the researchers doing the study asked the library users why they were in the library, they couldn’t tell the difference in their economic status. Another example from this study involved an immigrant from Ethiopia and a professor on sabbatical writing a book (p. 143). In all locations where the PLACE studies were conducted, researchers found people of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds using the library for similar reasons, such as attending library programs, researching a subject of interest, or using the public computers to check email (Aabø & Audunson, 2012; Aabø et al., 2010). While the activities these people performed were of a more ‘traditional’ library nature, it is the aspect of societal equality that puts them in the ‘third place’ category.
Libraries are, by definition of being public places, neutral territory. Unless a library is privately owned, it is generally not dominated by a single group or person. In the results published by Aabø et al. (2010) from one of the PLACE studies, the neutrality of the library provides a place for all people to be exposed to multicultural differences in an “unobtrusive way” (p. 25). In addition, this neutrality of place allows for many different cultures to feel comfortable mingling in the same space, whether for an organized activity, such as a structured trip to for new language speakers to learn about library services (Aabø & Audunson, 2012, p. 145) or for more unstructured activities such as casual interactions between people of vastly different backgrounds (Aabø et al., 2010, p. 25). In this way, the library is fulfilling the need for a meeting space where anyone can come and be accepted.
While libraries are inherently neutral territory, whether they can always be considered ‘public space’ depends on the activity taking place in them (McKenzie, Prigoda, Clement, & McKechnie, 2007, pp. 118) and how that space is being used. They argue that public space is difficult to define as a merely physical space, and that three social ‘realms’ (public, parochial, and private) should instead be used to describe activities taking place in that space (pp. 118). Oldenburg (1999) also mentions these realms in his work, but his definitions were more location-based rather than activity-based. Because McKenzie et al. (2007) use activities to define space (pp. 118), the same space can be used for many different purposes. For example, the program room at St. Stephen’s Green library branch holds weekly story hour sessions for parents and very young children, and also hosts a regular knitting group (McKenzie et al., 2007). The knitting group consists of regular attendees coming to the library for a purpose other than library activities. When the knitters’ group takes over the multipurpose room at the library, the room is no longer just a public space. It is a ‘third place,’ because the knitting group represents an affiliation of people brought together for the purpose of enjoyment (Oldenburg, 1999, p. 16) of a specific craft. When the same room is used for story hour, parents and their children come in and interact with each other, the librarian, and the board books she provides for checkout at the end of the session (McKenzie et al., 2007, pp. 122). These interactions encompass all three social realms—interaction with the librarian is public, interaction between the parents and each other’s children is parochial, and interaction between parent and child is private. This regular meeting among like-minded people creates community because bonds are formed that go beyond public politeness.
There are similar results reported by Aabø and Audunson (2012). In one of the library branches they studied, a mother brought her daughter in on Saturday morning to read books and play (p. 145), a private realm activity. However, during the course of the visit, the mother met up with other parents from her neighborhood (parochial) and her daughter played with other children in the library (public) (p. 146). For this mother and her daughter, the library provided a meeting place where they could both socialize and take part in a community—in this case, a community made up of parents and children from the neighborhood. Another part of this study gives an example of a kindergarten class coming to the library for an unplanned visit and eating their lunch in the hallway before they go to the children’s area to look at books (p. 145). For them, the library functioned as more than an information center. It functioned as a comfortable place to each lunch as well as a place to read books (p. 145). The kindergarten workers felt comfortable enough with the library to use it as their lunchroom and classroom for the day. In the same way, some of the parents who came to the story hour at the St. Stephen’s Green branch always took their shoes off when it was time to begin, and the knitting group stored supplies at the library for their weekly meetings (McKenzie et al., 2007, pp. 130-131). These examples illustrate the comfort level and ownership each of these groups felt toward their library branch—another sign of ‘third place’ and sense of community.
To this point, all the literature on ‘library as place’ has focused on physical spaces. However, since libraries as place have been defined as more activity-based than physical-spaced based, it makes sense that a digital library could be considered relevant in the ‘library as place’ discussion. Pomerantz and Marchionini (2007) argue that libraries are “communities and functions” and “link people to ideas and each other” (p. 506) even more than they are physical buildings. Leckie and Buschman (2007) agree, stating “the concepts of community and place are not truly synonymous” (pp. 13). This means like-minded people can form communities online without ever having to be in the same physical location. In addition, Pomerantz & Marchionini (2007) suggest digital libraries provide something physical libraries cannot—more collaborative learning environments without the restrictions of physical space. In an online environment, communities are formed less by socialization and more by common interest. People form bonds because of their affiliation to a certain thing, and may have nothing more in common. However, in a digital environment, this is a positive attribute rather than a negative one. The digital library as place is more focused by nature than the groups or casual associations that may be made in a traditional building. Communities formed through digital libraries tend to be collaborative in nature and eager to share ideas and projects. Even without a physical space, these digital libraries have elements of Oldenburg’s ‘third place’ by providing a gathering place for people to share ideas, collaborate, and to discuss topics of importance.
Through examining this literature on ‘library as place’ and libraries as meeting places, it has become clear that libraries are filling multiple roles in the lives of their users. Libraries are no longer merely depositories of information. They have become places of significance for the social interactions people have while at the library as well as being significant for what is contained inside the library (both physically and in a digital format). In many of these examples, these people were at the library for another purpose than traditional library activities, and almost all of these included the aspect of socialization necessary to be a ‘third place’ as defined by Oldenburg. The knitting group talked while knitting (both non-library activities), the parents attending story hour talked about their children with other parents and interacted with their children and other children before and after the story hour, and children played with each other on Saturday mornings in the library while their parents socialized.
While these studies show traits of libraries that fit Oldenburg’s description of ‘third place,’ they also reveal further aspects of these libraries that go beyond a single categorization. Libraries as place may be better characterized in terms of realms, because they are used for so many different types of activities and interactions between people. Libraries are public spaces, but within that public space, these studies have shown that people use that space for private interactions, such as those between family members or parent and child, parochial interactions, such as those between friends and neighbors that meet at the library to socialize, and public interactions, like those between strangers asking for help with the copy machine or directions to a particular section of books. The first two types of interactions do not fit in Oldenburg’s description of ‘third place,’ but this does not mean libraries cannot be considered as ‘place’ for this discussion. Instead, the variety of meetings and interactions people have in libraries make them more significant as ‘place’ in the communities they serve.
The common underlying theme in the literature seems to be this: the more reasons people have to come to the library, the stronger their sense of ‘place’ is for the library. The library does not always have to create these reasons to bring people to the library. Often, just providing space or a program room that can be transformed is enough to facilitate a sense of community between the like-minded people that gather there. Even being a neutral territory can be enough to provide a sense of place for those who may otherwise feel marginalized by society. The sense of place and level of community users experience differs from person to person depending on how they are using the library. Digital libraries function as ‘place’ because of the community created through the interactions and collaborations of people meeting online for discussions and to share ideas, but their users experience a different sense of ‘place’ than do users of a physical branch. In today’s society, differences in library branches (digital or physical) create a sense of place by fulfilling Oldenburg’s definition of ‘third place’ and more—by providing a place for private and parochial realm activities, where people can interact with each other on every level of socialization. Libraries are indeed serving as ‘place’ in their communities, but further studies need to be conducted to show what impact that has on the community at large.
Elaine Sloan is a Technical Services Associate II at the Nampa Public Library and is working on her degree in Library Science through the University of North Texas. She is also the current student representative for ILA.
Aabø, S., Audunson, R., & Varheim, A. (2010). How do public libraries function as meeting places? Library & Information Science Research, 32(1), 16-26.
Aabø, S., & Audunson, R. (2012). Use of library space and the library as place. Library & Information Science Research, 34(2), 138-149. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2011.06.002
Leckie, G. J. & Buschman, J. E. (2007). Space, place, and libraries: An introduction. In J. E. Buschman and G. J. Leckie (Eds.), The library as place: History, community, and culture (pp. 3-25). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
McKenzie, P. J., Prigoda, E. M., Clement, K., & McKechnie, L. E. F. (2007). Behind the program-room door: The creation of parochial and private women’s realms in a Canadian public library. In J. E. Buschman and G. J. Leckie (Eds.), The library as place: History, community, and culture (pp. 117-134). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Marlowe & Company.
Pomerantz, J. & Marchionini, G. (2007). The digital library as place. Journal of Documentation, 63(4). 505-533. doi: 10.1108/00220410710758995