The Library as a Third Place

Like any good librarian, my ears are piqued when I overhear discussions about libraries. I love serendipitous encounters like these. Yesterday I was invited to sit in on a symposium sponsored by my university’s humanities center. It was entitled “Space and Place in City and Suburb.” Beforehand, we read two articles (full citations at end): one involving gentrification in Brooklyn (paywall) as analyzed through storefront signs and one article on “placemaking” in Gary, Indiana.

We discussed how your home is considered your first place, work is your second place, but that most of us happen to have third places too–a place where we like to hang out; a place that (ideally) feels welcoming. At my table we shared our third places. I don’t want to get too specific to protect people’s privacy, but in general, people mentioned places like coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, parks, or places from childhood.

Now here is where libraries come into play. Almost every table of students (unprompted by me, mind you) mentioned libraries as a third place. Keeping my emotions in check, this was my “inside” demeanor:

Librarians have been talking about libraries as a third place for awhile, but it was nice to see it reflected in a wider audience.

I tend to avoid over-simplification of generations, but millennials are more likely to use a public library compared to other generations. I recognize that many of the college students now fall into the Gen Z category, but I think similarities can still be drawn.

Photo Jan 27, 1 04 21 PM

A “genius bar” at Odegaard Undergraduate Library, U. of Washington that combines writing tutor assistance with research assistance from librarians

We discussed how places can be welcoming (or not) and the subtle messages – positive and negative – that exist just beyond a first glance. Questions to ask: Who are these places intended for? Are these places there for people who have existed in the community for a long time? Or are these places trying to attract a different clientele? It had me thinking more about libraries.

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New York Public Library reading room during a 2013 visit

  • Who uses your library? 
  • Who is your library’s marketing and outreach efforts geared towards?Are public libraries catering kids’ story times to upper middle class parents with disposable income? — Who does that leave out? Is it reaching the children who might need it the most? And what stories are you using–are they diverse?
  • How would you describe your library’s physical space? Do you have to keep library restrooms locked because of drug use? — What message is that sending? Do you have comfortable seating? — Might that cause people to linger–is that good or bad? Can someone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller gain easy access to the building and down aisles? What does that tell folks in those situations?
  • What policies do you have that may impede library use?fines, food/drinks in the library, no sleeping. How does this impact the use of the space?
  • How has the lack of investment and resources in other government services impacted libraries?Are we social workers, tax preparers, drug counselors, mental health professionals, and career advisers–in addition to being a librarian? There seems to be an expectation that libraries need to be everything to everybody, and that has both positive and negative aspects.

I also thought about my recent tours of libraries in the Seattle area and the use of “kindness audits” at libraries I have worked at. For me, a comfortable and inviting third space is open and airy, with natural light. I also want to be able to move around from spaces to collaborate, to those that offer more privacy. Sometimes I need to concentrate and focus, but at other times I like to daydream. A library generally fits the bill for my needs.

Below are a few recommended readings on libraries as third place.

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Open spaces, Seattle Public Library

Links

Articles

Update: My Rant on Little Free Libraries

When I wrote my rant about Little Free Libraries, you would have thought I was criticizing apple pie and baseball. For the record, I love apple pie but can’t stand baseball (the game is long and my attention span is not). I was called everything from an “elitist prick” to a child hater to being against literacy.

Do I stand by my thoughts on Little Free Libraries?…for the most part. But here are a few points I want to refine.

1. Engagement with Your Local Public Library
If people spent the amount of time they devote to Little Free Libraries and used that time to lobby for their local public libraries, THAT would be a good thing. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but citizen action is good.

2. Library “Deserts”
You’ve heard of “food deserts“? The same thing applies to people who live in urban and rural areas that don’t have easy access to a public library. This is an opportunity for public libraries to partner with groups to sponsor Little Free Libraries with materials that people in those communities would be interested (e.g., let’s NOT go down to the local used “book barn” and pick up dusty copies of all old books) in reading.

3. Go Where Needed
This is related to above. If public libraries don’t want to partner on this, then think about where your LFL might be most needed. I’ll be blunt (warning: mini-rant ahead!): I get that you like to read. And you want to put something cute in your front yard. But ask yourself this: If you live in a predominantly homogenous, middle to upper class neighborhood with low unemployment, good schools, and easy access to a library, is your LFL helping that many people out? Why not partner with people in other neighborhoods who might benefit more? Step out of your comfort zone.

4. But I Still Want a Little Free Library!
No one is stopping you (for the most part; see below). But instead of just throwing a bunch of books in the box (which is mostly the depressing feel I get when I visit one), think about what might interest people in your neighborhood. Or maybe do a “theme” LFL and promote in your city. Maybe you can be the LFL for sci-fi or fantasy YA lit or Christian lit in your community.

5. Tear Down this LFL? No.
Should a 9-year old boy have to beg city council to keep his Little Free Library open? No, of course not! I’m generally a “reliable liberal” (or whatever that category was on the Pew survey). However, when it comes to my property, I take a decidedly libertarian bent. Put up all the LFLs on your property that you want!

So yeah, Little Free Libraries are fun. They can create excitement and collaboration in the community. It’s just not a catch-all solution to things like access and funding of brick-and-mortar libraries and the services they provide. And they shouldn’t be. They’re a different animal.

 

 

A Little Rant on Little Free Libraries (aka probably an unpopular post)

Update to my post – 16 July 2014

Within a two mile radius of my little corner of Brookfield, Wisconsin there are four Little Free Libraries. I like the concept: People sharing books. People creating a collection. People encouraging reading. Targeting under-served areas/people. Those are good things. But it’s not a library. And I feel guilty and elitist for saying it. I mean, how could you not love this?

little free libraries. A Creative Commons-licensed photo via Flickr user davidsilver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidsilver/11783413894/

little free libraries. A Creative Commons-licensed photo via Flickr user davidsilver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidsilver/11783413894/

There are, of course, benefits to the little free libraries movement. Lane Wilkinson discusses this in his What can we learn from DIY libraries post and Tara Murray writes about it in her post, Truly DIY Libraries.

Do I feel like a little free library is seriously encroaching on a “real” library’s mission and objectives? No.

But here’s what I do worry about: the general public’s perception and the lumping together of little free libraries and actual “real” public libraries.

“Hey look, any volunteer can create a library!”

“Why do we need trained professionals when an 17-year old Eagle Scout has put together such a nice library?”

“Why do we need our tax money to go to something that can be done for FREE?”

“With these Little Free Libraries, we can just cut grants to libraries and use that money elsewhere.” (oh wait, that’s already being proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan.)

A library is not a wooden box. Above all, a library is:

  • a place both physical and virtual
  • a place to get help
  • a place to get information
  • a place to collaborate
  • a place to learn
  • a place to socialize

A handcrafted box of books – no matter how lovely (and many are!) – is not a library. It’s an open bookdrop. A library is more than just that.

The Library in Lego Form (aka the absolute last post I will write about Lego librarians)

Lego public library

Lego public library

It’s the summer of Lego Librarians! When I created my own Lego Librarian personalities, I didn’t quite imagine the wave it would create. People love Lego blocks. People love librarians. When you combine the two, you get an irresistible cultural mash-up.

The original post generated over 36,000 views and appeared on sites such as The Huffington Post, Flavorwire, Neatorama, Book RiotMyModernMet, Trendhunter, and Nerd Approved. Evidently it also took the country of Hungary by storm, as I had several thousand views from this one site alone.

After I acquired the official Lego librarian (I got it for cheap on eBay, rather than guessing among the unmarked packages at the Lego store), I decided that the Lego librarian needed a library!

Now I had a few of my own Lego pieces, but I had to ask for donations from co-workers. I also eBayed a few cheap building blocks…and voilà. I started building the Lego library. Just like the real library, there’s something for everyone: books, periodicals, technology, events. All walks of life are represented: young and old, well to do and not-so-much, people making a transition, and people on the edges of society. Here’s the local public library in Lego form…hope you enjoy it!

…and here’s a short movie created with the Lego Movie app: