Library as 3rd Place

By | October 21, 2014

No one tells you to go ask a librarian anymore. Even while doing a report for school and acting as a scholar/journalist, people have often told me off by referring me to a higher power: “you can probably find it on Google.” Which often makes me wonder if Google is a he or a she?
Libraries are above holders of books. They are substantive places, critical to a healthy polis. They, like many other powerful institutions with networks, aspire to be popular 3rd places.
3rd place/space is an important concept in urban design. 3rd place separates the two usual social environments of home and the workplace and has a lot to do with establishing feelings of a sense of place. Historically, 3rd places were the market (agora, bazar). Socrates did not work but when other came back from work and went to the agora, he would bother them as they were hanging out (which in modern term is termed loitering for a select population set).
Throughout centuries, bathhouses, gymnasiums, teahouses, squares, religious shrines & locations, and libraries all served as strong 3rd places within different cultural settings. With over 200 branches across the city, New York public library is at about 70 units behind Starbucks in New York with ~273 locations. That is because Starbucks wants to be THE 3rd place. (Starbucks, Third-place, and Creating Ultimate Customer Experience, Fast Company).
In a 1950’s film titled Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, urbanist William Whyte pointed out that open spaces in a city should be rewards. I think the same concept can well apply to 3rd places. Starbucks has strategically positioned itself as the recognizable mirage of coffee, internet, power, seating space. They have made Starbucks into a reward- if not for all-then most. Libraries are more niche. They serve children and the studious well but since they are public, they have lost the battle of looking at users as customers. A touristic country who doesn’t care about the tourists can’t complain if they are loosing business in the tourism sector.
However, I think engagement models (wether social, digital or community building is the way to go. Libraries could enhance the idea of bringing people together in creative ways such as reader match making where readers of the same genre will be notified of a book they had on reserve and provide the book to a group as a whole and forming book clubs. Or food trucks near libraries.
It all at the end of the day comes down to business plan and budget. In my opinion a library should indeed be looked at as a place that holds content. It just needs to serve that content differently. I argue that they haven’t downsized and remodeled. I have no practical suggestions of how that is to be done. Open IDEO has some posts about libraries that have some interesting suggestions . Hope it finds you well.

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