Contemporary Libraries as a Third Place

By musing_lis

Traditionally, libraries have played a role in promoting literacy and knowledge appreciation. More and more, libraries are filling another critical need in our society, by furnishing a sort of refuge for patrons in search of a “communal connection in an ever-more isolated world”. Libraries are widely accepted as community centers and have increasingly conformed to what Ray Oldenburg (urban sociologist) called the Third Place.

A third place can be defined as a community center, separate from the home and workplace, that are “anchors of community life and facilitate broader more creative interaction”. Third places may accommodate the regular, voluntary, &/or informal gatherings of individuals beyond home and work life. Conceptually, these spaces are meant to boost social equality by means of “leveling the status of guests, provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities”.

As Alison M. Lewis stated in Questioning Library Neutrality, libraries have been one of the places where citizens can be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, including unpopular or minority views, which, in our democratic society, has been held up as a public good. In the article The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries (Questioning Library Neutrality), Durrani and Smallwood stress how important it is for librarians to understand working people’s lives and struggles, be one of them, and then seek ways of creating a relevant library service. Creating a people-oriented library service comes with the challenge to develop a service that is open to all, irrespective of class, race, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc.

The New Republic published an article in March of 2013, titled The Revolution at Your Community Library: New Media, New Community Centers. The article describes several points making contemporary libraries the new community center. It is in these libraries that offer something not found elsewhere in the urban landscape; “heavily used, not-for-profit communal spaces that facilitate many and various kinds of informal social interactions and private uses”. As a third place community center, the library adapts to meet the needs of society and evolves to serve the public:

“The unemployed, under-employed, and self-employed frequent them. Immigrants attend English-as-a-second-language classes there. Homeless people park there. Caretakers and the young charges read, or just escape social isolation without paying for that right at the local mall. Working parents use them as free, safe depositories for untended offspring. Retirees get to the classics they have long deferred, work on their long-dreamed-of-memoirs, dig into their family genealogies. Bootstrap community organizations stage art shows, concerts, performances or lectures.”

To Cossette, the library is a human endeavor. The contemporary library is a center of liberalism, but its function is not to preach it but be liberalism in operation (Humanism in Libraries). In the last pages of Cossette’s dissertation, libraries are defined as being a social institution that exists under the pressures of society as a whole and have the potential to be a “powerful lever for social transformation”. Cossette may have been picturing the ideal library similar to the one imagines in the New Republic article, and certainly within the definition of Oldenburg’s Third Place.

The idealized contemporary library as a community center are abundant on the web, from news sources, blog entries, to scholarly articles. A New York Times article, Libraries Could be Our Shelters From the Storm, imagines urban libraries that can literally serve the public as a community center and provide shelter during potentially threatening disasters. The article points to people’s need for familiarity in times of stress/need, and the public library is exactly that: places that serve us well every day serve us best when disaster strikes. It was during last years Hurricane Sandy, that the potential for libraries as community centers were realized by more than regular patrons. New York Public Libraries became safe haven during the super storm, much more than churches, schools, and malls, thus proving the communities trust in the public library.

Perhaps it is the open-to-all policy, or the institutions neutral characteristics that make the library ideal community centers. Libraries will continue to serve the public, in determining the needs of the community through education, preservation, and information, whether it’s rain or shine. As author Zadie Smith once said, “libraries are the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want your soul or your wallet”.


Text Sources:

Cossette, A. (2009). Humanism and libraries: an essay on the philosophy of librarianship. Duluth, Minn: Library Juice Press.

Lewis, A. M. (2008). Questioning library neutrality essays from Progressive librarian. Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press.

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place: cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts, and how they get you through the day. New York: Paragon House.


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