By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
In 1989 sociologist Ray Oldenburg published a book he called The Great Good Place. Oldenburg wrote barely anything else over his career, but this book made him famous (for a sociologist). His fame was due to his invention of the term “third place”, Oldenburg’s “generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work”. A subtitle listed and celebrated some of these third places: Cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts and how they get you through the day. The idea caught on. Search Oldenburg in Google Scholar and you’ll retrieve “About 3,410 results”, from “Musicking in a West Bank conservatory” to “Multi-Ethnic Third Place: Community Garden Center in Wilshire Neighborhood of Los Angeles” to “Brand lands, hot spots & cool spaces: Welcome to the third place and the total marketing experience”. You can find a Wikipedia entry for “third place”. Oldenburg himself is in Wikipedia.
He didn’t say a word about libraries. In fact, under Oldenburg’s list of eight characteristics, the library would fail as a third place. While the “Shhh!” librarian is a stock character today only for lazy commentators who never set foot in libraries, even the most passionate library advocate likely wouldn’t claim that “Conversation is the Main Activity” in them. Nor that “The Mood is Playful” (children’s rooms an exception). And, at least for those libraries among the impressive architectural achievements of the past thirty years, Oldenburg’s guideline, “As a physical structure, the third place is typically plain” would be another point of failure, under a rubric he called “A Low Profile.”
Even so, scroll through those Google Scholar results and you’ll see authors regularly blessing libraries as a “third place”. An example from the journal Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services—illustrating the reach of Oldenburg’s book—is “Libraries with Lattes: The New Third Place”. While libraries today with their lattes, cafés, learning commons, and other group spaces are livelier than they were in 1989, they’d still fall short on a test for conviviality, the quality Oldenburg valued above any other. (Another of his books is The Joy of Tippling.) But Oldenburg’s definition was a highly personal one. A wish to gather with others in a public space doesn’t always come from the need for conversation. Oldenburg didn’t write about parks or public gardens as a third place. Not about galleries or museums. Not churches. Being alone with others is another type of community, and sometimes, for some people, it’s as important. In fact, that’s one of the ways—sometimes, for some people—on occasion to enjoy the third places beloved by Oldenburg. A busy bar, a solitary drink, your own thoughts your company.
“Neutral ground” was the first characteristic of third places Oldenburg listed. “There must be places,” he wrote, “where individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable.” Lots of people, unlike Oldenburg, would never feel at home in a bar or tavern. But his point was that if you have made somewhere your own third place, it’s because you like it there. For some people, that’s a library.
The Great Good Place was all about sociability, and despite our day’s more inviting libraries, sociability isn’t usually the reason for visiting one. Instead, it’s to be by yourself in a place you enjoy, to be unsocial for a little while in the company of others who probably feel the same way. Home won’t always work for this. Workplaces, still less. Where else can you go and not have to follow an agenda, not stick to a curriculum, not try to reach someone’s measurable goals, not have to listen to a pitch or to anything else you don’t feel like listening to, not have to get with the program? You might just browse magazines or books or the Internet for a few spare minutes. Maybe you’re in a hurry, maybe taking your time, maybe just wasting time. Or, maybe you have a program of your own, some interest, some obsession. Minus the negative social connotations, you’re “bowling alone” (for this term we have a different famous sociologist to thank).
No library has an agenda with your name on it. There’s no behind-the-curtain algorithm processing whatever it is you’re up to. In fact, no one really knows what goes on inside libraries, what might happen when somebody walks in. That’s their beauty. Oprah Winfrey might discover Maya Angelou (growing up in Nashville, in a library book). Bob Dylan might listen to obscure Woody Guthrie recordings (Minneapolis Public Library collected all the Folkways records). Joe Biden, scanning biographies of congressmen in a directory, might decide to attend law school (in the library of his Claymont, Delaware high school.) Karl Marx, most famously, might write Das Kapital (in the library of the British Museum).
Here’s Alfred Kazin, in his 1978 autobiography New York Jew, on the Great Depression years of a young man visiting New York Public Library, Kazin’s first stop on the way to the fame he achieved as a critic:
Whenever I was free to read, the great Library seemed free to receive me. … My privacy was complete. No one behind the information desk ever asked me why I needed to look at the yellowing, crumbling, fast-fading material about insurgent young Chicago and San Francisco publishing houses in 1897. No one suggested that I might manage whatever-it-was-I-was-doing with something more readily available … It fascinated me … to do my reading and thinking in the asylum and church of the unemployed; of crazy ideologists and equally crazy Bible students doggedly writing ‘YOU LIE!’ in the reference books on the open shelves; of puzzle fans searching every encyclopedia; of commission salesmen secretly tearing address lists out of city directories.
Of course, much of Kazin’s detail is purely history now. Crazy ideologists, Bible students, puzzle fans, commission salesmen, they have less need to visit their library. But no doubt some come anyway, and when they do, play their part in the same timeless democratic experience recounted by Kazin in its privacy, freedom, and richness.
Could they do that right now, find a third place “free to receive me”, a library or any other? For Joe Biden, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx, the Bible students, the puzzle fans, the commission salesmen, for Oprah, the library had no program for them. They had their own programs. But today, the library will have a program, to keep them free of COVID-19. They might have to make a library appointment. Perhaps their temperature taken. They’d find social distance guidelines, capacity limits, sometimes a time limit. Apps are available for libraries to monitor all this. I saw a Webcast where an architect recommended libraries remove “soft seating” to reduce “dwell time”, a new metric for librarians. I’ve read advice for librarians on “strategic furniture placement”. Stairways, doorways, aisles in the bookstacks will be one-way streets, if not barriered. “Students laughed at me as I was putting arrows on the floor,” one librarian told me. Maybe, once the arrows are laid down, people will follow them.
Library staff will watch their patrons. They’ll have to. You’ll be watching, too. Are the people near me following the rules? All this if a library building is open at all, which many aren’t. Libraries have shown they can carry on with more of their services through a pandemic than most of us would have guessed. But one thing they can’t do on their own is open the building. What about the students who would rather be anywhere else than a library—far down their list of comfortable places, but still a place to study, maybe the best of a bad lot of places? Where to go now? “They’re doing everything they can on campus to stop students from gathering,” another librarian reports. “In the cafeteria, they have these little sad tables for one.” Could go there, in case all the little sad tables aren’t taken.
Not only has COVID-19 all but extinguished the third place, for so many people, their first place and second place are now the same. Maybe home is stressful or maybe it’s nice, but, either way you shouldn’t leave, and when you do go out, you’ll be back soon. The grocery store is as close to a third place as some of us get. You do mingle with others, at least, though not in a way that would pass for convivial. Of course there’s the Web, the portable third place that changed the world after Oldenburg’s book. All of us, for better or worse, know how to lose ourselves there. But, too often a problem of its own. How to escape the Web? One new characteristic of a third place, which Oldenburg didn’t have to list in his book, is that a third place needs to be a place. Libraries became this kind of place in the decades after 1989. Today, when a place of your own is so badly missed, whether to find conviviality or just to get away, the coronavirus won’t allow it.
This pandemic will be over someday and when it is will end like it began, with doubt and confusion. There won’t be a day like the one in 1945 when a kiss in Times Square caught on camera on V-J Day marked the end of World War II at the surrender of Japan. And not the day in 1989 when Berliners tore down sections of their wall turned graffiti canvas dividing East and West for nearly 30 years. Instead, everyone will wonder: Am I actually done with masks? Will it come back? Does the vaccine work? Is this really over?
People who had worked from home will be invited to return to workplaces. Some will say they’d rather not; some will come in less often than before; others won’t have a choice. All who do come back will likely find a workplace different than the one they’d left in the spring of 2020. New sanitation and social distance measures will be reassuring, if a little awkward at first. Everyone will be happy to see co-workers and friends unseen for months, or seen only on a screen. But there won’t be much hugging.
Work and home will be two different spheres, again. Some commuters will get used to a back-and-forth with new social distance routines for the round trip. For anyone returning home to loved ones or roommates, the question “How was your day?” might open a real conversation. So could a small cough. All this will be multiplied times over in households with schoolchildren. Rooms and spaces might be rearranged back to something more like what 2020 looked like. Guests might be invited in again. Home will be another station in the week, not the refuge it was for so long. COVID-19 might be over but it won’t be past, not at work or at home, and not our third places either.