Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Libraries as a Third Place

Vancouver Public Library
Vancouver (BC) Public Library
Two weeks ago, I was asked to give a 10-minute presentation on "libraries as a third place" and was given a short amount of time to figure out what to say.  Having done it, I don't want my notes to go to waste, so I'm sharing them with you. (And I'm translating my bullet points into longer text.)

Everyone has a place besides home and work that is a social place.  It could be a coffee shop or some other physical place.  In 2018, that social place is likely to be online and likely to be Facebook.

We want libraries to the place people see as their third place, but what stops them?  What are the challenges?
  • Size - Let's be honest, if everyone in a library's service area came to the library, they all would not fit in the building.
  • Availability - Public library buildings es aren't available at all hours, which means that people can't use them whenever they want.
  • Limited online presence - While libraries do have an online presence, it is not a presence that allows for a truly social space for library users.  In other words, that library online space is not like Facebook.
  • Not a social space - Some libraries are not built to house social activities or loud discussions.  And some staff and library users are not tolerant of social activities in a library.
  • Coolness - The library may not a cool hangout spot for everyone.
  • Acceptance - While I might accept the library as my third place, do my friends?
The overarching challenge is that the library needs to be a place where each person values and accepts the other people in the space.  Those people who need to be accepted include:
  • Immigrants and refugees
  • Children and teens (who tend to be noisy)
  • Those who lack stable housing
  • People who aren't interested in "learning"
  • People who prefer media that is not books
To be that place where each person is valued and accepted, library staff need to:
  • Be more welcoming
  • Create and facilitate space that accommodates and is safe for everyone - both physically and virtually.
That will require:
  • Training - This could include listening skills, dealing with difficult people, understanding social service resources, and more. 
  • Experimentation - Staff need to be willing and able to experiment on activities that will help the library become a third place. 
  • Long-term efforts - The third place efforts can't be short term, but rather the library and its staff need to continue these efforts for the long-term.
It will mean learning from coffee shops, homeless shelters, and Facebook.  And recognizing that a library may not be a third place for everyone.  It may also require working with IMLS on a national digital platform for libraries to be virtual third places.

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