Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Community, Collaboration, and Learning: Time for the Fourth Place

Twice a month, a growing number of library trainers participate in the recording of the T is for Training podcast and I join in when my schedule allows.  This past Friday, we were joined by someone named Walter Salem, who does not work in a library and who somehow stumbled across our live conversation.  As it turned out, Walter is the library user and advocate that we all want.   He believes in the education value of libraries and see them as a place to go in order to better yourself.  He is a person who soaks up information and wants to enable others - especially young people - to do the same, and he sees libraries playing an active role in that.

To Paul Signorelli, this sounded like what writers Ray Oldenburg and Frans Johansson would call the "third place".  As Signorelli describes, "our first place is our home, our second place is where we work, and our third place is the treasured community meeting place where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go."  For many years, local coffee shops, diners and general stores were the third places in our communities.  In some communities, it might have been the town square or a city park.  Recently, libraries have been vying for the title of third place.  We want libraries to be as important to people as home and work.  We want libraries to be the meeting place, the coffee shop, the learning spot for the community.  However, based on our conversation on Friday, perhaps we should be thinking of a "fourth place".

During our talk, which occurred both in voice (which you hear on the podcast) and typed chat (which is not saved), Maurice Coleman defined a fourth place as "a community gathering place for social learning".  While this could be a library, this could also be a community center or some other space either in the real or virtual world.  It needs to have resources -- people, books, computers, etc. -- to connect people to the knowledge that they want to acquire.  It is a place that "serves as and inspires communities of learning." (Signorelli)  In my mind, it is an active place where furniture, etc., can be moved around to support the conversation and learning that is occurring.  It is community study, basement and garage where learning, activity (doing) and conversation intersect.  And as people come-and-go, there is the ability to transfer knowledge as well as build upon what others are able to contribute.  It is a place where the only rule is "to learn".  Rules around being quiet, noisy, writing on the walls, etc., don't exist.  I suspect that most libraries would not tolerate being the fourth place that I envision.  However, a library could facilitate the creation of a fourth place and be one of the resources that is available to fourth place users.

During the podcast, we began to brainstorm possible fourth places based on physical spaces that we've seen, and this brainstorming will continue.  Given that this is a permanent (or semi-permanent) space with both a permanent and transient set of users, I mentioned a coffee shop in Austin, TX that is literally an open-air space on a street corner with a limited amount of table seating.  What really stood out in my mind about this shop was that people did see this as a "third place", and that it also had an educational element to it because people left books there for others to read.  Since it is outdoors, I could imagine a quick lesson on bike repair taking place over a cup of coffee or perhaps time spent identifying nearby birds and flowers.  While this is not my idea fourth place, it has a kernel of what I would be looking for.

Container StructureI also mentioned that we have an abundance of shipping containers in the U.S. (and likely in any country that imports more than it exports).  If we wanted to create spaces specifically to be fourth places, we might use shipping containers.  Every community has empty space that could fit a shipping container!  And yes, there are being used to create homes and work environments (video), so this is not a crazy idea.  Every community would likely outfit their fourth place shipping container differently depending on the needs of the community.  It might contain books, tools, gadgets, and a table/chairs for conversation, consultation, and collaboration.  Users would need to understand that rearranging (or re-outfitting) the fourth place for a new learning need was okay, just as we re-arrange our garages for the task at hand. 

Paul, Maurice, myself and others involved in T is for Training have promised to flesh-out this idea of a fourth place more.  Paul has already done good deep thinking on topic, which is worth reading.  Personally, I'm thinking that we might need to design a fourth place and maybe even test one out! 


Paul Signorelli said...

That's a lovely and much appreciated extension of the conversation, and I hope it creates some sparks that lead us closer to defining and creating vibrant, vital fourth places. Thanks a million; looking forward to working on this with you and anyone else who is interested in bringing this to fruition.

Shander said...

I really enjoyed this post--the 4th Space idea is really intriguing. It reminds me of The Public School project (thepublicschool.org), where people in the community propose classes, sign up interested students, then get a teacher and a space. (I believe most classes are free, or by donation.) Shipping containers scattered throughout communities would make great spaces for social learning!