News Releases

APRIL 29, 2024

Creating a Third Place:


Public Library design ideas for community engagement

This article was originally written and shared on the PressReader blog. To read the full article, scroll through to the end.

Albert Einstein once said, "The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library."

Actually, Einstein probably didn't say that — most of the pithy quips attributed to the great physicist can't actually be traced back to him — but there is definitely some wisdom to those words.

Mind you, this is not to say that the local public library branch exists to serve every function of civic life — it's not there to take the place of the hospital, for example, or your neighborhood off-leash dog park.

More and more, though, library buildings are transforming into public spaces that fill multiple roles. It's not unusual to find a library that includes such public amenities as conference rooms, a teen area, a maker space or an outdoor garden.

At the center of communities

A 2023 report from the Canadian Urban Institute points out that libraries, by their nature and because they are located at the center of communities, serve a variety of needs in a way that no other public institution truly can. In a single day, the report states, a public library might be:

  • a place to access culture and information;
  • a refuge from domestic violence;
  • an election information or polling center;
  • a job search facility;
  • a health clinic;
  • a place to warm up or cool down;
  • a language learning center for newcomers;
  • a place to attend free university classes or concerts; and
  • a space for babies, children, caregivers and youth to make friends and form a community.

Many libraries act also as a "third place" in the community, and thoughtful library design can enhance this function. What exactly is a third place? Read on.


Defining the third place

To define the concept of the third place, we can go straight to the source: urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term. Oldenburg is the author of The Great Good Place (1991) and Celebrating The Third Place (2000).

Oldenburg writes that "third places" are public spaces where people gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places are neutral ground, allowing people to set aside their concerns and enjoy company and conversation. Third places, according to Oldenburg, "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work":


The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends...They are the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the… social landscape.


Gen Z vibes at the public library

While that might be true in many cases, there is one third space that is enjoying a surge in popularity. According to a 2023 report from the American Library Association, younger patrons — millennials, but especially members of Generation Z — seem to have rediscovered the joys of their local libraries. As it turns out, they're not just going there to read:

The youth that researchers met during visits to two public library branches talked about coming to the library just to “vibe” and hang out. One contrasted the public library experience to that of her school library, where she said students had to have “a reason to be there” such as a test or study hall, as activities are tied to the school’s curriculum. While her school library required her to be quiet and have a pass to enter, the public library was a place where she and other teens could chat while crafting.


Public libraries are open for everyone

Citing the ALA report, a January article in The Guardian pointed out that members of Gen Z are "well aware that they lack many of the third places their parents had, especially as the lines between work and home blurred" at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Libraries are the last place they feel exists that asks nothing of them," Alaina Demopoulos wrote. "You can truly come as you are."

Demopoulos quoted Anika Neumeyer, a 19-year-old English student who volunteers at the Seattle Public Library:

Coffee shops get so crowded, and you have to spend money to be there, but libraries are open for everyone. There’s a lot less pressure to be doing something in the public library. No one’s going to judge you.

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