The most recent buzz in library world is that we are now the “third place”. But I have heard that other institutions see themselves as something similar. As a matter of fact, in a Time article the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz also saw his stores as filling this need. So what is this “third place” and why is it important? This is a two-part question so let me answer the first.
The “third place” is where you go to after your home and workplace. In his influential book The Great, Good Place, Ray Oldenburg argues that “third places” are important for civil society, democracy and civic engagement. “Third places” are “anchors” of community life and facilities and foster broader, more creative interaction. Further, Oldenburg suggests these hallmarks of a true “third place”: free or inexpensive; food and drink, while not essential are important; highly accessible; proximity for many; involve regulars- those who habitually congregate there; welcoming and comfortable; both new friends and old should be found there.
So I got to thinking, isn’t that what public libraries do and have been doing since our doors first opened? Haven’t we been exhibiting these hallmarks (especially the “free” part) for quite some time already? And if so, does that mean we are more than just books? Yes, yes and yes!
Over the years I have written about the various services public libraries offer and how it continues expanding today. I have talked about our Deaf Literacy opportunities, loaning out umbrellas, books on CDs, music CDs, teen and intergenerational programs, the Business Center, the Adaptive Toy Collection for mentally delayed and physically challenged individuals, wireless capability as well as online resources. However, throughout all these evolving services the library has always hosted for free, a neutral location of face to face dialogues, be it formal or not, of issues confronting our community. Such instances included “Meet the Candidates” and “Legislative Breakfast” forums in cooperation with the Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce, the “Teen Town Hall” where only teens were allowed to raise questions to local community leaders, the on-going “Socrates’ Café” which provides opportunities to debate current issues, PHL’s Book Club and a “Ethics in Business” panel discussion. These are all forms of what a true “third place” should be; a forum of continuous, “civic engagements”.
Public Libraries have been referred to as “Temples of Civic Engagement” for its central role in bridging the full divides of people by bringing them back to the “public square”. Public libraries may be seen in many ways, but in this regard they are:
- a civic information center
- serving as partners in public service
- a public forum
- an enabler of civic literacy
- a public advocate
Chronicler and author of the disintegration and revival of the American community, Robert Putnam, stated that “Citizenship is not a spectator sport.” We at Palm Harbor Library couldn’t agree more. Beginning in 2010, the library will initiate a series of public discussions under the National Issues Forum Institute (www.nifi.org) as one more way to engage the community in confronting issues through raising awareness and soliciting ideas.
A wise old sage once said, “When you are growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully- the church, which belongs to God and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equalizer.” Looks like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones knew his “third place”.
When you’re seeking your “third place”, you’ll have several choices. Starbucks could be one of them. Your public library is another. Come to us for your books and CDs. Come to us to congregate, feel welcomed and see old and new friends. Come to us to be civically engaged and be part of the dialogue. We’ll save a chair for you.