third places, monitored spaces

While the tenure papers may not be done (I've thought they were twice, and more revisions came back each time), I have moved on to refreshing my research brain.  Refreshment, in this case, has involved travel to public libraries.  So far, I've been to about 10 different public libraries in the general region (east to Indianapolis, north to Chicago, west to Bloomington-Normal, and south to Tuscola) big and small, rural and urban, and it has made for a fascinating set of informal conversations.

The first goal of my trips has just been to look, with fresh eyes, at public libraries as spaces.  I go into buildings and explore websites, seeing how physical and virtual spaces relate to each other and to me, a stranger on the road just stopping by.  Several times, because of professional connections, I have quickly become *not* a stranger on the road, but in fact a colleague.  That happened in Forrest, IL, and even moreso in Tuscola where I know the soon-to-be-former director from GSLIS.

As I walked into buildings and walked around or sat down with my laptop, I quickly began thinking of all the times that students have brought up the idea of public libraries as a "third place" in people's lives.  So I looked at Ray Oldenburg's book The Great Good Place.  He defines the third place (first=home, second=work) as having certain characteristics, among them (from Chpt. 2, “The Character of Third Places”): 

  • —Existing on neutral ground
  • The third place is a leveler
  • Conversation is the main activity
  • Accessibility and accommodation (long hours)
  • The regulars
  • A low profile
  • The mood is playful
  • A home away from home

Frankly, each of these points is a bit problematic when it comes to public libraries as places.  A level "everyone" can borrow books (if they live in the appropriate taxing district), and perhaps the meeting rooms are neutral ground, but hours are limited and what comes and goes from these spaces is typically monitored closely, whether visually or with RFID and automatic alarms.  And hours are limited, especially for public libraries facing budget issues.  While children's departments encourage conversation and playfulness, they also have regulations about unattended children to keep the place from becoming "a home away from home."  And the tension between conversation and silence is still a real issue in public library spaces for adults; those who can't be quiet are sometimes asked to leave.  The Carnegie-era facades of many libraries, with their steps and columns, are not only non-ADA-compliant, they also bespeak anything but a "low profile."

But the true lure of the third place, as Oldenberg sees it, is the people, the "regulars," who go there for the joy of bumping in to casual friends.  To know whether this aspect is true for public library spaces, you would really have to be a regular yourself, or spend enough time there to know for sure that there are groups of regulars who look forward to meeting each other.

Very quickly, in the buildings I saw, I also noticed common patterns of sight lines.  Most places I sat, especially near to technology or media collections that were not books, I was easily visible by one or more library staff members.  When you talk with librarians about buildings, one of the quickest subjects to come up tends to be what's visible and the wacky things that can happen in spaces that are not visible:  between shelves, behind stacks, in hidden pockets of the library.  Apocolyptic tales abound, usually involving food and/or sex, and I have my own tale of the toilet that backed up in the basement due to a pair of gym shorts. (Perhaps a member of the public who really disliked gym class?  We'll never know.)

All this is to say that, in my wanderings thusfar, I have to ask whether the "third place" is ever really the right metaphor for a library.  In fact, the sight lines, protection of collections, and enforcement of quiet bring to mind Foucault's idea of the Panopticon (from Discipline and Punish).  This is not to say that public libraries are prisons, and you could insert here any number of testimonials from prisoners that books and libraries saved their souls.  It's more to say that public monitoring is significant function of the public library, related directly to collection preservation and protection.

But how do these things matter?  It came up yesterday--in a fantastic conversation with fellow faculty and a doc student--that the big, theoretical political economy folks would say that small and local public spaces don't count as long as the larger worlds of the U.S. economy and policies regarding issues like intellectual property continue to erode previously public spaces.  I pointed out that the opposite of "privatization" might be "publicization," and that we hardly ever talk about the ways that is happening (or has happened, historically).  Yes, power is concentrated in governments and corporations (not always in that order), but there are places and spaces where the public still operates as a functional concept in everyday life.  Public libraries are among them.

So I'm designing a research project that will be an oral history of changes in public libraries.  Depending on what librarians tell me, I expect to hear stories of economic, technological, and social transitions, and I'm eager to hear it all.

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