Can you design an attractive “third place” library if it has no books?

A journalist asks an interesting question about libraries: can it be an attractive space if it has no books?

Whether the public library has a digital-only collection, a hard-copy collection, or a combination of both, it is first and foremost a place for ideas. Sure, the spare, clean lines of an Apple store brilliantly focus attention on the excellence of Mac products available for sale, but a public library needs to foster community, inspire idea cross-pollination, and help us draw connections between our past and our future. A public library needs to be a place of comfort  –  a place where its community can come to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Modern library designers are headed in the right direction when they reference sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s “third places.” A third place is an informal public space that’s neither work nor home where people can interact casually and exchange ideas. Third places are the oil that lubricates civic engagement, and Oldenburg believes they need to be physical, not digital. Physical third places bring people with different mind-sets and politics together, but virtual meeting places attract like-minded people, Oldenburg told JWT Intelligence in 2011.

In B.C., the West Vancouver Memorial Library, renovated some half a dozen years ago, did it right. The library is warm, friendly, modern and welcoming with many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction.  The new Surrey City Centre Library, which opened just over a year ago, did it wrong. Its design might be architecturally stunning, but its large white expanses feel cold and uninviting. Perhaps this will improve when the library gets busier.

San Antonio’s $1.5 million library will have tablets, e-readers and computers, but no physical books. Word is the 5,000 square-foot library will have 100 e-readers to loan out,  plus 50 onsite computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets. Borrowers will be able to check out e-readers for two weeks or simply load books onto their own devices, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The argument here seems to be that libraries are sterile places without physical books. While the San Antonio library branch referenced here seems to be more progressive in terms of technology, a trend I assume many libraries are trying to follow, it still does have e-readers. What exactly is it about books that makes a space less sterile, particularly if the writer above also suggests the best part of the library in British Columbia is that it has “many little nooks to foster human-scaled interaction”? Can’t a technologically advanced library have a lot of little nooks? Perhaps books give off a sense of stateliness or learning.

I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: having lots of books might foster less social interaction and therefore make a library a less inviting place. Do people necessarily go to find books to read and have social interaction? Some people do indeed go to bookstores for conversations about books (and other media like magazines) but libraries have not traditionally been places for social interaction in the same sense as bookstores or coffee shops.

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