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.

San Fran “coffeehouse and tech incubator” inspired by idea of “third places”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said in recent years that the company seeks to become a “third place,” a space between work and home. This term was popularized by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place. But exactly how a coffee shop should operate in order to be a third place is up for debate. A new San Francisco firm, The Summit Cafe, envisions a coffeeshop plus a center for technological incubation:

With its copious power outlets, Gouda-wrapped meatballs, and a curated magazine rack featuring vintage Steve Jobs covers, the Summit café sits at the intersection of San Francisco’s three most conspicuous tribes: techies, foodies, and yuppies. Yet what separates the Summit from being just another Wi-Fi boîte is the dual-purpose nature of the 5,000-square-foot space. One floor above the Laptop Mafia, the café features a cluster of offices where groups of programmers and developers toil away in an effort to launch the next Twitter—or at least the next OkCupid. Created by i/o Ventures, a Bay Area startup accelerator comprising former executives from MySpace (NWS), Yahoo! (YHOO), and file-sharing site BitTorrent, the Summit is equal parts Bell Labs and Central Perk—and probably the country’s first official coffeehouse tech incubator. Every four months, i/o selects and funds a handful of small tech ventures to the tune of $25,000 each in return for 8 percent of common stock. In addition to the cash, each team gets four months of office space at the Summit, mentoring from Web gurus like Russel Simmons of Yelp, and discounts on all the Pickle & Cheese Plates or White Snow Peony Tea they could possibly need. Since the café opened on Valencia Street last fall, two companies have already been sold, including damntheradio, a Facebook fan management tool. To hedge against any potential risk, i/o also rents half of the Summit’s other desk space to independent contractors and fledgling Web entrepreneurs. It’s even experimenting with an arrangement in which customers can pay $500 for a dedicated desk—on top of a $250 membership fee.

Is this sort of thing only possible in San Francisco (high-tech culture) or perhaps just in major cities?

But this space does seem more like a work space than a true third place. Are there people who come here just to hang out? Do fledgling companies that come here mix with other fledgling companies to form new ideas and firms?

Sociologist Oldenburg responds to Facebook Places

In a recent interview, Facebook vice president of product Chris Cox, suggested that Ray Oldenburg’s work on the “third place” was behind the development of Facebook Places.

Oldenburg has responded in an email exchange with ZDNet:

“While I can appreciate that Facebook certainly helps people keep in touch with one another, I’m left to wonder why the pitch began with the 3P idea.  I got a whiff of snake oil there for the matter of how Facebook ties to 3Ps is not made clear.”

Speaking more broadly about the relationship between Facebook as a service and his ideas of place:

“I had nothing to do with Facebook and I resent the idea that it’s a “place.”  Real places unite people, electronic ones, because they are based on user choice, tend to be divisive; that is, to connect people who think alike and exclude others.  The term “virtual third place(s)” is common and most inappropriate.”Virtual” means the same in essence and effect and that is far from the truth.”

So Oldenburg is skeptical. The main issue seems to be whether this online realm is a real “place.” Public places are typically conceived as locations that all sorts of people can use. They don’t necessarily interact with each other but all can partake of it and are generally aware that there are different people around. In contrast, Facebook Places is limited to those with Facebook. Until we have a world where everyone has Facebook and has the ability to use it with a mobile device, Facebook Places is limited. There is a substantial sociological literature on the privatization of public spaces, such as parks.

Additionally, Oldenburg suggests that online communities tend to be broken down along lines of interest rather than proximity. People who like certain things tend to gather together and experience little mixing with others. These online places then become exclusive clubs. This is different than true public spaces where at least people are made aware that there are others in the world.

As ZDNet notes, Facebook is also interested in making money with these Places.

Technology to pull us together

Facebook has introduced a new feature (Facebook Places) that allows users to “check-in” at certain locations. Facebook’s vice president of product suggests this is exactly the sort of technology that will bring us together rather than pull us apart:

“The entire goal of this product, and in general what we’re trying to develop here, is that the ‘third place’ is alive and well and that technology can actually be the thing that pulls us away from the TV and out to the nightclub or out to the concert or out to the theater or out to the bar,” Cox said. “Technology does not need to estrange us from one another.”

The concept of the “third place” was developed in Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community first published in 1989. Oldenburg says the third place is the space between home and work. This sort of space has recently disappeared from the lives of many Americans whereas our ancestors had spaces where they could gather with friends and community members and vent about and discuss work and family and politics.

Facebook, of course, is not the first to introduce this technology. But since it has such a big user base, perhaps it can change how humans interact in social spaces. Or perhaps not.