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.

The sociology of literature and looking for data and insights in the margins of books

As a big reader, I was interested to see this review of research built on data about readers left behind in books:

Price’s work perches at the leading edge of a growing body of investigations into the history of reading. The field draws from many others, including book history and bibliography, literary criticism and social history, and communication studies. It looks backward to the pre-Gutenberg era, back to the clay tablets and scrolls of ancient civilizations, and forward to current debates about how technology is changing the way we read. Although much of the relevant research has centered on Anglo-American culture of the last three or four centuries, the field has expanded its purview, as scholars uncover the hidden reading histories of cultures many used to dismiss as mostly oral.

It’s a tricky business. A bibliographer works with hard physical evidence—a manuscript, a printed book, a copy of the Times of London. A scholar seeking to pin down the readers of the past often has to read between the lines. Marginalia can be a gold mine of information about a book’s owners and readers, but it’s rare. “Most of the time, most readers historically didn’t, and still don’t, write in their books,” Price explains.

But even a book’s apparent lack of use can be read as evidence. “The John F. Kennedy Library here in Boston owns a copy of Ulysses whose pages—other than a few at the very beginning and very end—are completely uncut,” she says. “This tells us something about the owner of the copy—who happens to be Ernest Hemingway.”…

Since Reading the Romance, the ethnography of reading has taken off among scholars. Radway points to Forgotten Readers, Elizabeth McHenry’s study of African-American literary societies, Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing With Scissors, about scrapbooking, and David Henkin’s City Reading, about signage in the urban environment, as strong examples. “People have become very creative about trying to figure out how groups of readers interact with the text as it’s embodied in various forms,” she says.

I have wondered in recent years why more sociologists don’t take up the subject of reading. It seems crucial for understanding the development of modern societies as information moved from a highly regulated environment to a diffuse distribution through books, newspapers, and other printed materials.

I’ve enjoyed the work of sociologist Wendy Griswold who studies reading. I’ve used a few of her pieces in class. Here are some of her fascinating works in the “sociology of literature” that I recommend:

1. Bearing Witness published in 2000. Griswold examines the reading culture in Nigeria and why novels, a common genre in Western society, aren’t prevalent in Nigeria. The short version of the story: it takes a lot of work for a society to be at a level where novels can be easily produced and read.

2. “American Character and the American Novel: An Expansion of Reflection Theory in the Sociology of Literature.” American Journal of Sociology 86(4), 1981. Griswold compares American and European novels in the late 1800s and early 1900s and finds the differences in their content is due more to copyright law than “national characters.”

3. With Terry McDonnell and Nathan Wright. “Reading and the Reading Class in the Twenty-First Century.” Annual Review of Sociology 31, 2005. Here is the abstract:

Sociological research on reading, which formerly focused on literacy, now conceptualizes reading as a social practice. This review examines the current state of knowledge on (a) who reads, i.e., the demographic characteristics of readers; (b) how they read, i.e., reading as a form of social practice; (c) how reading relates to electronic media, especially television and the Internet; and (d) the future of reading. We conclude that a reading class is emerging, restricted in size but disproportionate in influence, and that the Internet is facilitating this development.

Some fascinating stuff about the social forces influencing reading in today’s world.

4. With Nathan Wright. “Wired and Well Read.” In Society Online: The Internet in Context, 2004. If I remember correctly, Griswold and Wright argue the Internet doesn’t compete with reading; rather it enhances reading as those who read before the Internet use the Internet to read more.

Younger American adults looking for “print-like” news on their tablets and mobile devices

Derek Thompson discusses new data from Pew that suggests young adult Americans are looking for “print-like” experiences when reading online news:

But a new report from the Pew Research Center (pdf) suggests that, when it comes to reading the news on mobile devices, young people aren’t so different. First, they use their tablets and smartphones to read the news at nearly identical rates to 30- and 40-somethings. According to Pew, between 30 and 50 percent of practically every demographic, except seniors, uses mobile phones and tablets to read news — whether it’s men or women, college-educated or not, making less than $30,000 per year or more than $75,000. All told: Thirtysomethings and fortysomethings are just as likely as teens and twentysomethings to use their smartphones and tablets for news…

Here’s another surprise. Young mobile readers don’t want apps and mobile browsers that look like the future. They want apps that look like the past: 58% of those under 50, and 60% of Millennials, prefer a “print-like experience” over tech features like audio, video, and complex graphics. That preference toward plain text “tends to hold up across age, gender and other groups.” Pew reports: “Those under 40 prefer the print-like experience to the same degree as those 40 and over.”

While this report suggests different age groups consume news in similar ways, even with differences in video watching and how much news they share, I wonder if they get the same things out of their reading. Are they reading different kinds of stories? On different websites? Are they reading the same volume of news stories? Physically reading the screen in the same way? Reading the news with the same purposes? Retaining the same information? Wanting to read “print-like” news with similar devices means something but I suspect there could still be some major differences between these groups.

No golden age of books: “five hundred or so legitimate bookstores” in the US in the 1930s

As people lament the closure of chain bookstores like Borders as well as independent bookstores, having fewer bookstores may not be sending us to some dark age. Indeed, easily accessible and abundant bookstores may be a relatively recent feature of society: there were few bookstores in the US in the 1930s.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in the book [Two-Bit Culture by Kenneth C. Davis] to tell you how Davis argues the story, but early in the book, I was absolutely dumbfounded by his description of the publishing business in 1931. He draws on a “landmark survey of publishing practices” carried out by one Orin H. Cheney, a banker, as a service to the National Association of Book Publishers…

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly 0 bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

This data suggests that there is a big difference between books being published (and there is a reason the printing press is regarded as a major invention in human history) and how books can be purchased by consumers. There were not a lot of bookstores where people could browse thousands of volumes, let alone go online at Amazon.com and find tens of thousands of books.

If there was a paucity of bookstores in the 1930s, might the profile of libraries have been higher then? Libraries would have been one of the few places where average citizens could have found a wider range of books. Indeed, just before this period was when the Carnegie libraries were built:

A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. 2,509 Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library systems. 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji.

That is a lot of libraries when there were only 500 or so bookstores in the entire United States.

Three and a half shelves of sociology books at Barnes & Noble

While browsing at a local Barnes & Noble store, I again noted something of interest: they have three and a half shelves of sociology books.

This is fairly common as sociology is lumped in with sections like Cultural Studies and Criminology. Just across the aisle to the left was fifteen shelves of Current Affairs and just behind this was at least 15 shelves of History.

I’m not surprised by this: sociology in the public’s eye has a low profile. If you look closely at the books in the sociology section, you can find a number on sociological topics that are not written by sociologists such as Nickel and Dimed, There Are No Children Here, The Social Animal, Triumph of the City, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. So there is really less than three shelves of books by sociologists. This is the case even with several books on the shelf that have received recent attention such as Going Solo and The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Along with anthropology, I can’t think of any of the big academic disciplines from which you could find fewer books at your average chain bookstore.

Is this simply indicative of the small number of people who go into a Barnes & Noble and purchase sociology titles or does it illustrate the broader profile of sociology in American life?

Sociologist talks about the downside of choosing your own news

A sociologist suggests you may be missing something by only choosing what news you want to read:

It’s in no sense odd to find American academe wrangling over journalism. Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review and Clay Shirky of New York University have recently been hammering away at each other, seeking to determine whether investigative journalism can only be conducted by highly resourced news machines (like the Guardian’s) or by a more individual, digital-first approach (like… um… the Guardian’s). But what’s sociology got to contribute here?

Plenty, Klinenberg says, outlining the fundamental bargain that underpins newspaper life. You, the reader, want crosswords and cartoons, recipes and TV programme guides. You want all the stuff that journalists serve up with a sigh (because, well, it’s not exactly journalism, is it?). And, in return, as part of the deal, journalism is allowed to have a civic purpose – to report and analyse the workings and frailties of democracy – beyond quick ways to whip up a cottage pie.

That bargain, sealed in print, means you can’t have one without the other. Put your cash on the newsagent’s counter and you get some things you desire and other things, from Cardiff or Chad, that you didn’t know had happened until you turned to page five.

Of course, like any other neat thesis, there are readers and editors who don’t quite fit. But the nature of print – flipping from column to column, noticing stories that intrigue you, naturally expanding your spheres of interest – isn’t “versioning” at all – it’s more eclectic. An iPad or Kindle version works within narrower bounds. A Facebook version is even more selective, tailored to your most immediate demands. And the logical version at the end of this line is utterly simple: no deals, no bargains – just what you want, electronically provided on the basis of past predilection.

This is part of a larger question about the consequences of people only being exposed to certain points of view. Only selecting news that we want to read can be self-reinforcing as then we only seek out certain kinds of stories, limiting our view of the world.

I wonder, though, about blaming this issue on the medium. How much does having a newspaper in hand really increase the odds that someone will read something that didn’t plan to? Can’t people simply pick out parts of the newspaper that they want to read as well? Further, was there ever really a “golden age” where average citizens always tried to engage with alternative points of view? I would guess not though that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile ideal. We need citizens (and journalists) who can understand our complex world which transcends simply “left” or “right” understandings. Perhaps the Internet makes this easier in some ways but I would guess the Internet could be changed to meet these challenges or people’s behaviors could be altered.

This reminds of an argument I was reading last night. People could argue, rightly, that all media viewpoints are biased in some way. However, this doesn’t mean that we can just throw out all news sources and say they don’t have something of value. What should be consistent across different sources are facts and then there can be disagreement about the interpretation of these facts. Of course, what is considered “fact” may be up for grabs as well – see the recent debate over Politifact’s “Lie of the Year.”