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Libraries As the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space

James K. Elmborg

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Much has been written recently about the “library as place.” This essay approaches the question of library space philosophically, arguing that developing commercial attitudes toward space leads us away from more productive ways of conceiving libraries. A concept called Third Space is introduced, and its relevance to libraries and librarianship is explored. Third Space is defined and applied to various library concepts, especially information literacy. The article contends that thinking about Third Space can help libraries and librarians develop ways of working with increasingly diverse populations in increasingly dynamic contexts.

“Question: What is the first thing that you think of when you think of a library?

Answer: a place of mild climate where I can find adventures”1

As Charles Osburn notes, “there has been a decided surge of interest in our professional literature about ‘the library as place.’”2 This interest reflects various trends and emphases in libraries, especially the transformative social and technological changes that have demanded increasingly innovative thinking about what a library and a librarian should be. Collections, technology, and services can no longer be conceived in traditional twentieth-century terms. Libraries, with their historical ethos of free access for all, struggle to justify their existence in a world of 24/7 access increasingly evaluated by profit-based, commercial metrics. As we think about what library space and librarians should be and become, we need to think broadly and creatively about our options. We have barely begun to develop sophisticated frameworks for thinking about the future of the library as physical space. Libraries are complex institutions, and they need to respond to the demands of the present by adapting in a variety of ways. No doubt we need to justify our existence to our various funding agencies, which will involve economic arguments, but we also need to develop theories about library space that go beyond marketing services and managing buildings. We need to think about intentionally producing unique library spaces. I believe we must be conscious and ambitious about developing guiding theories and that a critical concept called Third Space can help us to do so.

The Conversation in Practice

When we talk about library space, we are usually talking about buildings.

Library buildings give form to the collections of libraries by providing appropriate space specifically designed to house and provide access to the holdings. They also provide other more “mythic” functions by intentionally symbolizing through architecture and design the values that libraries espouse. A number of converging forces have intensified recent questions of library space. Changing technologies have forced reconsideration of how buildings accommodate the new machines that provide service to modern libraries. Along with technical imperatives have come a series of human questions about the impact of new technologies on our ways of teaching, learning, and thinking. An entirely new vocabulary has emerged around learning spaces and how to conceptualize and create them. As Brown and Lippincott note, “New conceptions of the classroom are being driven by the emergence of new methods of teaching and learning, made possible by the rapid evolution and adoption of information technology.”3 We have come to think of learning as a constructive process, which has encouraged us to redesign schools and libraries to foster collaborative learning and active learning, and we are exploring digital environments as spaces we structure and design for learning, as well.4

Much of the energy behind these new conceptualizations has been fueled by fundamental questions of library legitimacy. The digital world is replacing libraries, this narrative argues. If we intend to remain relevant (or exist at all) we must adapt quickly to the technological challenges to library legitimacy. This adaptation demands that we compete with various entities that provide desired goods and services in our market. These entities include Google, which has claimed the information market, and also the bookstores and coffee shops that have capitalized on the market for comfortable physical space to interact with books. Space is therefore conceived as both physical and virtual, and libraries face competition in both realms. Consequently, during the past decade, much has been written about how libraries can respond to questions of space. Woven throughout the discussion we find a common anxiety about the changing nature of library space and what will happen as we continue to develop and deploy new technologies that displace or transform traditional libraries, demanding that we justify our stewardship and management of it.

In response to our challenges, we are regularly told that we need to run libraries more like businesses.5 ALA Editions’ advertisement for Hernon and Altman’s Assessing Service Quality reflects the concerns outlined above:

Because of technology, the old measures of service quality no longer apply. If libraries are to succeed, they must see themselves in competition with other institutions and sources of information—especially the Web—and make customers feel welcome and valued. [The authors] integrate the use of technology into the customer experience. They offer solid, practical ideas for developing a customer service plan that meets the library’s customer-focused mission, vision, and goals, challenging librarians to think about customer service in new ways.6

Another author makes the point that “The Internet, coffee shops, restaurants and even homes are all invading the territory once exclusive to libraries. Bookstores are consciously attempting to recreate the library atmosphere, encouraging customers to linger. … As a result, patrons are abandoning libraries for more favorable environments. Library users are choosing plush recliners and the aroma of coffee over the squeaking of wooden tables and buzzing of fluorescent lights.”7 We should note the level of threat implied in these comments. Librarians are “challenged” to think about customer service. Other competitors are “invading” library territory. They are “consciously” imitating libraries. Patrons are “abandoning” us. Anyone following the library literature recognizes such anxious claims, which have been with us for at least the past decade.

In responding to these threats, The Denver Public Library decided to become a “destination library.” To do so, they decided to implement “best ideas and practices in consumer merchandising and marketing and apply these to the library space.” Behaving more like a business meant that “new multiple copies of best sellers and media would be available quickly, displayed more like the local bookstore. Comfortable seating would be available, perhaps with a cafe nearby. The goal would be a popular customer-driven collection in an appealing space that would encourage visits.”8 Journals and conferences are infused with this perspective as we focus on marketing services with campaigns like @yourlibrary. Again, this idea of treating libraries like businesses is not new. The managerial segment of the profession has been borrowing techniques from business management for years. However, the idea that we need to market library space as a product that will attract library users seems new. In pointing to this phenomenon, my goal is not to raise the question of whether libraries should behave like businesses. Rather, I want to suggest that when we do, we create a specific kind of space. When we aim to compete with businesses, we infuse the building with advertising and the upbeat signage that “customers” know and recognize. In effect, rather than manage employees or collections or the physical plant, we are managing ambience, trying to create a place that feels familiar and good to the consumers of library services.

A large part of this effort goes into the aesthetics of library space. Demas and Sherer note that “after a generation of intense focus on building the virtual library, librarians have reawakened to the place-making role of the library building.” These authors advocate what they call “esprit de space.” They suggest that libraries should pursue “the timeless design goal of creating transcendent and transportive spaces: transcendent, in the sense of buildings that delimit physicality through imaginative understanding and application of virtues; and transportive, in design that uplifts the patron and enhances the unique experience of sensing past, present, and future simultaneously. It is this transcendent/transportive co-existence, with particular reference to its local, place-specific manifestations that distinguish a library with … esprit de place, or spirit of place.”9 Again, it is worth noting that libraries have long been concerned with the aesthetics of their buildings. Library Journal devotes one issue annually to photographs of the most innovative and beautiful new library buildings. Various consultants provide guidance in how to work with architects to develop buildings that both function well and also provide beauty and form that embody library values. Once again, though, we see the emerging emphasis on the feeling of library space and the importance of managing that space to attract and hold library users.

Younger users cause special anxiety, apparently, as a good deal of thinking goes into imagining aesthetically pleasing spaces for them. Kuzyk suggests that libraries need to “put the WOW back in children’s rooms.”10 Farrelly suggests that we need to compete with the bookstores for the loyalty of teens, noting that “libraries need to be more appealing to teens than Borders, Starbucks, and Barnes and Noble to attract young adults. We also need to do them one better.”11 Gallo suggests that her experience working in a bookstore has provided her with strategies for using displays to attract teens. She suggests that we identify display areas creatively and use color to attract attention.12 Bolan has been a prolific adviser to libraries about designing teen space. She asks us to consider what would happen “if teens suddenly found the library warm and inviting?”13 She has abundant advice about how to make the library an attractive destination for teens. She suggests seeking input through a teen advisory board, noting that “it’s crucial to make room for youngsters’ ideas in everything from creating an advisory board to planning a design team.”14 She suggests “finding that ambiguous teen style.”15 Ultimately, Bolan declares, “we’re in the midst of a teen revolution design-wise, that is.”16 Indeed, as libraries continue to market their services to young people, we see intense focus on the issues played out more generally in the library literature competition with bookstores and coffeehouses, design with the aesthetics of the customer in mind, and the general need to hold on to the library users of the future. The stakes are high.

Toward Critical Conceptions of Space

Two recent publications have approached space philosophically, and they have established a foundation for looking at libraries in the context of critical theories of space. Both these works aim explicitly at providing an alternative to the “library as business” way of looking at space. Interestingly, both these works depend on importing the interdisciplinary research on place studies into librarianship. Place studies can be understood as an effort to bring multiple critical perspectives to bear on the problem of how we use and define the spaces we share and manage. These studies are animated by awareness that when we create and occupy space, we define and develop that space (consciously or unconsciously) to embody cultural codes. Indeed, these studies share a fundamental assumption that place must be understood as the interaction between humans and natural forms. Culture creates space, and once we realize that fact, we can become more conscious and more intentional about what we create.

In “Regaining Place,” Charles B. Osburn argues persuasively that “place is worthy of the most serious consideration, especially at a time when so many fundamental options present themselves for the future of the library.”17 Osburn goes on to argue that space is “endowed with powerful properties … only by the beholder whose awareness of the experience generates it.”18 Ultimately the images people have in their minds about space “can have much or little to do with reality, for they are partial and may be either exaggerated or understated.”19 Osburn provides a useful perspective in that he acknowledges the subjective nature of experiencing space, which moves us past thinking that space is a stable commodity and that we can control how people experience it. Following Osburn’s logic, whatever we do with library space, people who enter libraries will experience that space in their own ways, perhaps as we intend, and perhaps not.

A more critical and more guided discussion of space occurs in the book Library as Place: History, Community, and Culture, edited by Buschman and Leckie. In their introductory essay, the editors summarize a range of theories that provide ways of thinking about space. This survey provides a valuable, concise introduction to the current state of space theories and libraries. Ultimately after presenting a range of critical perspectives, the authors suggest that Jürgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere should form the central theoretical perspective for how libraries can define themselves and the space they construct. “It is Habermas,” they argue, “who allows us to make normative and democratic claims about libraries as places.”20 This argument aligns with Osburn’s claim that places are social, cultural, and personal constructs that we hold in our minds. In brief, Habermas argues that the rise of the middle class from the eighteenth through the nineteenth centuries involved the development of public spaces where citizens discussed and debated the issues of the day. These debates followed rules of reason and persuasion (in the best Enlightenment tradition), so the most rational argument would prevail. This public sphere formed a critical function providing checks and balances on the powers of government, and it constituted a crucial element of early democracy and a way for the middle class to establish its influence and to define and express its public will.

In summarizing Habermas, Buschman and Leckie acknowledge “crucial problems” with the bourgeois public sphere. They note that in Habermas’s analysis, “the public sphere arose among a highly educated, cohesive class.”21 In his analysis of Habermas’s theories of the public sphere, Douglas Kellner succinctly summarizes the most problematic critique of Habermas. He contends that “while [Habermas’s] concept of the public sphere and democracy assume a liberal and populist celebration of diversity, tolerance, debate, and consensus, in actuality, the bourgeois public sphere was dominated by white, property-owning males.”22 Any consensus achieved in such a forum only legitimately reflects the opinions and interests of this narrow class. Summarizing Habermas, Buschman and Leckie suggest that the public sphere began to lose its sway when “democracy became a mass affair during the nineteenth century.”23 With this change, politics became less reasoned, and competing interests became more effective at undermining the seriousness of conversation in the public sphere. Ultimately, despite its limitations, the authors note that “what we today understand of libraries as public space with democratic undertones is deeply embedded in the historical processes Habermas identifies.”24 Our challenge today, it seems, lies in finding a new way to constitute a truly inclusive public sphere, one broadened beyond the homogeneity of the property-owning bourgeois class.

Habermas traces the decline of the public sphere to increasingly sophisticated capitalist practices that transformed critical citizens into uncritical consumers. These new capitalist practices emerged in the nineteenth century, and as a result, commercial space began to replace the intellectual space of the public sphere. Capitalism has grown increasingly more effective at defining space during the twentieth century. David Harvey argues convincingly that a new, faster form of capitalism began to emerge in 1971. Since then, this new and increasingly sophisticated capitalism has more powerfully defined cultural space. The new capitalism (sometimes called hyper-capitalism, fast-capitalism, or simply late capitalism) compresses space and place by developing increasingly sophisticated ways to collapse time and space to increase the rate of profit. This observation accounts for the fact that toward the end of the twentieth century, we began to experience “an intense phase of time-space compression.” Harvey asserts that “accelerating turnover time in production entails parallel accelerations in exchange and consumption.”25 In other words, the faster we produce, the faster we need to consume to keep inventory from backing up. Profits depend on increasing speed.

Historically, space has presented a primary obstacle to this acceleration. Railroads, the telegraph, highways, steam shipping, the Suez Canal, the telephone, and ultimately the Internet, all these technologies have been deployed and perfected to “shrink” space to more rapidly move goods to market to drive commerce.26 Ultimately, Harvey argues, capitalists learned to think of space as broken into distribution nodes connected by communication systems. The resulting fragmentation achieved “the annihilation of space through time.”27 By finding ways to shrink space to speed up commerce, we have arrived at a point where space and time are transformed. Modern communications technologies now allow us to do almost anything almost instantly from almost anywhere. This annihilation and fragmentation of space has had profound consequences for culture. In capitalist culture, we now create disposable spaces and places that can be rapidly “turned over” for profit. Property can be bought, sold, and converted to new uses once it has been fragmented. Place can be played against place for profit.

Harvey argues that what we understand as postmodernism—the fragmentation of place and acceleration of time—results from these advanced capitalist practices. Harvey notes that one strategy for resisting postmodernism has been to “relaunch the Enlightenment project of universal human emancipation in a global space bound together through mechanisms of communication and social intervention.”28 In this response, the autonomous human exercises rationality and free will and can marshal these resources to resist the effects of postmodernism. Habermas’s identification and promotion of a reconstituted public sphere in “global space” represents one such effort to “re-launch the Enlightenment project.” This solution, however, misses the source of the problem of postmodernism. Postmodernism is not a theoretical invention of the academy to be resisted intellectually. The condition of postmodernism results from the very real transformations in culture wrought by increasingly sophisticated capitalism. The Enlightenment project of human emancipation has been increasingly ineffective as a means to resist the capitalist restructuring of culture (hence the transformation of the public sphere chronicled by Habermas). While we might see ourselves as autonomous and rational, the culture we live in undermines our autonomy and subverts our rationality. This new postmodern context must be understood as the defining reality of our age, and within this reality, we must work to define our spaces.

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One Comment

  1. It is clear why this work won the 28th annual Reference Service Press Award for the most outstanding article published in RUSQ during the past two years. The ideas presented here are both timely and relevant. The writing is excellent. And, the author challenges us to think about libraries, library concepts, and information literacy is new ways. Thans, Jim, for this important contribution to the literature of reference and information services.

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