At the interview for my first librarian job, one of the questions I asked was “What does ‘third place’ mean?” This library’s customer service plan, which had been discussed in the supplemental questions, included a sentence that declared they wanted customers to use the library as a “third place.”
As they told me, and as I’ve come to understand from my own work, “third place” is the concept of the community living room. Your first place is your home, your second place is your work, and your “third place” is an informal, drop-in meeting place. It’s often where you go to socialize, with old and new friends. It could be a barbershop, a cafe, a pub, a bowling alley, a church basement, somewhere in Second Life (although probably only if you were teaching at an online library school about five or six years ago), or it could be a library .
From my own perspective as a working, housed individual, I can really get behind this concept of the “third place.” I’ve been finding third places all my life. It fits with my memories of being a bored suburban teenager looking for a place to hang out (I had romantic notions based around French cafe culture and a passing and likely misinformed familiarity with the working style of Jean Paul Sarte). I have fond memories of Sunday lunch in English pubs, where people from ages 0 to 100 gather to eat, drink beer, and/or run around. And finally, my husband and I have crammed ourselves into tiny apartments for the last ten years, and found necessary breathing room in all kinds of third places.
What a wonderful concept, for the library to be our “third place”! Patrons should come hang out, chat with each other, enjoy a sense of community, and then head home and sleep soundly in their own beds.
But now I’ve been thinking, what does this notion of third place mean for people who don’t have a first or second place?
Many of our patrons are people who don’t. Patrons who are homeless and/or jobless are often heavy library users. And not so much in that happy, take-your-cute-kids-to-storytime way. More in that using-computers, sleeping, hanging-out-cause-there’s-nowhere-else-to-go way. Jobbed, housed patrons and staff often take issue with homeless patrons, probably in three main categories: smells, possessions, and outre talk or behavior.
There’s this undercurrent, both from staff and patrons, that homeless patrons hanging out, doing third place behavior, is improper library use. And yet we spend time enticing our housed patrons to do just that.
Do we need to rethink something here?