Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Libraries as the Spaces between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Libraries as the Spaces between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space

Article excerpt

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.


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. …

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