Final Assignment - Summer 2009

Library as Three Spaces
A defense of library spaces

LIS 588
September 15, 2009

Chaitra Powell

“The reality of the building does not consist in roof and walls but in the space within to be lived in”

Library Parabola – a reading room in the British Library
Photography by Sifter


How does one describe that feeling we all get when we arrive in a space that was built with purpose? What about especially lofty purposes like capturing general knowledge, demonstrating naval prowess, showcasing art, preserving archives, or collecting Scottish poetry? Beautifully designed structures are a monument to collaboration, vision, and many skilled laborers. An architect cannot just design whatever comes to his mind, his ideas have to invoke what the keepers of the space have in mind. Christopher Wren, I.M. Pei, Mies Van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wight are just a few of the world renowned architects that are immortalized with the structures that they designed. This quote by Laotse invoked some of the images that the LIS class from the British Studies program had the great pleasure of witnessing this summer. The propensity for thinking outside of the box, building genuine religious faith strong or producing knowledge that will change the world is increased when one’s surroundings are products of people who were able to do all those things. There is a reason why prisons are austere and depressing, while cathedrals are ornate and uplifting, it has everything to do with what those architects and other decision makers want people to feel. The reality that is lived within four or more walls, can be exemplified in the transformation of Paul on the pediment of St. Paul’s Cathedral , the contemporary tribute to peacekeepers which includes Martin Luther King on the façade of Westminster Abbey, or the high ceilings of a British Library Reading Room where ideas are free to roam to the highest reaches.

Purpose of the Study

Aside from the ephermal appeal of architecture and design, there are very real concerns about the staying power of library spaces. To some, libraries are glorified warehouses that use antiquated systems which need to be removed in preference for more powerful technology that does not require such decadent and expensive space (Ross 145). The purpose of this paper is to show readers why the library should be a permanent societal fixture because of its role in physical space, aesthetic space and as a legitimate third place.

Research Questions

1.How did the tours of European museums, archives, and libraries influence the pursuit of this topic?

2.What is the evidence that supports the idea that libraries have been designed as more than a warehouse for books, and how can researchers tell that patrons have received this message?

3.What is a third space, and how does it relate to libraries?

4.With the current push towards digitization, what kinds of data support the idea that libraries should continue to be a part of every community, new and old?

Importance of the Study

This study is important as we begin to make decisions that will either preserve or remove libraries, in their current form, from the community landscape. If city planners and community leaders, take a look at the origins of some important libraries and measure those reasons for creation against the current needs of people we can make better arguments about which path to take. I recently read an article about a secondary school library that removed all the books from its library, and changed the space into a multi-purpose study space. All of their materials will be available online (Abel). This is a great example of how an analysis of history, sociology, architecture and other disciplines could be used to make a case against this decision.

Literature Review

Most of the literature on “library as place” centers around making the public library a space that is comfortable to its users. This type of research is important because it gives library workers some ideas on where to start planning spaces for specific members of a community. As communities are becoming more and more diverse, techniques for making the library space more inclusive are of great interest to public library administrators. The data on the library aesthetic was primarily found in journals about architecture and building design. This is where researchers can see how experts describe the impact of buildings and spaces on the moods and attitudes of the users. First hand experiences within certain library spaces and talks with the workers there also informed this research. Lastly, the third space idea came from sociology texts. The idea that people need a third space, apart from work and home, to fulfill some indeliable need to be a part of society is best explained in the book, “The Great Good Place”, by sociologist, Ray Oldenburg. All of the articles that are included in the works cited can fall into one or more of these categories.


When someone walks up the winding staircase into St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, one gets the strange sensation that he or she is in a room of great importance and a room that should be preserved at all costs. There are library buildings all around the world that invoke this sense of wonder, and this research attempts to answer why, by using currently established research as building blocks.
The most obvious source of this wonder seems to come from the senses. What does one physically feel, smell, see, hear, or taste when she enters the library space and who is responsible for these sensations? An answer to these questions can result in various off shoots. For example, interior designers, janitors, and cooks can all be responsible for the scent of a room. In order to simplify this paper, the architect will be deemed the responsible party for our sensory experience. The architect would have agreed to make the ceilings high, or the windows large, and it is his or her interpretation of the purpose of that building that creates our increased or decreased appreciation for the building. This research includes various quotes from different architects, especially from the buildings that the researcher has experienced, about their work, in order to see if the experience matched what the architect intended.

Perhaps after the artistic appeal wears off, one may begin to think about the purpose of this physical space. Why is it located on this street instead of another? Why is it this big? Why is it included in this community? The history of libraries has a diverse trajectory depending on which culture is being focused on. The readings on the importance of libraries in America over time paint a clear picture as to why and where they were built within a historical context. In the early 20th century libraries more libraries were created in urban centers to help new immigrants acquire better English skills. As modes of transportation diversified and populations radiated from city centers, libraries began to adapt to the community they served in terms of the services, materials and facilities it offered. It was not until the 1980’s that libraries began to move towards multiuse facilities and digital collections (Koontz).

After one has discovered the intent of the architect and the purpose of the space, she may want to know why it should be important to her. Why should anyone care about a coffeeshop, a hair salon, a library, or a community center, when they can drink coffee, curl their hair, read books, or play games at home? This is a valid question and it seems to be one of the impetus behind Ray Oldenburg’s theory of third place. Third places are rapidly disappearing from the social landscape, and this research attempts to use libraries as an example of an important third place that should be preserved and perpetuated into the future.


In a summer abroad, this researcher had the distinct pleasure of visiting some of the most amazing library spaces in England, Scotland and The Netherlands. This experience had a great bearing on the pursuit of this research topic. The Scottish Poetry Library, St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, the Barbican Centre and the Anne Frank House were probably the four places that had the greatest influence on this research paper. The Scottish Poetry Library is a library with a very narrow purpose, to collect and preserve Scottish poetry, but the buildings is designed with high ceilings and big, airy second floor windows that allow plenty of sunshine in. The architect of the Scottish Poetry Library, Malcolm Fraser, had the following to say about the building, “I look on this building as a poem that we've made together, composed from light, view, rhythm, embrace, movement, gathering, colour, texture and metaphor to express the joy of poetry, and optimism for its future within our culture” (Scottish). There is definitely synergy between what the architect intended and the feeling that one gets when users get when they enter the space.

Scottish Poetry Library

Joe Wisdom, the librarian who led a tour through the library at St. Paul’s Cathedral talked about the building as text. A person could literally read the pictures and symbols that adorned the exterior and interior spaces of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This shows that all buildings have a meaning and people can figure it out if they know what to look for. The Barbican Center in the heart of London is a complex that was built in an area that had been decimated by the Great Fire in 1666, the Plague in the 18th century and the Blitz during World War II. The current structure houses a library, a theatre several restaurants and office space, among many other things. The architectural style that the Barbican utilizes is called Brutalist. Brutalism is criticised as disregarding the social, historic, and architectural environment of its surroundings, it was a popular style between 1950 and 1970, and it encompassed inexpensive materials that could be used while world economies were rebounding from World War II (Barbican). The design of the Barbican seems almost out of place in the sleek, financial city center, but it has a personality that invokes the tough sprit of a community that has weathered some strong storms, and managed to come out on the other side.

Barbican Centre

Lastly, the site of the Anne Frank House is literally the last residence of the little girl who has brought so much hope to people around the world. There is no more significant space to her story than the Secret Annex, and each year thousands of people get to experience it for themselves. The curators of the Anne Frank House have managed to strike a balance between preserving a supremely sacred space and making it accessible to the general public. This is a great example of how information workers can use profound spaces to tell stories, or reflect on the past as well as providing a platform for new ideas to flourish. All of these experiences informed the outlook of the researcher and allowed her to look for intent and meaning in other library spaces.

There are many anecdotal stories that show how libraries are seen as more than just a warehouse for books. Many important people throughout history have left their literary legacies in the care of trustworthy libraries. They did this because they recognized how important it is for knowledge to be shared in a public arena. King George III donated his personal library to the British Library upon his death, Thomas Bodley built the Bodlein Library at Oxford University on the literary contributions of wealthy English patrons (Koontz). Andrew Carnegie saw the importance of free public libraries and spent his life donating money so that more libraries could be built. Carnegie envisioned these space as a place where a person could educated him or herself (Carnegie). Carnegie libraries were especially crucial to the lives of millions of American immigrants who were trying to learn English and create a life in a new land. Even today, libraries are places where community members can learn new languages and obtain life skills that will pay dividends in their futures. A place to learn life skills, for free, outside of formal educational settings is an important service in many communities. Topics as diverse as how to check e-mail oto how to study for a citizenship test cannot be effectively provided in a digital format.

Outside of auxillary services that libraries perform, there are feelings of warmth and imagination that are created when some people, especially children, utilize the library.

“In Alfred Kazin's memoir, A Walker in the City, the writer and literary critic describes visiting the Brooklyn Public Library as a boy, more than 50 years ago. "It was the Children's Library on Stone Avenue… in the long peaceful reading room there were story book tiles over the fireplace and covered deep wooden benches on each side of it where I read my way year after year from every story of King Alfred the Great to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."For Kazin, the experience of becoming a reader was inseparable from the power of place-the library's beautiful tile and welcoming benches.” (Kenny 11)

As this example illustrates, there is something just outside of practicality that dictates the existence of a library. For every person who has discovered a joy of reading after a meaningful visit to a local library, or an immigrant that used library resources to learn a new language, there is proof that libraries are about more than just a place to put books.

Roy Oldenburg is a sociologist who describes a third space as a place outside of a person’s workplace and home where he or she can embrace their membership in a given society. Oldenburg says that the “third place [is] the people’s own remedy for stress, loneliness, and alienation” (20). Cafes, bars, and barber shops are popular examples of third spaces, and the jovial or comfortable nature of these environments make them easy to identify. There are certain requirements that make a place a third space, and this research contends that a library is a third space, therefore making it a crucial piece to any given society. Some of the qualifications of a third space are that it is a neutral and inclusive space that allows people to mingle regardless of their social rank (Oldenburg 22-25). A public library is open to everyone and a wealthy person has the same borrowing privileges as a homeless person. Third spaces are also characterized by congeniality, they are close to home and they are composed of a friendly group of “regulars” (Oldenburg 32-39). Most librarians can attest to a real set of regulars who are a consistent presence in the library.

There is an entire body of literature that touts the importance of turning library spaces into social magnets for various segments of the population. This is not to say that people can easily slide their pub behaviors into their local library, but there are book clubs, discussion forums, and open spaces for people to join and engage with others in their neighborhood. A librarian in the Central Library in Edinburgh, Scotland mentioned a program called, “Make noise in the Library” to help young people move away from the notion that a library is only for quiet activities. The library has the power to be whatever its community needs it to be, which further adds to its value as a cornerstone of that society. Chris Cooper wrote an article, “Tiny Spaces, Big Returns”, in which he describes the conversion of a library office space, in Fortuna, CA, into a “teen zone”. The teen zone has computers, comfortable chairs, and games that the teens can utilize. The teen zone is designed by teenagers for teenagers, and is a home away from home for that body of library users (Cooper 224). Another article from Allan Kleinman discusses the importance of senior citizen area in a library, complete with large print books and tables with space for wheelchairs (Kleiman 12). Both of these examples express the importance of the library in our fully functioning society. It does not have the age restrictions or the monetary obligations of a bar, but it does have the potential to provide the same level of comraderie and social cohesion.


One of the themes of this paper is to take an interdisciplinary approach to make the case for the value of library spaces. This seems to be the best way to convince the widest cross section of opponents of one’s position. Much of the supporting documents come from sources as diverse as school library journals, architectural magazines and sociological texts. Hopefully these ideas have come together to show the importance of preserving library spaces. The principles that prompted governments and private citizens to support public libraries centuries ago have not disappeared and should be honored as the world continues to create new communities. While most of this paper is focused on great libraries that were build in the past, further research could be done on the new kinds of “text” that library buildings might be displaying. The Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, Arizona (bottom), and the Cerritos Library (top) just outside of Los Angeles would be great examples of modern libraries that have incorporated inspiring spaces in an increasingly digital age. Other research spin offs could include psychological evidence of the impact of space on mood and performance for various intellectual pursuits. As technology advances, people will need more reasons to exercise moderation and think things through before making decisions that could permanently remove certain traditions and pockets of information from our society.

Cerritos Public Library (California)

Burton Barr Public Library (Arizona)

Works Cited

Abel, David. “Welcome to the Library, Say Goodbye to the Books”. The Boston Globe. Accessed on September 5, 2009.
Balas, Janet L. Physical Space and Digital Space--Librarians Belong in Both. Computers in Libraries; May2007, Vol. 27 Issue 5, p26-29, 4p, 3 bw Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Barbican Centre. Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Cooper, Chris. Tiny Space, Big Returns. Voice of Youth Advocates; Aug2008, Vol. 31 Issue 3, p224-225, 2p Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Cy, Dillon. A Place for Everything: Everything in Its Place. Virginia Libraries; Apr-Jun2009, Vol. 55 Issue 2, p2-4, 3p, 2 bw Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Gregory, Gwen M. (Book Review). “Designing Library Places for the Younger Crowd” (The article reviews the book "Teen Spaces: The Step-by-Step Library Makeover," second edition, by Kimberly Bolan). Information Today; Apr2009, Vol. 26 Issue 4, p40-40, 1p, 1 bw Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Kenney, Brian. The Power of Place. School Library Journal; Jan2008, Vol. 54 Issue 1, p11-11, 1p, 1 color Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Kleiman, Allan M. "Senior Spaces," the Library Place for Baby Boomers and Older Adults. Interface (02706717); Spring2009, Vol. 31 Issue 2, p12-12, 1p Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Koontz, Christie M. A History of Location of U.S. Public Libraries Within Community Place and Space: Evolving Implications for the Library's Mission of Equitable Service. Public Library Quarterly; 2007, Vol. 26 Issue 1/2, p75, 26p Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Lawson, Karen. (Book Review). Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space by Geoffrey T. Freeman.Serials Librarian; 2007, Vol. 51 Issue 3/4, p238-239, 2p Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts,m and how they get you through the day. Paragon House. New York NY, 1989.
Pomerantz, Jeffrey and Gary Marchionini. The digital library as place. Journal of Documentation; 2007, Vol. 63 Issue 4, p505-533, 29p Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Ross, Lyman and Pongracz Sennyey. “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library! The Practice of Academic Librarianship and the Digital Revolution”. Journal of Academic Librarianship 34(2) p145 – 152. March 2008. 3&_cdi=6556&_user=56761&_orig=search&_coverDate=03%2F31%2F2008&_sk=999659997&view=c&wchp=dGLbVzW-zSkzk&md5=2d6b7d05ad38233f6370389f8f4c82ea&ie=/sdarticle.pdf Accessed on September 5, 2009.

Scottish Public Library Website. Accessed on September 5, 2009.
Storer, Maryruth. “Orange County Public Law Library tests its resolve for more space with a challenging renovation”. AALL Spectrum; May2007, Vol. 11 Issue 7, p18-19, 2p, 4 color Accessed on September 5, 2009.

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