September 30th, 2013

OPINION – The Library As ‘Third Place’

Exploring The New Central Library As A Venue For Community Engagement

guidoToday marks the first official day of operations for the new San Diego Central Library @ Joan ^ Irwin Jacobs Common, following a weekend of grand opening festivities and a sneak peek of the ground floor.

Renamed and fully funded, the nine-story building at 330 Park Boulevard is an iconic addition to our city’s skyline and urban core, and complements PETCO Park and the San Diego Convention Center, both just a stone’s throw away.

In recent weeks, much has been written about the library’s majestic dome, beautiful interior spaces and sweeping views, certainly distinguishing marks of this magnificent building. What is less evident to many, at least so far, is the tremendous role the new library will surely play in creating a sense of place.

‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’  –Winston Churchill

Libraries have long performed a key role in fostering a deeper appreciation of knowledge and life-long learning. Increasingly, central libraries also are filling another critical need in our communities by providing a haven for those seeking a communal connection in an ever-more-isolated world.

booklook2Ray Oldenburg, author of The Great Good Placecoined the term “third place” to describe any environment outside the home and workplace (first and second places, respectively) where people gather for deeper interpersonal connection. These can run the gamut, for example, from a community center, gym, pub, or favorite restaurant, to a barber shop, church or coffeehouse frequented by locals. (For more on this topic, see my earlier post, Why Third Place Is A Good Place.)

According to Oldenburg, third places are vitally important to the social fabric of communities because they facilitate the healthy exchange of ideas and provide a public venue for civil debate and community engagement.

Libraries are long-time third places, often providing meeting rooms, Wi-Fi access, coffee bars, public computer terminals and other amenities. In addition, they provide accessible spaces for community organizations and convention groups, as well as venues for concerts, film screenings and lectures, and makeshift offices for transitioning job-seekers and home-based business owners. They also serve as obvious meeting places for literacy organizations, havens for latchkey kids, and, yes, bases of operations for the homeless as they try to reintegrate into the community. And on the Internet front, the role of libraries as technology hubs is increasingly supplanting their function as simply a repository of books. These are the features, probably more so than the rows of books and racks of periodicals, that grant libraries their third place status.

GlassspaprcofeeOur new central library will be no exception. As the U-T San Diego Editorial Board wrote, “It is a library for the digital age and for the age of civic engagement. You can get married in this library, on a top-floor perch with an incredible view. You can go to high school in this library. You can watch a political debate among candidates for mayor or attend myriad other civic functions. You can marvel at the art on the walls or the architectural charm and whimsy of the building itself…You can buy holiday gifts at this library or simply while away the time on a lazy day.”

The new San Diego Central Library @ Joan ^ Irwin Jacobs Common (common being a traditional New England place to gather) will be a “Great Good Place,” as Ray Oldenburg would say. A truly welcoming “third place” for locals and visitors alike.

As Irwin Jacobs, the Massachusetts native whose generosity has made the new library possible, said during Saturday’s dedication ceremony, “It’s going to be a real gathering place for San Diego. I look forward to seeing it filled with people.”




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