Friday, 3 October 2008

Libraries as social spaces

One of the areas we should examine is the changing role of libraries as social spaces. There's an interesting Economist article on the way architects have been providing so-called 'third places' -- i.e. neither home nor office.

The academic name for such spaces is “third places”, a term originally coined by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, “The Great, Good Place”. At the time, long before mobile technologies became widespread, Mr Oldenburg wanted to distinguish between the sociological functions of people's first places (their homes), their second places (offices) and the public spaces that serve as safe, neutral and informal meeting points. As Mr Oldenburg saw it, a good third place makes admission free or cheap—the price of a cup of coffee, say—offers creature comforts, is within walking distance for a particular neighbourhood and draws a group of regulars. The eponymous bar in the television series “Cheers”, “where everybody knows your name”, is an example.

Mr Oldenburg's thesis was that third places were in general decline. More and more people, especially in suburban societies such as America's, were moving only between their first and second places, making extra stops only at alienating and anonymous locations such as malls, which in Mr Oldenburg's opinion fail as third places. Society, Mr Oldenburg feared, was at risk of coming unstuck without these venues for spreading ideas and forming bonds.

No sooner was the term coined than big business queued up to claim that it was building new third places. The most prominent was Starbucks, a chain of coffee houses that started in Seattle and is now hard to avoid anywhere. Starbucks admits that as it went global it lost its ambiance of a “home away from home”. However, it has also spotted a new opportunity in catering to nomads. Its branches offer not only sofas but also desks with convenient electricity sockets. These days Starbucks makes bigger news when it switches Wi-Fi providers—it dropped T-Mobile for AT&T in February—than when it sells a new type of coffee bean. Bookshops such as Barnes & Noble are also offering “more coffee and crumbs”, as Mr Oldenburg puts it, as are churches, YMCAs and public libraries...

The article cites the Stata Centre at MIT (by Frank Gehry) as an example of a different approach to building design:

Opened in 2004 and housing MIT's computer-science and philosophy departments behind its façade of bizarre angles and windows, it has become a new Cambridge landmark. But the building's most radical innovation is on the inside. The entire structure was conceived with the nomadic lifestyles of modern students and faculty in mind. Stata, says William Mitchell, a professor of architecture and computer science at MIT who worked with Mr Gehry on the centre's design, was conceived as a new kind of “hybrid space”.

This is best seen in the building's “student street”, an interior passage that twists and meanders through the complex and is open to the public 24 hours a day. It is dotted with nooks and crannies. Cafés and lounges are interspersed with work desks and whiteboards, and there is free Wi-Fi everywhere. Students, teachers and visitors are cramming for exams, flirting, napping, instant-messaging, researching, reading and discussing. No part of the student street is physically specialised for any of these activities. Instead, every bit of it can instantaneously become the venue for a seminar, a snack or romance.

The fact that people are no longer tied to specific places for functions such as studying or learning, says Mr Mitchell, means that there is “a huge drop in demand for traditional, private, enclosed spaces” such as offices or classrooms, and simultaneously “a huge rise in demand for semi-public spaces that can be informally appropriated to ad-hoc workspaces”.

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