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Nothing contributes so much to one’s sense of belonging to a community as much as ‘membership’ in a third place.” Ray Oldenburg, Ph.D, author The Great Good Place

How-to-build-communityRay Oldenburg is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.  His ideas about the Third Place came up recently during an excellent PBS show called Cool Spaces! that featured  innovative library spaces.

Oldenburg proposed the concept of the Third Place in his 1999 book, The Great Good Place.  The Third Place is the place that isn’t home and isn’t work or school.  It’s those other places where we routinely meet up with friends and family to eat,  talk and companionably socialize.  These great good places, Oldenburg says, are the neutral safe spaces that we voluntarily seek out and look forward to being in. We go there purely for the enjoyment of being together, without obligations,  responsibilities or concerns.

The Third Place is characterized as:building together

  • A place outside of home or workplace
  • Free or inexpensive
  • Welcoming & comfortable
  • Highly inclusive
  • Usually having food
  • Intellectually and socially stimulating

Pubs,  cafés,  bookstores and coffeehouses, and similar gathering places are the heart of community vitality, says Oldenburg, and the cornerstone of democracy that the Project for Public Spaces says ” provide a setting for grassroots politics, create habits of public association, and offer psychological support to individuals and communities.”

The  Third Place is that vital “place on the corner,” that helps unify neighborhoods, serve as ports of entry for newcomers to an area, provide intergenerational interaction, places for discussion, entertainment and friendship.

To us that sounds a whole lot like the local public library, especially like the public libraries we’re working with that are revitalizing themselves as active gathering places, where people can talk, create, have fun, learn things and generally have a good time together in a safe, inclusive environment.

The library as a Third Place isn’t a new concept ,of course .  It was the driving motivator behind the design of many of the libraries featured in the Cool Spaces! library episode, and there have been several articles about the idea. But as libraries rebuild themselves in new ways, as makerspaces, with coffee shops and digital commons, with spaces for conversation, music and more, the library card takes on new value as a membership card to every community’s Third Place, and libraries take on new significance at the heart of our communities.