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« Theory into practice - Rolf Erkison on third place libraries | Main | It's a MIRACLE! »

School libraries as a "third place"

The third place is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. - Wikipedia

Coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book A Great Good Place, the term "third place" has come to describe an area for informal social gathering outside of home (first place) and work (second place). Oldenberg suggests such environments are necessary for a healthy society.

A lecture by Constance Steinkuehler introduced me to this term. Steinkuehler's assertion was that online game environments like those in World of Warcraft become third places for the users*. Since I am not a gamer, I more or less forgot the term.

Until I started doing some reading and thinking about library design in the secondary schools. Might, just might, the school library serve as a "third place" for students and staff, especially in locations where other "third places" such as teen-oriented libraries, coffee shops or YMCAs do not exist?

This idea has been explored by public and academic librarians.** Several of the criteria of a third place are evident in how Valerie Diggs transformed her high school library into what she calls a "learning commons***."

What are some of the characteristics of the third place? Oldenburg writes:

"The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community's social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape."

Chiarella describes her attempt to create a third place atmosphere in her public library:

We are working to encourage a teen presence at the library in a number of ways. We have a “Teen Zone” section of Youth Services dedicated to teen (grades 7 through 12) fiction, a non-fiction browsing section, manga, graphic novels, music CDs, magazines, and teen-oriented DVDs. We are planning to expand our regular book displays to periodic “issue” displays featuring books and take-home literature on teen pregnancy, teen drinking, drugs, eating disorders, etc. We have tables/chairs and soft rocker-type chairs in the Teen Zone where teens can hang out with friends. Computers are close by and are available to all students under 17.

Yes, yes, I also understand that school libraries have a serious academic mission. And that one runs the risk of trivializing the school library program if efforts to create a social environment overshadow its educational role.

Is there a happy medium? Might the school library be the third place outside of regular school hours? Might some sections of the library be third place "zones"?

A comment by a student many years ago (and to which I often refer) has stuck by me - that the school library was his "home away from home." Schools do have the societal charge of helping teach social skills to students. Might actively working to make school libraries the students' third place do this?


* Steinkuehler, C. & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

** From the NSLS website:

*** Loertscher, The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win! Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs.

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Reader Comments (17)

I have thought about this concept in an informal way since I started work at ERHS. I have tried to make the library a welcoming place. I smile and greet students and staff regularly. I never shhh people. I have been known to laugh loudly in the library. I take in interest in what students are doing. We are always available to help. It is amazing how hard it is to change an atmosphere of a place once it gets ingrained. But I have seen progress.I believe our library is becoming a third place. Thanks for bringing up this topic. I will think more about how I can continue in this vein.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterScott Eskro

I am in agreement with you, Doug...we talk about creating spaces for the home and school/work lives to mingle in the curriculum, but a place is necessary for that to happen - it has seemed to me for a while that the school library is the perfect place for home and school interests to meet. We can do both the business and pleasure sides of student lives. For a long time I thought of the library as a big classroom, but that is too confining. I think the third space concept is really useful and what makes us unique. (I prefer third "space" because "place" seems to me to be too geographically bound. I like to think of the school library as extending beyond the walls into virtual spaces as well.)

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

So THAT's what my h.s. library is called! Before school, the place is packed with students visiting, playing dominos, checking e-mail (occasionally finishing homework - amazingly), we even have guitar serenades on occasion. Like Scott, I always greet students and staff cheerfully and by name (or "darlin'" until I learn it - Texans can do that and no one thinks it a bit odd) and generally am welcoming to all comers. (In fact, there are a few student who have to be shooed away frequently during the day...walking all the way into the Library is not "on the way to the restroom", no matter what they claim).

I anticipate a busy hum in the computer lab when classes are working on projects together, keep gadgets, puzzles and word-a-day calendars at the Circ Desk (the Psychic Love Ball/Magic 8 Ball is current favorite), and fully expect the place to be utilized all the time, by every level of student in the building, for a variety of information-seeking purposes.

When I arrived here six years ago, no one voluntarily entered the library - I've worked hard to change that and would say that we're well on the way to being the "heart of the school," to use the cliche. But I'd rather that our library be the neighborhood hangout, the home-away-from-home, the Third Place that can be fun outside school hours and engagingly, academically active during class times.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKaty Manck

Katy's library sounds like mine. We have a large group of day students in their mostly-bvoarding school, and once they visit their lockers, for most of them the library (oh! mustn't use that word, soory - the "Information and Media Center" -- there now, doesn't that sound welcoming...) is where they gather. They're a very social group. They pull up chairs and have a big gabfest. They snack, play chess, do puzzles -- like Katy, I have lots of puzzles and novelty items for them to play with. Here's a sweet touch. Recently I got hold of a lrage empty pickle jar to grow a rubber growing turtle in. The boys got very fond of it and named it "Pickle." Then in half-jest, just before our recent break, I went over to them and said that you know, in elementary schools one person takes home the guinea pig over vacation, so did anyone want to take Pickle home. And one boy stepped right up and did, and brought him back afterwards. It was really touching to see these high school boys (mostly sophomores) act this way. They really like Pickle -- I'm not sure why. But we have that kind of a place here, for sure!

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJane L. Hyde

Now I have a more academic name for my computer lab...since I am there all the time, I allow just about any student to come in and hang out. We have three computers linked together (no internet access) with a number of FPS games so those who "need a fix" can play. And since they are technically no longer school computers, I can get around the no games on school computers policy.
I totally agree that every school need a place like this. Not only do some kids not fit in anywhere else (socially), some just need a place to get away - and sometimes feel like they are getting away with stuff. The kids who hang out understand there are "rules" they need to abide by, so I rarely have problems. It is funny when the principal drops by, but he understands the reasons I allow certain behaviors, too.
We have a list of rules I should send you (all student developed) and have had both a plastic bat, stick, and old tree branch to enforce these rules. So far no one has been seriously hurt.

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

The Metronet Information Literacy Conference on June 19, 2009 will be "Transformation from Within" on creating a Learning Commons environment in secondary schools. David Loertscher and Allison Zmuda will present. We encourage library media specialists to attend and to bring their principals and other administrators. Hope you can be there, too. More information will be forthcoming on the Metronet Web site

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Walker Smalley

Yes library is a third place where you meet your friends while studying and do a research.

Just like world of warcraft you meet your friends and will find a new friends by doing the quest, applying to become a clan member and by grinding wow gold.

Strabucks is also a third place because this is where clients, students and friends gathers.

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertricky11

School libraries as a “third place” – what a great way to describe what those of us involved with 21st Century school library design aim to achieve.
The newly renovated Chelmsford (MA) high school library has, from students’ comments at the school, become for many their “third place.”
As I worked with Valerie Diggs on this project, I realized two essential elements were in place that contributed to the project’s success. One element was space: the library is 12,000 square feet, so deciding what to eliminate was not much of an issue. There was sufficient space to provide for the “academic requirements.” And there was space to provide a casual area with café and restaurant-type seating, sloped-shelving for fiction to facilitate ease of browsing, and a number of other interior design elements to make this area of the library visibly different. The second element was the desire on the part of the project’s stakeholders – library staff (led by Valerie’s vision, her open and creative mind, and her willingness to take chances), student and faculty representatives, administrators, and consultants – not to be bound by past traditions, but to create a truly innovative, 21st Century learning commons environment that would be inviting to students (Coffee in the library! Comfortable furniture!) – a space with a “playful mood,” where kids can hang out with friends. This is not your father’s school library. The educational role of the library program is not overshadowed, but the provision of “third place” zones has contributed to the overall success of the facility.
I realize that not many school librarians have the luxury of working with such large spaces. Nevertheless, I believe it is still within the realm of possibility to achieve similar, although perhaps less grand, results. As I see it, the need is for school librarians to think progressively, and accept the fact that maybe some space in the school library can be allocated for “third place” spaces by, for example, rejecting the notion that we need to maintain such large (and often outdated) print collections. Let’s create environments that students want to be in and use. Students at Chelmsford say that in the past, if they wanted a book, they would go to the public library because the school library was so unappealing. Now, the school library is the place to be.
We need our newly designed school libraries to be more like the one in Chelmsford. Of course school libraries have a serious academic mission, but the academic mission is more likely to succeed and be fulfilled if we create social environments that are relevant and comfortable to today’s students. We can find a happy medium, and school librarians must steer this trend; it is not likely to come from administrators or architects. If you are anywhere close to Chelmsford, MA, I urge you to visit. This is a model for our future.

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRolf Erikson

Thanks for your comment, Scott. It only takes one person to make a huge difference in a program. Think of all the future taxpayers who will have positive connotations about libraries!


Hi Beth,

Good point about libraries being a virtual 3rd place as well!


Hi Katy and Jane,

I so appreciate your comment because it means this doesn’t just have to be a theory – it can truly be a practice. Thanks for the note that will inspire others.


Hi Kenn,

Send me your rules. Sounds like a great “guest” post on the Blue Skunk!


Hi Ann,

As always, Metronet is on the cutting edge. I’ll definitely attend if possible. I hope you send the announcement to Mary Alice for publication in the MEMOrandom.

BTW, I truly appreciate what you and the other multitypes do for school libraries. Great to have an ally in the big world.


Thanks for the comment, tricky11. The concept of the third place holds true for a number of venues – both virtual and F2F.


February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I am interested in creating such an environment in my middle school library. I am wondering about balancing the academic end of it. I still have students come in to take tests or who need quiet to work, but I want to create a welcoming space that is ok to hang out in as well. Those of you who have created learning commons or third places, what have you done to keep an academic area as well?

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKeri

Hi Keri,

I think you raise a good issue, one which I noted in the post as well. Some of those commenting have left some ideas.

All the best,


February 18, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

This post and the next one are great and have given me a lot to think about. But I am in such a difficult position here. In my last school, the library was quite big and we could be more flexible and create a welcoming space with different zones. In my new school, I am supporting the refurbishment of the library in a very, very small space. How can I allow more freedom for students when noise will impose across the whole room. If students want peace to work on their own, how can I enable more noisy group work? We cannot put the library in a larger space as this does not exist in the school. We cannot finance a new building. it will be difficult to even get enough books in and enough seating.

I am trying to think outside the box, but am struggling a bit. How can I create a 21st century library in an 1828 building?

February 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Robinson

Hi Anne,

I understand your dilemma and it is one that probably impacts many libraries. And in my heart, I still think the primary use of the library should be for academic purposes.

About my only suggestion is to see if there are times – before or after school, lunchtime, etc. - when the rules can change somewhat to make the space a third place.

I am afraid I have a lot more questions than answers!

All the best,


February 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Sometimes a third place can be a state of mind. My elementary school is small at 500 K-5 students with a media center that is just big enough. I don't have any extra space to dedicate to a lounge area for older students. What I can offer is a place for 4th and 5th grade students to hang out in the mornings before the classrooms are open at 7:45. I have games for them to play, kids magazines to read, and most importantly just room to be with their friends. Occasionally, the kids get too rambunctious and have to be reminded to "cool it or leave", but for the most part, they feel comfortable just hanging out for a few minutes each day. And I get the added benefit of being in charge of the "cool" place to be in the mornings.

February 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKelly Posey

Hi Kelly,

Others who have commented about how they can still create a third place in a small space. I hope they read your comments and are encouraged!



February 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi. I am writing an article on third place libraries. I have an M.A. in English, and the article is meant for a magazine in library science. Send me some insights on third place libraries if you have any. Best regards, Peter.

December 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Röder

Hi Peter,

All my writings on school library design can be found here:

I hope you find them useful. What insights I have can be found in the articles, but if you have a specific question, I can try to answer that.

Good luck with your article,


December 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

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