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«1 Seattle Public Library as Place: Reconceptualizing Space, Community, and Information at the Central Library1 Karen E. Fisher2 Associate Professor ...»

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Seattle Public Library as Place:

Reconceptualizing Space, Community, and Information

at the Central Library1

Karen E. Fisher2

Associate Professor

The Information School

University of Washington

Box 352840, Seattle, WA 98105-2840

V: 206-543-6238; F: 206-616-3152; E: fisher@u.washington.edu

(To whom all correspondence should be addressed)

Matthew L. Saxton

Assistant Professor

The Information School

University of Washington

Box 352840, Seattle, WA 98105-2840 V: 206-616-2542; F: 206-616-3152; E: msaxton@u.washington.edu Phillip M. Edwards PhD Student The Information School University of Washington Box 352840, Seattle, WA 98105-2840 V: 206-221-6402; F: 206-616-3152; E: pme2@u.washington.edu Jens-Erik Mai Assistant Professor The Information School University of Washington Box 352840, Seattle, WA 98105-2840 V: 206-616-2541; F: 206-616-3152; E: jemai@u.washington.edu

Seattle Public Library as Place:

Reconceptualizing Space, Community, and Information at the Central Library1 Abstract: This field study applies two primary frameworks for understanding libraries as place, Oldenburg’s “third place” concept and Cresswell’s five facets of place, to analyze responses from 226 participants regarding the social, political, cultural, and economic meaning of the newly constructed and internationally renowned Seattle Public Central Library. Emergent themes are discussed in terms of the library as a physical place, a social place, and an informational place. While these two frameworks help explain how libraries as “places” provide social and economic benefits and foster the growth of social capital within a community, neither framework adequately addresses the concept of information as it figures in the broader notion of place. Thus, this study contributes “information” to the repertoire of place, comprising themes regarding information finding and seeking, life-long learning, learning resources, and learning environment.

Introduction “Place” as a research phenomenon has occupied scholars in such fields as sociology, anthropology, and geography—especially human and cultural geography for decades. Of late, it has also proven a useful concept for understanding the multiplex dimensions of libraries, how they are perceived and used by different stakeholders but most specifically, library users. Difficulties lie, however, in how “place” is understood and operationalized by different researchers. Such confounding inhibits our knowledge of libraries’ roles in society. In this paper we address two primary frameworks for understanding libraries as “place” by drawing upon findings from a field study of the newly constructed central building of the Seattle Public Library.

Early approaches to understanding “place” tended to focus on describing its characteristics. Geographer Fred Lukermann, for example, in the 1960s—as highlighted by Relph [1, p.3] in his history dissertation on the nature of place—

characterized “place” as being where:

–  –  –

5. Spaces are emerging or becoming, and have a historical component While this framework is potentially useful for an elementary understanding of place, it nonetheless adds the complexity of understanding the related notion of “space” and does not address the myriad ways in which one may interpret place such as physical place (a lakeshore), activity (e.g., place of worship) and figure of speech (“she was put in her place”). “Place” can also be explored in a cultural sense, as was the recent focus of Feld and Basso’s Senses of Place, which contains ethnographies of what “place” means to such different populations as the Apache of Arizona and the Kaluli people of New Guinea in terms of expressing and knowing [2]. Lippard in Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society similarly discusses “place” by blending history, geography, cultural/social studies, and contemporary art [3].

In the library and information science (LIS) literature, similar treatments of place have occurred. Many of these published accounts resemble thoughtpieces, polemics, or focus heavily on user satisfaction in addition to focusing on library as a place of social, political, cultural, and physical dimensions, i.e., physical arrangement of materials. For example, Curry, Dunbar, George, and Marshall (2004) conducted a survey of over 500 library users across four branch libraries locations built from 2002-2004 in British Columbia, Canada [4]. In these surveys, the researchers asked library users about satisfaction with individual features/components of the building and facilities; the most highly ranked features across all settings were windows and lighting, particularly natural lighting. Numerous works thus abound, especially in the professional literature, of how libraries design diverse services and engage physical space and objects to address users’ needs beyond those of such time-tested sources as monographs and serials. Allen and Watstein [5], Ginsbug [6], Albanese [7], Shill and Tonner [8], and Engel and Antell [9], for example, discusses the college campus library context; Weise [10] focuses on health library settings; Wagner [11], Gosling [12], St. Lifer [13], Demas and Scherer [14], McKinney [15], Ranseen [16], Saanwald [17], Alstad and Curry [18], Bryson, Usherwood and London [19], Bundy [20], Wood [21], and Worpole [22] address public libraries; Crumpacker [23] suggests ways that school libraries can be more inviting while the entire 1999 issue of the regional journal Alki was devoted to professional renderings on “the library as place [24].” In a cognate vein, in introducing an issue of American Studies devoted to the theme of “The American Library as an Agency of Culture,” Augst proposes that libraries function as place in three ways: as social enterprises, as part of the physical/public infrastructure, and as sites of collective memory [25]. Thomas, in her 1996 dissertation, employs a social constructionist approach to discursively view academic, public and school library practices architecturally [26]. A different interesting twist emerged from Marylaine Block’s interviews with two non-LIS staff from the nonprofit “Project for Public Spaces (pps.org)” in the article “How to Become a Great Public Space [27].” According to her experts, while libraries have the stature for being anchors of community life, their staunch internal-focus relegates them to “community living room[s], at best” as opposed to the community front porch—a place to launch activities and contacts with other

people, instead. Four qualities cited as intrinsic for great public spaces include:

access and linkages (easy to get to, connected to surrounding community);

comfort and image (safe, clean and attractive); uses and activities (as many a things to do); and, sociability (place to meet other people). Libraries that exhibit these criteria were the New York Public Library, Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, and the Beaches Toronto Branch Library.

While these articles tend not to focus in-depth on conceptualizing “place” theoretically, at the same time in-depth explorations of the ways in which individuals, families, neighborhood and communities benefit from libraries have tended not to frame their findings in terms of place. For example, Durrance and Fisher [28] in their monograph How Libraries and Librarians Help discuss ranges of library outcomes as does Nancy Kranich similarly in her edited work Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty [29, pp. 49-59] and Molz and Dain [30] in Civic Space/Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Information Age. None of these works, however, employ “place” as a theoretical framework.

Fisher, Durrance and Hinton [31], albeit, use Fisher’s related notion of information grounds [32] to interpret findings from their study of Queens Borough Public Library system and its immigrant users. Consequently, LIS does not have a robust framework for analyzing the roles of libraries in terms of “place”—a problem noted eloquently by Wiegand who laments the “cost to LIS of ignoring ‘place’ and ‘reading’” [33], and by Gorman in emphasizing the wideranging values that the public attributes to libraries and yet is little systematically documented [34].

Perhaps the closest that the LIS field has come to implementing an indepth “place”-based framework was carried out by Leckie and Hopkins, who examined the public place of the Toronto and Vancouver central libraries by conducting over 1900 user surveys, 100 user interviews, staff interviews, and observational seating sweeps to gather individuals’ perceptions and common usage patterns of library materials and facilities [35]. As part of critiquing an interdisciplinary literature on the nature of “public space” in contemporary society, especially in terms of public rights, privacy and access, they highlight Ray Oldenburg’s assertion that “highly successful public places”—of which libraries should number and which Oldenburg refers to as “third places’— comprise eight key characteristics [36]. While Leckie and Hopkins discussed their findings along three major strands, they did not revisit Oldenburg’s framework. In brief, they reported that (1) central libraries are unique, necessary and heavily utilized places, (2) new information technologies augment as opposed to diminish the role of these places, and (3) the encroachment of private interests (e.g., ongoing commercialization) is threatening to “transform the fundamental nature of libraries” [35, p. 360] as public places. Relatedly, the notion of “sense of place (SoP) in the context of regionalism” was perceptively highlighted by Kathleen de la Pena McCook in her text Introduction to Public Librarianship [37].

Also connecting with Oldenburg’s third place work, she holistically defined sense of place as “the sum total of all perceptions—aesthetic, emotional, historical, supernal—that a physical location, and the activities and emotional responses associated with that location, invoke in people” and further asserted that public libraries, having exemplary sense of place to its constituents, can help communities keep their distinct characters [37, p. 294]. Libraries, she remarked, are continuously challenged with balancing their mandate of preserving their communities’ “sense of place” with the need of providing service beyond their predetermined geographic borders.

Conceptualizing Place In our journey to understand library as place we encountered two frameworks that we perceive as potentially useful for guiding empirical investigation: Oldenburg’s [36] notion of the third place, and Creswell’s [38] extended five-part definition of place. These frameworks are particularly useful because they illuminate the research problem by making core terms (e.g., place and space) explicit and operationalizable.

In his widely popularized book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Oldenburg introduced the phrase “The third place” and hence affected the title of many community-oriented businesses such as Seattle’s “Third Place Books.” According to Oldenburg, public places such as cafes and hair salons function as our “third place,” i.e., where people can be found when they are not at home or work. A veritable and necessary social good, Oldenburg describes several third places and conceptualizes on their nature, which as neighborhood locales must exhibit the following eight characteristics to be successful and attract


1. Occur on neutral ground where “individuals may come and go as they please, in which none are required to play host, and in which all feel at home and comfortable” [36, p. 22];

2. Be levelers, inclusive places that are “accessible to the general public and does not set formal criteria of membership and exclusion” and thus promote the expansion of social networks where people interact with others who do no comprise their nearest and dearest [36, p. 24];

3. Have conversation as the main activity—as Oldenburg explains, “nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging” [36, p. 26], moreover, “it is more spirited than elsewhere, less inhibited and more eagerly pursued” [36, p. 29];

4. Are accessible and accommodating: the best third places are those to which one may go alone at most anytime and be assured of finding an acquaintance

–  –  –

5. Have “regulars” or “fellow customers” as it is these, not the “seating capacity, variety of beverages served, availability of parking, prices, or other features” that draw people in, “who feel at home in a place and set the tone of conviviality” while nurturing trust with newcomers [36, pp. 33-35];

6. Keep a low profile as a physical structure, meaning they are “typically plain,” unimpressive looking from the outside and not elegant, which “serves to discourage pretension among those gather there” and meld into its customers’ daily routine [36, p. 37];

7. Have a persistent playful, playground sort of mood: As Oldenburg explains, “those who would keep a conversation serious for more than a minute are almost certainly doomed to failure. Every topic and speaker is a potential trapeze for the exercise and display of wit” [36, p. 37];

8. Are a home away from home, the places where people can be likely found when not at home or at work, “though a radically different kind of setting from home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends” [36, p. 42].

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