Library as Place

Future, Place

Note: This piece originally appeared in slightly different form in the NJLA Fall (2006) Newsletter.

We are currently experiencing a unique convergence of three societal trends, and that convergence is creating an unprecedented opportunity for libraries.

The first trend is that people are increasingly using the internet in the privacy of their home for activities that were previously conducted in public spaces. Shopping, banking, conversing, researching, listening to concerts, and watching movies are just a few examples of such activities.

The second trend, pointed out by Robert Putnam in his insightful book, Bowling Alone, is that Americans are experiencing a marked decrease in social interaction as we become increasingly disconnected from our family, from our friends, and from each other.

The third trend is more subtle and presents a threat as well as an opportunity: Businesses are increasingly embracing the value of being a “destination of choice” and modifying their environments and their services accordingly. For example, we used to go to the hardware store to buy grout or drywall; now we go to learn how to tile our bathroom or put up a wall. We used to go to the bank to deposit our checks; now we go to attend a retirement planning seminar. We used to go to the bookstore to buy books; now we go to hear music, drink coffee, and, dare I mention, bring our children to story time…

Our customers have a greater need for shared spaces and social interaction than they ever have before, but they also have more options regarding how, and where, they choose to spend their free time.

Libraries are transformative places. By our very nature we offer people a “third place” (not home, not work) where they can come to explore, imagine, think, learn, play, and reflect. Our function as a “third place” has never been more important to our continued health and relevance. If libraries are to survive and thrive we must redouble our efforts and refocus our energies to ensure that we are not only “third places” but destinations of choice.

Thinking of “library as place” goes to the heart of the matter. It invokes the big question: Why would someone in our community choose to spend their time here rather than somewhere else? Related questions might be: What does the library look like, smell like, feel like, and sound like? What do our signs communicate? What kind of environment are we offering to the community and how do library staff contribute to the creation of a friendly, welcoming environment?

The thriving library of 2010 will have thoroughly considered these questions and be guided by the answers they have discovered. Many NJLA members are probably familiar with Mount Laurel Library’s success with their use of retail merchandising techniques. Those techniques were implemented as part of the “Trading Spaces” project. A do-it-yourself kit, replete with documentation, signage, photos, furniture vendor contacts, prices, and more is available at the project website Taking a look at this resource page is a great place to start if your library is interested in becoming a destination of choice in your community.


Six things you can do today

Detailing a strategic direction for your library is outside of the scope of this short piece. But in the interest of practicality, here are six things you can do today to enhance your library’s status as a true “third place” in your community:

1. DO A SIGNAGE AUDIT: Have everyone on your staff, and maybe a couple of customers, walk through your library with these questions in mind: What makes it easy to find something? What makes it difficult to find something? Are signs readable from a distance? Are signs jargon-free? Do you use Dewey numbers instead of natural language? (Don’t.) Get rid of ripped signs and visible tape. Eliminate handwritten notes. Use positive, respectful wording and avoid parental tones.

2. OFFER FOOD AND DRINK IN THE LIBRARY: (Notice, I don’t say “permit”.) Having food and drink in your library helps create a welcoming environment. The role of our olfactory senses in creating a positive or negative impression of our environment cannot be underestimated. Translation? Coffee smells like comfort.

3. OFFER A VARIETY OF PROGRAMMING FOR DIFFERENT AGES/INTERESTS: This fits in very well with our traditional role and mission, and many libraries already do a wonderful job with programming. Do more. Take some risks. Ask yourself who’s NOT coming to the library and try to offer a few programs for that demographic. Think of five new places to advertise your programming (bulletin boards in laundromats, the Y, the Rotary Club, the carwash, etc.)

4. MAKE THE COLLECTION THE STAR: Use themed displays of face-out materials to highlight and promote portions of your collection. Tie themes in with current events, pop culture, current library programs, or anything else that seems relevant, playful, or fun. Make your collection browseable and your customers will reward you by circulating materials in record numbers.

5. INVOLVE YOUR CUSTOMERS: Ask your customers what they would like to see in the library. Ask them for help with walk-throughs and signage audits. Ask them for display ideas, or enlist their help in creating displays. Any way you can involve your community directly will pay off tenfold by giving you an inexpensive and highly effective marketing tool: a cadre of invested community members who will promote the library through word of mouth.

6. GO WIRELESS: Wireless Internet access is a must-have infrastructure. If you’re not offering it already, do it now. It’s cheaper than you think, and your wireless customers will come out of the woodwork.


Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999.

Rippel, Chris, “What Libraries Can Learn from Bookstores”. Webjunction Marketing Forum. Dec 10, 2003>.

Rockwood, P. E. and Koontz, C. M., “Media Center Layout: A Marketing-Based Plan”, School Library Media Annual 1986, Volume Four. Ed. Aaron, S. L. and Scales, P. R. Littleton, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1986. p. 297-306>.

Stanley, John, “The Third Place: The Library’s Role in Today’s Society”, MLS Marketing Library Services. Nov.- Dec. 2005: 1,8.

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