The Rise of Third Place and Open Access Amidst the Pandemic

By: Emma Wood, Associate Librarian, UMass Law Library

Libraries may emerge from the COVID-19 crisis in a posture of growth. There are two clear opportunities for librarians to seize.  First, the pandemic has brought to light the importance of “third place.”  The term refers to space that is separate from home and work where we seek conversation, neutral ground, and comfort in feeling connected.  Examples include bars, coffee shops, churches, and beauty salons. Urban Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. Long before COVID-19, Oldenburg argued that America’s third places were disappearing at an alarming rate. He theorized that since WWII, Americans have developed a preference for private lifestyles, single-family dwellings, and a de-emphasis on community. The pages of The Great Good Place lament the decline of social spots, and fervently advocates for their importance as hubs of communication and personal fulfillment. In recent decades we have seen a further decline in third places especially with “the fall of the mall,” the apparent migration from physical commercial spaces to online commerce. COVID-19 hastened that gradual transition to a sudden prohibition.

Oldenburg did not mention libraries in his book. This might be because libraries were not perceived as convivial establishments at that time or possibly Oldenburg’s personal experiences with libraries were uncharacteristic of third places, the silent libraries of history. Rather libraries of all kinds are alive with conversation and communal experience. During the pandemic, public libraries stepped up to the challenge of this virus by swiftly moving services online. For example, the New York Public Library began offering free remote homework help. Many libraries satiated third place needs through virtual storytimes, yoga, and concerts amongst other things. The Internet has become a variant of third place because digital communities have forged social worlds. Whether onsite or online, libraries have proven their third-place designation.

plant coming up through the cracks

The second pandemic opportunity for libraries is in Open Access (OA). To ease the burden of information access during the pandemic, big publishers provided academic libraries with free temporary electronic access to their textbooks. The sudden unlocking of these materials is something unprecedented. Expensive scholarly databases freed their content too. This influx of unfettered information reignites the conversation about Open Access, information that is freely available without stipulation or paywall. It is scholarly works as they are intended to be – accessible to all researchers without a price tag. Open Access removes social inequality that students with financial burden or under-funded libraries face in acquiring books, articles, and other educational materials. Publishers and even many academics have resisted the Open Access Movement, but the emergence of the virus instituted temporary relief for students who otherwise might be without their educational resources at home.

As many of our beloved third places languish against the obstacles, we are reminded that libraries are one of the last pure forms of community space. Most people have gained a stronger appreciation for their third places thus library support and advocacy are poised to grow in response to renewed interest in social space and programming. I hope that library usage, both online and onsite, increases. This community support combined with improved publishing partnerships is a light in the darkness. With momentum for Open Access building, library budgets are alleviated and our digital collections can continue to grow, allowing libraries to broaden their reach. Educators, librarians, publishers, and users should work together to implement more OA options and everyone should speak loudly about how we need our information outlets and community spots. May libraries, one of the last forms of third place, thrive in the ache of absence.