Creating a third place: Public library design ideas for community engagement


Albert Einstein once said, "The only thing you absolutely have to know is the location of the library."

Actually, Einstein probably didn't say that — most of the pithy quips attributed to the great physicist can't actually be traced back to him — but there is definitely some wisdom to those words.

Mind you, this is not to say that the local public library branch exists to serve every function of civic life — it's not there to take the place of the hospital, for example, or your neighborhood off-leash dog park.

More and more, though, library buildings are transforming into public spaces that fill multiple roles. It's not unusual to find a library that includes such public amenities as conference rooms, a teen area, a maker space or an outdoor garden.

At the center of communities

A 2023 report from the Canadian Urban Institute points out that libraries, by their nature and because they are located at the center of communities, serve a variety of needs in a way that no other public institution truly can. In a single day, the report states, a public library might be:

  • a place to access culture and information;

  • a refuge from domestic violence;

  • an election information or polling center;

  • a job search facility;

  • a health clinic;

  • a place to warm up or cool down;

  • a language learning center for newcomers;

  • a place to attend free university classes or concerts; and

  • a space for babies, children, caregivers and youth to make friends and form a community.

Many libraries act also as a "third place" in the community, and thoughtful library design can enhance this function. What exactly is a third place? Read on.

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Defining the third place


To define the concept of the third place, we can go straight to the source: urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who coined the term. Oldenburg is the author of The Great Good Place (1991) and Celebrating The Third Place (2000).

Oldenburg writes that "third places" are public spaces where people gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places are neutral ground, allowing people to set aside their concerns and enjoy company and conversation. Third places, according to Oldenburg, "host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work":

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.

Gen Z vibes at the public library

While that might be true in many cases, there is one third space that is enjoying a surge in popularity. According to a 2023 report from the American Library Association, younger patrons — millennials, but especially members of Generation Z — seem to have rediscovered the joys of their local libraries. As it turns out, they're not just going there to read:

The youth that researchers met during visits to two public library branches talked about coming to the library just to “vibe” and hang out. One contrasted the public library experience to that of her school library, where she said students had to have “a reason to be there” such as a test or study hall, as activities are tied to the school’s curriculum. While her school library required her to be quiet and have a pass to enter, the public library was a place where she and other teens could chat while crafting.

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Public libraries are open for everyone

Citing the ALA report, a January article in The Guardian pointed out that members of Gen Z are "well aware that they lack many of the third places their parents had, especially as the lines between work and home blurred" at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Libraries are the last place they feel exists that asks nothing of them," Alaina Demopoulos wrote. "You can truly come as you are."

Demopoulos quoted Anika Neumeyer, a 19-year-old English student who volunteers at the Seattle Public Library:

Coffee shops get so crowded, and you have to spend money to be there, but libraries are open for everyone. There’s a lot less pressure to be doing something in the public library. No one’s going to judge you.

Library design can promote social interaction

Creating a third place within a library, or any community space, involves designing an environment that fosters social interaction, lifelong learning and a sense of belonging. Here are some ways library design can achieve this:

Flexible spaces

Design the library with various zones that cater to different activities and preferences. Include areas for quiet study, collaborative work, informal gatherings and events. Flexible furniture arrangements and movable partitions allow for easy adaptation to changing needs.

Comfortable seating

Provide lounge seating and other comfortable options such as cozy armchairs, bean bags and modular furniture to encourage people to linger and engage with others.

Café or coffee shop

Integrate a café or coffee shop within the library space. This provides a relaxed atmosphere for people to socialize, work or enjoy refreshments while fostering a sense of community.

Technology integration

Incorporate technology hubs with computers, charging stations and high-speed internet access (and a digital news platform like PressReader, of course). This encourages digital literacy and provides opportunities for people to connect virtually and in person.

Community rooms

Include multipurpose rooms or a community meeting room that can be used for workshops, lectures, club meetings and community events. These spaces promote collaboration and allow community members and library staff to share knowledge and skills.

Outdoor spaces

If possible, design outdoor areas such as patios or gardens where people can gather, relax or participate in outdoor activities. Nature has a calming effect and encourages social interaction. If designing a new library project, consider bringing the outdoors in by including large windows that let in plenty of natural light.

Art and culture

Integrate art displays, exhibitions and cultural artifacts into the library space. This enhances the ambiance and creates opportunities for community members to appreciate and engage with diverse forms of expression.

Community input

Involve the community in the design process by soliciting feedback and ideas from residents, library patrons and local organizations. This ensures that the library reflects the needs and preferences of the community it serves.

Programs and activities

Creating a third place doesn't end with physical library design. Offer a variety of programs and hands-on activities that appeal to different interests and demographics. These could include book clubs, playing board games, workshops, movie nights, children's story times and cultural celebrations. Engaging programming encourages community members to visit the library regularly and interact with each other.

Accessibility and inclusivity

Ensure that the library is accessible to people of all age groups, abilities and backgrounds. Design features such as ramps, elevators, assistive technologies and other special equipment accommodate diverse needs and promote inclusivity.


Meeting the needs of neurodiverse patrons

Further to that last point, a number of library professionals in recent years have begun to explore ways to make library spaces more accessible for neurodiverse individuals, including those on the autism spectrum.

To help meet this need for neurodiverse children and their families, a research team at the University of Washington has released an online resource, “Autism-Ready Libraries Toolkit,” that seeks to “empower youth-serving librarians and library staff with the early literacy training and programming materials they need to provide autism-inclusive early literacy services.”

This kit includes a checklist to help library workers identify and mitigate or remove sensory and physical access barriers within library spaces. Suggestions include offering quiet areas in the library for the use of individuals with auditory sensitivities, and ensuring that there is a wide and clear path from the entry way and around each designated area in the library.

A more welcoming experience

When Indianapolis’s newest library opened last August, it was the first in the state of Indiana to be a Certified Autism Center.

According to the ALA's 2024 State of America's Libraries Report, Indianapolis Public Library’s Fort Ben branch "was designed with the needs of neurodivergent visitors in mind", offering a comfort room, sensory kits and other resources to enhance accessibility.

Speaking to Axios, Fort Ben branch manager Shelby Peak said an autism-specific training program helped library staffers create a more welcoming experience for neurodiverse patrons and their
families, from day-to-day interactions to specific programming, like sensory-friendly story time.
“Having that label on there makes it a judgment-free zone,” Peak said. “Families know that if they come to this, they’re going to be accepted no matter what happens.”

New spaces designed to be safe, inviting


We have mostly looked at public libraries as a third place so far, but academic institutions can also make changes to library design in order to better serve their neurodiverse users.

From that same ALA State of America's Libraries Report, we learned about how Penn State University Libraries launched three sensory rooms at its Berks, Brandywine and University Park campuses to
support student wellness and belonging.

Part of the libraries’ LibWell initiative, these rooms "are designed to provide a safe, inviting space
for neurodivergent students who may struggle in traditional study spaces".

According to the report:

They are equipped with noise-reducing chairs, specialized lighting, yoga mats, weighted lap blankets, and other features to help reduce stress and anxiety. These sensory-sensitive elements are particularly helpful for students with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a strong need for therapeutic spaces at colleges that can help students block out harmful sensory distractions and relieve the huge burden of anxiety many students bear,” said Brett Spencer, reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks’ Thun Library. “We want to make sensory-safe
places that can help students maximize their wellness and learning.”

A cornerstone of community life

When he wrote The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg didn't mention the public library (or the academic one, for that matter) as a potential third place, possibly because libraries were not at that time perceived to fulfill so many different functions.

In 2024, public libraries serve as a cornerstone of community life, fostering connections, learning and civic engagement among residents. Their role as a third place is essential for building strong, vibrant and inclusive communities.

Albert Einstein — or whoever — was definitely onto something.

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