Libraries are the true 'third place'

By now, most people have heard about the dismaying incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, where two African-American men were arrested after the store manager called 911. Their offense? In a nutshell, waiting for a few minutes in the store for someone without buying anything. And asking to use the restroom.

Much of the media coverage contrasted the men’s treatment with the company’s stated desire to be a “third place”—someplace other than home, work, or school where people feel welcome to spend time. Indeed, Starbucks’ website asserts that the stores are “A place for conversation and a sense of community. A third place between work and home.”

As an employee of a public library, I was struck by this assertion that a for-profit business could be that third place. You may be welcome to linger in a coffee shop, but you can’t linger for long without being expected to buy something. (And as this recent incident demonstrates, in some cases—depending on who you are—you’re not welcome to linger at all.) Its primary goal is profit, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s how a coffee shop stays in business. And for the record, we love our local coffee shops!

The timing of this conversation about public spaces and who is welcome in them has made the timing of the launch of our new library slogan—“Here for you, wherever you are”—much more meaningful to me.

When we first wrote it, it did not seem as urgent as it does now. We know the slogan communicates a crucial aspect of libraries: We offer free services to all people in so many places: in your home, via our website; in our four buildings; and out in the community, at schools and other venues. At every stage and age, Heights Libraries has something that can enhance your life.

But now, it’s clearer than ever that we offer our community something much more fundamental, and much more rare: a space that requires very little from people other than their needs.

Yes, members of our community pay taxes that in turn pay for our libraries. But when people walk through our doors, we don’t know who is a taxpayer and who isn’t. We don’t check at the door.

And yes, you need a library card to take materials out of the building, but not to use a computer, access Wi-Fi, read a paper or book, use the bathroom, get a drink of water, rest in a chair, or get out of the rain, the cold, the heat, or a stressful home environment.

Public libraries are the true “third place,” one of the few public spaces left where no one expects you to spend money. As one of our board members puts it, “Leave your wallet at home; just bring your library card.”

Heights Libraries is here for you, wherever you’re at in your life, and whoever you are.

Sheryl Banks

Sheryl Banks is the communications manager for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System.

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Volume 11, Issue 6, Posted 4:02 PM, 06.01.2018