14 February 2014

The Library as Social Space

This post was originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.3,

The public library has a special place in popular culture as a safe, if somewhat un-cool, place for young people to meet and ‘do homework’.  It is public and supervised, but offers discretion and privacy; a place where we could sneak away without getting into trouble and spend time with someone special, even if all we could do was sit quietly at the same table.  This isn’t accidental, it’s just a fortuitous unintended consequence of the library’s mission to serve the community.

Law libraries don’t have quite the same cultural cachet, but we still have a mandate to serve our user communities, be they a Court, university, or firm.  So long as we have open stacks, we will have users in the space—which means that we have a social space.  This creates a wonderful opportunity.

Law school libraries are the most obvious example of this, because they are almost always full of students.  They come for the books, sometimes, but they often come for the quiet space between the books—law students spend a lot of time reading and writing.  Yet they also come because the library has group study rooms and here, the library becomes a social space.  The groups could meet anywhere.  They choose the library.

Court libraries doesn’t have such an obvious social component, but they are often the largest contiguous space in their buildings, which makes them good places to host parties and events.  They also provide space for impromptu meetings and conversations that would otherwise take place in hallways.

Firms lucky enough to have a physical library, likewise, will see its space used for informal meetings, for events, and for work that requires more space than an office desk.  Additionally, as print collections shrink, we will have more space to utilize in a social fashion.  This could mean adding a conference table to support large projects, individual study carrels for using the print resources, or even a couch and lounge space for more comfortable work.  Any of these might drive additional traffic into a more socially-welcoming environment.

None of this matters, though, unless we take advantage of the opportunity this social environment creates: people can meet in a conference room.  Why should they meet in the library instead?  The library as social space brings in potential users and creates goodwill; their presence allows us to unobtrusively promote our resources and services, and the chance to make new friends—friends who, in turn, can promote the library to others.  And it can all start with a comfortable place to sit.

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