Reflection on New Horizons: Space and People

Our readings for New Horizons, New Models examined what forwarding thinking libraries are doing today and looking at as important concepts for the future. Now, excessive future orientation can push some upstart librarians into technolust and, as Schmidt points out, make them forget about the people who are core to the mission. To my surprise and satisfaction, space and people were recurring themes in this module’s readings. A focus on space and people dovetails with the theme of my #hyperlib blog: Public Libraries are Public Spaces. As I wrote in my introduction, context book review, and other reflections, today’s public library is an important social space. Libraries serve multiple functions in diverse communities. The library is a public service and a public space for all. This is especially important in this era of increasing privatization of public space and library service.

The readings got me thinking about my spatial learning from urban planning school ten years ago. Fields that deal with the “built environment” — planning, architecture, geography — tend to look at space with a heightened reverence and zeal. Space is not a given; space is a gift! Urban theorists like Edward Soja and Michael Dear, who are both cut from the postmodern cloth, consider space a generator of action and activity. (Their spatial lenses directly benefit LIS’s emerging interest in space; library theorists should be reading their work.) It became apparent that spatial tenets from the planning realm could enrich the current conversation about space and people in libraries.

A brief note on space…

The space we’re talking about is the subject of many dissertations from across the disciplines the world over. However, space limitations (terrible pun!) in this Reflection restrict my allowance for backgrounding. An extremely concise primer follows.

Throughout most of human history, space was considered no more than an empty container in which things happened. Space was passive, inactive, inconsequential.  The prevailing concepts of time and history ruled thought. Space was irrelevant.

Changing conceptions of space really began in France in the late 1960s, an era marked by widespread spatial turbulence (riots, protests, war). One theorist stands out. Michel Foucault is known for his studies of space, knowledge, and power. His work examined how space itself exercised control over bodies. Foucault’s evidence of the power of space famously included idealized prison buildings and militaristic city design. To Foucault, space was an active agent affecting life and experience.

The rise of postmodernism boosted spatiality. Postmodern philosophy disputed the reliability of order, time, truth, and linear history. Postmodernism instead embraced the messy concepts of multiple “truths”, disorder, and difference. Spatial thinking fit in well within postmodern ideals. 

Today, space is a cause not an afterthought. People embrace the explanatory power of space. We’re finally seeing this spatial thinking in the library realm.

Three spatial tenets for libraries:

Space is ACTIVE — Space itself is vibrant and exciting. A stimulus occurs when space is activated. People talk, conflict brews, ideas flow. Spatial activity leads to creation. People, objects, and ideas circulate within space, creating a self-sustaining environment that re/produces activity. Libraries can capitalize on this by including spaces that encourage vibrancy over staid, Shhhhh’d, study. The entire library mustn’t be converted into a jungle gym, but perhaps one space can be! We see this approach in the rise of library Makerspaces that encourage un-library like activities such as cooperative tinkering (see Horizon Report and Maloney). We see this in new YA spaces that encourage flexible, mobile, customizable seating arrangements to improve user experience (Bernier et al).

Space is CONGREGATIVE — Space brings people together. Space has the power to gather people both alike and disparate. Public plazas and private living rooms draw people together. Commonalities are identified. Groups form. Partnerships develop. Spatial congregation creates community. Emerging technologies bring people together, sure, but they lack what Soja calls the “stimulus of agglomeration” that space affords. You cannot disconnect with one click in physical space! Libraries must capitalize on the congregative quality of space. As Casey says, libraries can do this by turning outward and asking people what the community needs in their library? I offer that communities need programs beyond book borrowing. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors just approved a plan to support President Obama’s controversial federal “no deportation” policy. County branch libraries will serve as information centers offering immigration program resources. This works because libraries are trusted spaces that attract people and support communities.

Space is PEOPLE CENTERED — Space is “powered up” on its own, but powerful when people enact it. Our use activates its generative power. With people at its center, space must be nimble. We know people are fickle. People’s needs change, dynamics shift. Space must adapt to these fluctuations. Intelligent spaces evolve in response to circumstances without sacrificing their active, congregative qualities. We see this quality in the conception of third s/place, a spatial alternative to one’s home and worksite that brings people together. Libraries are a third place.  A high performing library third s/place is flexible, malleable, and supportive of people’s unique needs.

While emerging technologies enhance our information sharing capabilities, they cannot replace the generative power of people coming together in space. Let’s not forget that as we look out on the horizon today. Forward thinking libraries that put space and people first are looking in the right direction.

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7 thoughts on “Reflection on New Horizons: Space and People

  1. @jonathanpbell – This is a great description of space from a physical and intellectual angle. I especially like the Congregative aspect and that the LA County libraries will serve as places for immigration resources. I think many of those patrons will feel much more comfortable going to a library over other government facilities.

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    • @susanmusson Thank you, Susan. I’m glad you found this discussion of space useful. It made my head hurt writing it. I hadn’t engaged these concepts in a LONG time and even I was getting lost in it for a bit. Great point about libraries as trustworthy spaces! You’ll never have to worry about metal detectors or suspicious County eyes on you at our libraries. Can’t say the same for our other facilities…

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  2. Forgot to link Foucault’s work in the text so thought I’d share here. Arguably, Foucault’s best known work is the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. He examines the concept of power expressed in architecture, space, and government control. The Panopticism chapter is an especially great read. And famous. It’s read in virtually every academic field. Here’s a link to a full PDF: https://zulfahmed.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/disciplineandpunish.pdf

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  3. The three statements in red are so well-tuned to what this class is about. The last one – about people – also aligns with our last module Reflective Practice. That’s the “encourage the heart” piece too.

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    • Thanks @michael. This was the most difficult Reflection I wrote. I had to reach back into my previous learning from a different field, make connections to LIS, and apply it meaningfully in the post. I’m happy that I was able to make the connection to people and service with a heart.

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