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Book review - Library as Place

 ·  ☕ 9 min read


Title: The Library as Place: History, Community, and Culture

Editors: John E. Buschman, Gloria J. Leckie

How I learned about it: A citation in Looking for Information. I decided to buy and read it because it seemed like it would be a valuable book to read with a lot of relevant information…okay, it was because one of the papers was about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That was the only reason.

Would I recommend: Somewhat similar to Writing and Designing Manuals and Warnings - I liked this book a lot! But I can’t really claim it was relevant to anything work-related, maybe except for the essay by Thomas Mann, which had some parallels to my “I hate infoboxes” thing. So if you’re a usual reader of this blog, who does MediaWiki stuff, I’ll recommend it only if you’re randomly interested in reading a book about libraries (or an essay about the library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). If you’re here specifically for this review, then yes I definitely recommend this book!

Book structure

The Library as Place contains fourteen chapters divided into four sections. Each chapter is a self-contained essay on a different topic, and while some of the chapters relate to each other, none of them references any other directly, other than the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the entire book.

The four sections are:

  • The Library’s Place in the Past
  • Libraries as Places of Community
  • Research Libraries as Places of Learning and Scholarship
  • Libraries, Place, and Culture

Individual chapter/essay comments

1. Space, Place, and Libraries: An Introduction

The introduction discusses the difference between place and space in the abstract, and then transitions to the concrete very quickly. If you’re not familiar with United States v. American Library Association (I wasn’t), you may want to read that Wikipedia article. It concludes with an article-by-article overview of the papers in the book, much more objective than what I’m including here.

2. Beneficial Spaces: The Rise of Military Libraries in the British Empire

The most interesting thing to me about this chapter wasn’t the direct discussion here but rather the parallels between what the British army was slow to discover - yes, it’s important to invest in quality of life for “common” soldiers - and also advice provided by books like Peopleware that suggest similar things to managers in modern companies. Yet it’s a lesson that is disregarded over and over again.

3. Libraries in Public before the Age of Public Libraries: Interpreting the Furnishings and Design of Athenaeums and Other “Social Libraries,” 1800-1860

This chapter was cited by the book I’m reading now, Foundations of Library and Information Science, in its chapter on the history of libraries (page 40). I didn’t recognize the citation, but I was surprised it wasn’t a citation of the original Oldenburg “third place” book so I looked it up to see what it was and then I was like “oh lol cool.” This chapter pairs well with chapter 13 to paint a picture of the evolution of the experience of physical place that would have been available to a historical library patron.

4. A Grand Old Sandstone Lady: Vancouver’s Carnegie Library

A gripping and somewhat sad story about a library that does its best, and its best is probably not good enough.

5. The Fruit and Root of the Community: The Greensboro Carnegie Negro Library, 1904-1964

While this chapter also discusses a library that was underfunded and under-resourced - and didn’t even exist for the first third of the span of dates mentioned - its tone is significantly more cheerful than that of chapter 4. Everything about the library itself (in contrast to the resources given to it) makes it sound like an amazingly powerful force of good in the lives of its patrons, primarily due to the efforts of its head librarians Mrs. Martha J. Sebastian and later Mrs. Willie Grimes.

6. Locating the Library as Place among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Patrons

The need for privacy when seeking information can turn a friendly space into a hostile one, and special care is needed when curating collections for marginalized groups, notably LGBQ patrons (the author notes that the T is omitted due to a lack of Information Behavior studies performed on transgender people specifically, so this paper just says LGBQ).

7. Behind the Program-Room Door: The Creation of Parochial and Private Women’s Realms in a Canadian Public Library

So I’m pretty sure that the study on the knitters' group was mentioned like half a dozen times in Looking for Information, but when I checked in the index after reading the paper, I could only find two mentions of it, one in a single sentence on page 331, and one that doesn’t even say the word “knitters” on page 243. Maybe I just remembered the mention on page 331 really clearly? Anyway, this was a specific look at two social and non-book-related programs at a library, including a bunch of quotes from field notes from the study performed.

8. Seattle Public Library as Place: Reconceptualizing Space, Community, and Information at the Central Library

It’s probably worth looking at some pictures of the Seattle Public Library before reading this chapter (I didn’t until just now). This building is seriously cool! This chapter is also really cool - maybe my favorite chapter in the book. It provides the questionnaires that were used in its study as appendices (you might want to skip to the end to read them at the start, for context), and it provides a ton of quotes from them throughout. It also explicitly goes through two models of “place” and shows how the data from the surveys fit and don’t fit within these models; it also adds the concept of “information” to the model of place, which is certainly important when talking about library as place.

It also contains this amazing quote from a study participant about free speech that I really enjoyed (p. 149):

I yelled at a librarian the other day. Actually he was a technician. I couldn’t get logged in and he said that the computer was reserved. I said I only wanted it for 5 minutes and he said “okay,” but by that time someone else had taken it and there were no others for me. So I yelled at him. I didn’t get kicked out, so I guess that’s free speech.

9. Stimulating Space, Serendipitous Space: Library as Place in the Life of the Scholar

The results of a study that compared age, “scholarly age” (time since a doctorate was received), and attitudes towards academic library usage. The study shows that younger scholars really do like the physical library, and a virtual substitute is not the same thing at all.

I have two personal anecdotes related to this paper as well:

  1. When I was a kid my dad would take me to spend the day with him at his library carrel. I’d sit in the open study areas outside of his carrel and read books I brought with me or color decks of playing cards on 3x5" note cards (they always said “CARDS” on the back with the same design - I have no idea how I didn’t get bored of doing this exact same thing over and over again). Even though a university library contained precisely zero books of any interest to me at the time, I loved being in a LIBRARY for the entire day and would happily sit there quietly (if no one else was around I may have also climbed across the barriers between the study desks a bunch) for hours.
  2. I attended an academic summer camp in middle school for several summers, and we had “afternoon activities” that included things like sports, arts & crafts, or go to the university library and sit quietly and study. I usually did arts & crafts, but sometimes I also went to the university library to sit quietly and study. Again, I found this enjoyable - the atmosphere of just being in a library, regardless of whether I was using the books or not, made studying pleasant.

10. Setting the Stage for Undergraduates' Information Behaviors: Faculty and Librarians' Perspectives on Academic Space

A kinda forgettable chapter that states the obvious: university students want flexible, welcoming spaces in libraries.

11. The Research Library as Place: On the Essential Importance of Collections of Books Shelved in Subject-Classified Arrangements

This chapter is kind of a rant about how much inter-library loan programs as a replacement for (as opposed to “in addition to”) large inventories suck, and some of his reasons line up with my reasons for hating infoboxes:

  • The principle of least-effort will cause people to “simply give up and settle for whatever information they can find that is easily available-even when it’s not what they really want. Or, they will change the scope of their inquiry away from the direction in which they really wish to go” (p. 193) (in other words, they’ll satisfice)
  • The organizers of the information (librarians in Mann’s chapter, wiki editors in the infobox case) should be providing serendipity to the information seeker by placing pertinent in-depth information next to each other

12. On the Myths of Libraries

Spoiler: The decision is not mentioned in the treatise. (That was pretty much all I wanted to know while reading this chapter.) The idea of having a library as a status symbol and not actually caring if anyone reads the books or not somewhat evokes the term “tsundoku,” though there have been attempts to make that word more about buying books and then sort of reading them.

13. Managing Pleasure: Library Architecture and the Erotics of Reading

I really liked this chapter! I bought her book about the Carnegie libraries, though at this point I have so many things to read that I guess I am also practicing tsundoku. (Actually, between the time when I wrote this post & when I published it, I read that book!) Anyway, the thesis is that architecture tells the true story of societal attitudes about how judgmental one can be of library patrons, sort of like a revealed preference.

14. Going to Hell: Placing the Library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Yay this is why I read this book! This chapter discusses several dualities surrounding the library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s the public-private nature of it: it’s a public resource to the school, but it becomes the private space for the Scooby gang, to the point of Giles actually locking it down with a “closed for filing” sign. There’s the mind-body nature: it’s a place for study/research/learning, but also a place for Buffy to train her body. And there’s the sanctuary-danger aspect - while it’s normally their sanctuary, at the end of the first season it turns out that it’s actually literally on top of the Hellmouth, and anything but.


The Library as Place contains a large variety of perspectives on its titular topic, and if you’re at all interested in the subject I highly recommend it!

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River (RheingoldRiver) is a MediaWiki developer and the manager of Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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