Academic Facilities
Thought Leadership

Plato, Third Spaces and Libraries.

Have you ever heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

Many studied it in some psychology class during their schooling. Plato describes a community that has sustained life in the depths of a cave. Most were born in that cave. Raised in that cave. They only know the interior of that cave. They are shackled to the cave by their legs and neck, so the only thing they see are the things that come across their face in front of them. A fire is lit behind the wall they are shackled to, dimly lighting the area they live in. In short, the cave is everything they know.

To spoil it for you, a member of the community breaks out of his shackles and leaves the cave. At first, he experiences a huge adjustment as he moves towards the light. You know, when you walk outside and it is so bright that you have to close your eyes for a minute, then squint, then kind-of muscle through it until your eyes fully adjust. Now imagine a lifetime of the dark, and having to adjust to the light.

That is how I would compare today’s society at any given moment. Maybe some are in the cave. Some are adjusting. Some are out in the world. Exploring. Learning. I have certainly experienced the cave for myself, and the process of leaving it. In more ways than one. A way that has helped me in the adjustment has been third spaces.

The concept of third space has had a grip on me for quite a bit of time. It is a social-science dilemma that comes in different forms. At its simplest, it is an entirely different environment from the big two, your home and workplace. Perhaps it is a couch in your office instead of your desk. On another level it is an intentional mindset that you put yourself in to get work done. It captivates our society.

The generations flooding the working world are obsessed with third spaces. Coffee shops have completely capitalized on them. Good wifi and a new environment is all most people need to facilitate that productive space for themselves. It has trickled all the way down into colleges and universities. Students are working across campus in courtyards, greenspaces, student centers, and even the boxes in empty arenas. Not their dorm rooms, those are home-spaces. Not the classrooms, those are work-spaces. Anywhere and everywhere can be a third space.

There are facilities on campus that have historically fallen short of providing that environment. An example of those spaces are libraries. The environment that is facilitated by libraries on campus only provides for a niche community of students. While we would all like to believe that anyone, at any time, can sit down in silence and get work done, that is just not true of this society anymore.

Libraries are in the cave. 

Whereas libraries, right now, provide books, change your perspective of libraries to provide knowledge and growth. In doing so, there is a far greater and wider purpose for libraries to serve communities. On-campus libraries are essential to colleges and universities. They, for the most part, house faculty and resources that excel academic success in higher education. However, it also needs to provide a productive environment for each kind of student, not just a niche community. Re-deploying libraries as third spaces in colleges and universities will transform the student experience in the facility.

No, I am not suggesting that libraries completely go against their calling, just adjust their delivery. Who knows there else on campus could benefit from this shift.

We see it in our work. From meetings with clients. As a trend in our world. We help people reimagine the story of their facilities. We want to equip universities to hold communities in libraries, not just books.

When you think about it, every single student on campus knows where the library is, or has an idea of it. A business student may not know where the biology labs are. An engineering student may have no idea where the English department is, but everyone knows where the library is. Many colleges and universities require a visit to the library in their freshman experience course. It is the perfect space for community building in an environment that markets to the student that needs to hear a pin drop to be productive, and the student that just needs a new space.

Libraries have also served as a haven for off-campus/commuter students. With the resources including computer labs, academic success centers, faculty, and even just air conditioning. It has served that community incredibly well, and can continue to be a welcoming environment as a third space for students both on and off campus.

With the pull of all of those resources in one facility, libraries can be the perfect place to tell the story of a college or university. At their core, they are collaborative spaces for students to be their best selves. Most students will go into the library during their education. At the very least, they are going in once. What is the story you are telling them? What are you delivering as a first impression? A library as a third space creates a serendipitous moment for students of all study habits and walks of life to have an intentional environment that they can lean into.

Maybe take a step towards the future of libraries as third spaces on campus. Or just consider it, even if for only a moment. This would be a huge adjustment to most libraries across the country, for some though, you’re already part of the way there. Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine it. Squint a little. Then muscle through the adjustment into the future of libraries on campuses.

I’ll let you know though, in the Allegory of the Cave, the man explored the world outside, and returned to tell his peers. Those that had remained in the cave for all that time did not care to hear the words of this man. The cave is what they knew, and this scared them. Libraries as they stand may be what you know. So I urge you to fearlessly explore the idea of them as a third space, or another area on campus that promotes the collaboration and growth of your community. Take a step out of the cave.