Publication Date

October 3, 2023

Perspectives Section

From the Editor

Thematic

Urban

The AHA TownhouseDo you have a third place? Coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, a third place is one where people can regularly relax, talk, and socialize outside the “first place” (home) and “second place” (work). The great example of the third place is the European city plaza, surrounded by cafés and filled with friends talking. In the United States and Canada, third places include malls, barbershops, and places of worship, but they are increasingly endangered. The suburban sprawl that defines much of North American life makes it difficult to design spaces that “don’t suck” to be in. One of the few third places that has survived in the suburban ecosystem, though it is increasingly under budgetary and ideological threat, is the public library. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in a 1997 talk celebrating the renovation of a Portland, Oregon, local library, “A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.”

To plot one’s life by third places like libraries, as Le Guin proceeded to do, is a curious exercise. My own would begin not at Massachusetts General Hospital but in a new multistory brick library across the street from city hall in Newton, Massachusetts. I remember it vividly: the sound of my shoes echoing too loudly on the floor of the main lobby, the color of the wood of the checkout desk, the straight route I took to the children’s and young adult sections. That library was my first foray into history too—I’m fairly sure I read every book it had on the Second World War before I turned 14. Finding Asterix and Tintin in a milk crate in the corner began my interest in graphic novels. And the library was simply a place I wanted to be, curled up in a chair by a window with a new world in my hands.

My local public library was an adventure; my middle school library was a refuge. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, to put it mildly, so the library became one of the few places I could relax. I spent my time learning about politics (via a magazine of political cartoons) and browsing the shelves. I even got a small shred of social cred among my peers by discovering an illustrated history book with some rather risqué pictures that had somehow made it into the collection. In contrast, the memories I have of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are less fond—a hazard of working the security shift from midnight to 8:00 a.m. Insomnia has little to recommend it; that this occurred at the nadir of my mental and emotional health (as well as my GPA) does not help matters. But for all that, it was certainly a library.

My first encounter with Harvard University’s Widener Library was intimidating, to say the least. It was not the most welcoming space, third or otherwise. Besides the institution’s prestige, there was all this marble, security guards searching your bags, and the weird central shrine to the library’s namesake (he drowned with the Titanic). It didn’t help that I had weaseled my way through its hallowed doors as an Extension School student rather than a “proper” student of the College. Imposter syndrome is easy to come by in such a place, though it did fade with time. I worked the institutional bureaucracy to get my own carrel and access to the medieval studies reading room, places that became locations for timely naps as I balanced evening studies with morning shifts at the local Trader Joe’s. It was certainly better to endure a bit of pomp and circumstance than to try to study at Lamont, the neighboring undergraduate-focused library, the memory of which is fixed in my mind as the pure scent of stress—body odor, adrenaline, flop sweat, and Red Bull.

My local public library was an adventure; my middle school library was a refuge.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know how good I had it. I had no other real point of reference. I entered academia taking for granted the ability to summon the most obscure volumes on a whim; occasionally, they arrived with their pages uncut. Once when browsing the shelves, I even found a copy of the Satyricon from 1704, which I dutifully turned over to the front desk for conservation. Any scholarly database I needed was at my fingertips, and there was no need to plan ahead for a seminar reading list—any book I needed would be at hand, usually in several copies.

When I wasn’t at Widener, I spent as much time as I could next door in Houghton, the rare books library. My first loves as a medievalist are Latin philology and paleography, both of which Houghton enabled me to pursue freely. Here, too, I didn’t understand how lucky I was—who has easy and regular access to a couple dozen 12th-century manuscripts, at least on this side of the Atlantic? The librarian for the medieval collection, Bill Stoneman, took me under his wing first as a student and then as an assistant, a position that allowed me to walk into the restricted stacks and browse. Bill was the one who convinced me to work on the South of France. It wasn’t that hard, really. I originally wanted to study northern England, but when I told this to Bill, who was himself a scholar of Old English, he stared me down and said, “Leland, if I were to do it all over again, I would study some place with good food.”

Fair point, Bill. Mediterranean France and Iberia it was (and is).

Arriving in Providence, Rhode Island, for my PhD, I encountered an entirely different kind of library. Brown University’s Rockefeller Library was, more than any other academic library I have spent time in, a true third place. There was a café and mini-mart in the front lobby, and part of the collection had been moved off-site to make room for study spaces. After my first year, they shipped off most of the reference collection to make room for a fancy new keycard-access-only, donor-endowed graduate student study area. It was a very nice, quiet, comfortable place to work, with a fantastic view of most of the city. But I would have preferred the reference collection.

I have not yet found my next library.

Over the nearly two years I’ve worked at the AHA, I’ve settled into life in Washington, DC, but I have not yet found my next library. I, like most of the other staff at the Association, no longer have a university affiliation that might grant me borrowing privileges or access to databases. And I, like other AHA staff, continue to be a practicing historian. Although I’m proud of my own collection, my partner reminds me after every irrationally exuberant adventure at a conference book exhibit that I can’t just buy everything I need for my scholarship. And so I need to find a new library, a new home away from home—a new third place.

Finding something that works for me has been a slow process. The nearby public libraries in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties are wonderful spaces to be in. This is unsurprising, since, as they are often attached to a community center (and sometimes even a pool), they were deliberately designed to be third places. A colleague and I sometimes meet up to co-work from one with an excellent Ethiopian coffee shop. From an academic’s standpoint, however, their collections are thin. Access to Perlego’s online library of books and tools, a new AHA member benefit, has provided some relief. And of course I work a mere two blocks from the Library of Congress, a collection that far exceeds even Widener’s (though accessing it requires a bit of planning), and the Folger Shakespeare Library, which will reopen after renovations next year.

We all need a focal point, a third place, a public space outside home and work where we can relax, a place sacred to the communities of which we wish to be a part. I’m looking for mine. I hope you find yours.

L. Renato Grigoli is the editor of Perspectives on History.

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