Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Great Good Place Book Discussion Part 5: Oldenburg on the LAM

This is the fifth installment of a book discussion about Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. Every Tuesday in June, this blog is featuring a guest post examining some aspect of the book. This provocative guest post was co-written by Suzanne Fischer and Eric Johnson. Suzanne Fischer is Curator of Technology at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI, and Eric Johnson is a librarian and New Media Specialist at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. You can join the conversation in the blog comments and add your own voice to the debate.

We share an abiding interest in exploring the community-enhancing roles of libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs), especially in terms of the practice of hospitality and service within the institution. From this naturally flows our engagement in the question of "LAM convergence:" how these institutions live out their similar missions of access and preservation in daily practice and how they overlap as spaces for civic engagement. Both of us latched onto the popular notion of "third places," applying it to LAMs, and were surprised to learn how narrowly Ray Oldenburg defined the term in his original work. It is crucial that LAMs be considered public civic spaces, but Oldenburg's model leaves a lot to be desired.

Suzanne: After reading The Great Good Place, I can't see a way that a museum or library could be a third place without sacrificing its mission. The ideal of third places, that attracts we cultural heritage types, is a democratic space where civic life is built collaboratively and at a personal level. But when you read Oldenburg closely, you find that his idea of a third place is vastly more specific.

Eric: He's really focused on the merits of hanging out together with acquaintances in a relationship built up over extended repeated visits, which unfortunately doesn't much describe the way most public interacts with LAMs--though LAM staff may hope otherwise.

Suzanne: That key thing for Oldenburg is that you go to interact with people. Not to interact with artifacts, to find information, to learn something, or to have an interesting experience together with your friends and family.

Eric: Though he'd prefer that your friends--at least your close ones--and family stay away.

Suzanne: The kind of socializing that Oldenburg describes as happening in third places is deeply exclusive.

Eric: Unapologetically so. That's part of what so surprises me since, as you aptly described it, what LAMs really like is the idea of the democratic, civic-minded space.

Suzanne: There's no room for women, first of all, and he acknowledges that the third places he idealizes are male spaces. For Oldenburg, as far as I can tell, third places are for "clubbable" (p 85) types, and not really for quiet people, people who don't drink, queer people, children, old people, people of color, unmarried people, or people with any kind of visible or invisible difference. Oldenburg says that third places are democratic spaces, but his examples belie it.

Eric: His is a very undemocratic, closed-door kind of institution--which is not at all what most LAMs are interested in.


Suzanne: I think that in many ways by NOT having rules Oldenburg-style third places become exclusive. When there are no rules, policies, best practices or missions, you can SAY that your space is for everyone, but you can't enforce it. A clique can take over and drive away people who don't fit. People will not always do the right thing. We need to set up spaces in which doing the right thing--welcoming all kinds of people--is easy, facilitated and enforced. When everybody knows what your institution is for (collecting and interpreting the past of your region, for instance) then we have common ground on which to build social relationships. Nina's research keeps finding that the right kind of constraints work to produce a better participatory museum experience.

Eric: So for multiple reasons, having some rules (and focus) actually creates a better atmosphere for the kinds of social relationships that LAMs have historically desired—and still do. We are more comfortable when the shoreline is in sight. Open ocean is scary.

Suzanne: It’s also unsafe for many of us.

How LAMs Differ from Oldenburg

Eric: Then what’s the main attraction in the idea for LAM institutions?

Suzanne: The idea that our institutions become part of the fabric of visitors' lives. But LAMs want to foster different kinds of social relationships than Oldenburg-style third places do--and that's okay.

Eric: LAMs are attracted to the welcoming and open world supported by his idea of conversation, though for us it’s more the conversation about something(s). In the end, we are about our content. Whereas Oldenburg’s third places are solely about relationships, not content.

Suzanne: We want relationships, too! We want to be platforms for building relationships around a central core. I think that's why Cafe Scientifique kind of models have been successful: expertise in content and in facilitating engagement with content is moved to a more familiar place. Among Progressive Era LAM types, Gratia Countryman wanted library materials to be accessible to everyone, so she built branch libraries in hospitals and factories. And John Cotton Dana's department store model is an interesting one.

Eric: Department stores had some Oldenburgian traits, according to Dana: convenient location, open many hours, open to any who would come. There's a nice overlap to be found here blending the traits of Oldenburg’s third place with the mission of the institution. That's the sort of a "fourth place" model that LAMs want to shoot for. In the 1930s, W.E. Doubleday recommended that libraries offer lectures, dramatic readings, and wireless listening groups--but then display books related to the topics on offer. LAMs are right to want to lower barriers and make their institutions more approachable--gone are the days when the public is willing to passively receive word from the institutional mountaintop.


Eric: So what do you think a good "LAM as fourth place" model might look like?

Suzanne: I like the Storefront Library in Boston. This was a pop-up library on a main street in Boston’s Chinatown that was set up as a community information space, and it was a great success, so much so that they’re planning to reprise it in a larger location for a longer duration this fall. It was a collaborative library/design/art/community-building project. One thing that impressed me was their circulation figures, and how they valued circulation (read: engagement with library materials) as a metric as important as the amount of people who came to programs.

Eric: That’s something we’re confronting with our online visitors especially, but it applies in person as well: how do we rate--how do we draw value from--the quality of their experience with the content and not simply define success as “bodies in the door”? The ideal “fourth place” for me makes the content approachable in an agreeable environment--wherever that environment may be. I'm for any practice that makes the visitor more comfortable bridging the gap between what they don't know and what the institution knows.

Suzanne: In a way, you’re transposing Oldenburg’s idea about quality of conversation onto cultural institutions with more strictly defined, content-based missions. That’s our main difference with Oldenburg. But we need to learn how to measure degree of engagement so we know when we’re doing it right! There are definitely some useful tools in The Great Good Place, but cultural institutions need to think carefully about how we can adapt these ideas to best fit our missions, visitors and communities.

Eric: As John Cotton Dana said, “The goodness of a museum is not in direct ratio to the cost of its building and the upkeep thereof, or to the rarity, auction-sale or money cost of its collections. A museum is good only in so far as it is of use.”

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