Library as Social Space

I’ve always considered libraries to be special places, places of intersection between theory and practice. Places where thought and idea are birthed through the joy of research and investigation. Libraries, alive and humming with the sound of discovery, are truly social in the fullest sense of the word. It’s thus a misnomer to describe libraries as a place of silence. The idea that libraries are like monasteries (and librarians are monks) is hard to shake. Even today it’s not unusual to see patrons enter libraries in almost reverential silence, as if to pay fearful respect to some unknown library god. Libraries as places of social activity, connection, and fun is still a foreign concept to some. This is very unfortunate, for it misses the real joy that comes from the library experience.

The joy of libraries originates from their function as a social spaces. A social space is a network of relationships, meaning that a library isn’t a thing. Rather a library is place of relationship and interaction, a home for the lived interactions and exchanges between students, faculty, and staff. A library is therefore a lived spaced produced by the patrons. Yes there is a physical building, but this is not what makes a library. Libraries are products of people, their relationships and exchanges. We do not enter a library, rather we live into it. Describing social space, twentieth-century French philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes,

Humans as social beings are said to produce their own life, their own consciousness, their own world. There is nothing in history or in society, which does not have to be achieved and produced. – The Production of Space, (1991), 68.

I believe that a library exists through the lives of the students, faculty, and staff that make it so. The St. Thomas University Library models this idea. It’s relationship given physical form, a relationship that connects the diverse people and groups that make up the character of the STU Library. Consequently, the STU Library is the result of years of action and relationship. Places like the STU Library don’t just happen overnight. It’s the cumulative effect of years of interrelationship and fellowship that extends far beyond a building. The STU Library’s social space is a meeting place of the past and present, a commingling of relationships old and new that thus point to a ever growing and evolving future. As such, while faces have changed and some are no longer with us, the brightness of our future is built on the heritage of our past. The STU Library is a place that endures because of its history.

All who enter that social space are quickly transformed by it. Lefebvre suggests that

The space of society, of social life…all ‘subjects’ are situated in a space in which they must either recognize themselves or lose themselves, a space which they may enjoy and modify. – The Production of Space, (1991), 35.

I know it transformed me. Though I am still new as the Outreach and Instruction Librarian, I’ve been at STU for over five years. As I reflect on my time at here, I realize now that my history is now irrevocably bound to the history of the Library. It’s a social space that has changed me as a theologian, librarian, and more importantly as a person. It’s a place where students are put first, an attitude I’ve subsequently tried to adopt as both a librarian and a teacher. After all, it’s the students that make STU Library such a special place. It’s STU Library’s commitment to students and the belief that a library can be fun, which transforms physical space into social space.

As a librarian, I revel in the social space the Library offers. I believe it’s part of the reason that I can’t seem to leave. The joy of research, fellowship, and comradery make it hard to leave this place. Yet, speaking also as a theologian, this social space is also sacred space. There is something sacred about study and research, especially in the way it opens our minds to unknown possibilities, thus connecting us to the wonder of being. French spiritualist and philosopher, A.G. Sertillanges, OP writes,

Truly to study a thing means evoking step by step the sense of all other things and of their solidarity – mingling in the concert of all being, entering into union with the universe and with oneself.- The Intellectual Life, (1998), 137.

What makes the STU Library sacred space is the way in which study, fellowship, and fun connect students, faculty, and staff. The rituals of the library create the extraordinary out of the ordinary. Students can study anywhere, but I believe what draws students here isthe way study and academics are transformed from the ordinary to the extraordinary. It also makes it the perfect place for a theologian to reside. As an intersection between life, culture, and study, the culture at the Library is one that fosters spirituality.

My advice, find your sacred space and live into it. Beginning your search at your local library is probably a good place to start.

Cheers,

Jonathan