In January, I was thinking a lot about the concept of libraries as “third places.”

Author Ray Oldenburg, a proponent of the importance of the third place, has denoted that our first place is home. Our second is the workplace. Our third is a coffee shop, tavern, church, social club, bowling alley — or a library.

They are places where we feel comfortable. When we’re in a third place, we can be ourselves, not defined by family obligations or career goals. We see people we know, and maybe make new friends.

Right now, those third places are shuttered. Just when we need them the most.

I think this pandemic would be even harder to endure if we didn’t have our electronic connections — social media, texting, FaceTime. But I have to say that working from home, virtually, can drain me. Because we are all in the same boat, there are so many emails to read and answer, and sometimes act on. Virtual meetings to attend. So while I want to (need to) make social connections, sometimes I am too screen-weary to do so. Sometimes my eyes just don’t want to cooperate.

I need to be sitting on a café deck overlooking the ocean with my husband or a friend, drinking lemonade and people watching.

Since I’m a school librarian, libraries are not third places for me. But they were throughout my childhood and adolescence. In high school, going to the library at night to “do homework” was a way to see your classmates. Even in college, a lot of socializing went on between the study carrels.

Libraries have always been third places, but that role is becoming more evident as these institutions evolve. It’s not all about the books anymore. Just about a year ago I wrote a column about libraries as sanctuaries, inspired by the movie “The Public,” set in The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Ohio). In the fictional story, homeless people find a place to keep both body and soul warm.

In a high school library (and to a lesser extent, middle school), the library can be a safe place for students who don’t feel they “fit in.” Or those who need some quiet, alone time during the day. Some students regularly take a few minutes from their lunch or break time to come to the library to say hello to the librarians.

Because, of course, third places aren’t just physical structures. The people that staff them play an important role. School librarians are in a unique position because we don’t grade students. We don’t know how academically inclined they are unless they tell us. I remember feeling that my fifth-grade teacher didn’t like me because I consistently got a C in penmanship. Kids often have such misconceptions. Librarians don’t know students’ grades and won’t even question them about their choice of books.

Libraries are such important third places that some Maine librarians in small, public libraries are calling their regular patrons during the pandemic, to check on them.

For now, most of us are confined to our first place, with occasional forays outside. I wouldn’t exactly call the grocery market a third place, but my store is in my neighborhood. I often see people I know there, and it often provides opportunities to watch people in action doing weird, sometimes noble things. Among the cashiers I regularly chat with are a neighbor and several students, current and former.

Now, I am masked and must stay away from others. I enter the store in warrior mode and try to get out as soon as possible. Between the plexiglass that protects the cashier and my mask, conversing is impossible.

The Kennebec River Rail Trail is a third place for me. My husband, Paul, and I walk it regularly on the weekends and, once sheltering in place began, daily as well. But suddenly the trail was crowded. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that some people are refusing to observe physical distancing.

We’ve had to find alternatives. The last time we were there, a family of five swooped in, the kids on scooters and skateboards, everyone in a clump headed straight down the trail. Paul and I had no choice but to scoot up to the snow-covered train tracks to walk.

But what really broke my heart was the woman who was walking in the middle of the trail. I motioned for her to move over. There is a 6-foot clearance if each party walks single file on opposite sides of the trail.

This woman didn’t move to the edge of the trail. She waved at me. And smiled.

These are hard times. We want to be able to shake hands, to hug, to chitchat in the market. We want to be able to exchange pleasantries with strangers on the rail trail.

But, as it says in Ecclesiastes 3, this is “a time to refrain from embracing.”

Together, apart, has become the mantra of the day. We must work together to stay apart, to beat this thing. My brain knows that is the absolute truth. My heart despairs at the irony.


Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].

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