The Commons and the Third Space

Every summer I pick up a bunch of the books that have been sitting in my office that I’ve been intending to read and make some efforts to read them.  A lot of the books in my office right now concern the intersection of politics and place as I’m prepping to teach a new interdisciplinary course in the fall on performative social justice and public space. This week, I’ve been reading parts of The Location of Culture by the critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture is a difficult book about (among other things) the spaces where cultural and political change occur, particularly in the context of post-colonialism and late capitalism. In a time of intense political and social upheaval, the idea of understanding how and where change happens seems useful, or even necessary. The location of culture that the title of the book references isn’t really a physical space but (as I understand it) a site of productive tension born out of the intersection of different, irreconcilable versions of culture that are introduced by people who have different lived experiences and socio-political points of view. Bhabha calls this the Third Space. The Third Space is where ideals of cultural stability are disrupted. It is also the discursive space that allows for “the same signs [to] be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew.” In this way, the Third Space, by destabilizing “the inherent originality or ‘purity’ of cultures” potentially enables emancipation.

I ran across Bhabha’s work a few years back by way of a Jame Elmborg article called Libraries as the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space. In this article, Elmborg uses the Third Space to think about the cultural position of the library as both a conceptual and physical space where power, inequity, and social difference can be explored. When it comes to space, librarians, Elmborg argues, essentially have two options (and I’m simplifying here):

1. We can either serve as institutional proxies that embody institutional norms, wield power over patrons, and advance a vision of library use that relies on acculturation and conformity.

2. Or we can recognize that the meaning of the library is continually constructed by those who inhabit it and we can position the library as “the borderland” that “evolve[s] collaboratively with the people” who use it. To do this, we’ll need to have both empathy and the imaginative capacity to see “information within the library in the context of the real life needs of the searcher.”

What does this have to do with the commons?

If we think of the library as the Third Space, then the library itself becomes a commons. For this to happen, we need to look at the library as a true public space and also, as “a collection of cultural codes” introduced by the (written and implicit) semiotic rules of space, by the content and context of the materials on the shelves, by the perspective of researchers, by the position of librarians, and by the knowledge and organizational systems that shape our interactions. If we challenge ourselves to see information in the context of the needs of users and also, more broadly, to see information (in terms of its meaning and value) in the shifting (and inequitable) space of culture, we will understand how thinking flexibly about both physical and virtual environments might enable the other kind of “commons.” I’m referring now to the commons we typically think about when we talk about open access and open knowledge environments. Positioning the library as a Third Space in this context might mean changing who has access to knowledge, re-imagining how information retrieval systems are designed, or pushing against encoded western-centric hierarchies in terms of how information is valued and shared.

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