Libraries are quiet and clean places — growing up, my idea of libraries included a strict lady shushing at every dropped pin.

According to the U of T library conduct regulations, prohibited activities at the library include the consumption of food except in designated areas, and any behaviour — such as “rowdiness, noise, prolonged conversation” — that distracts or disrupts others. These tend to be standard expectations at libraries worldwide.

Despite these well-known expectations of library conduct, U of T students continue to complain about the lack of common courtesy shown non-stop by others at UTSG libraries who do things such as eating full meals or having raucous conversations. In one Reddit thread, some students blamed the lack of conduct on either the COVID-19 pandemic or personal social ineptness and egoism. 

A now-deleted Reddit user claiming to be a librarian in Toronto responded on the thread that library service models have “shifted along with people’s use of the library,” becoming more of a social hub where individuals can access “free entertainment, educational resources, and shelter.” The user emphasized how libraries reflect its local population who, at this time, need “services, not silence.”

Like this Reddit user, I also see the decline of library etiquette being linked to the lack of ‘third places’ in Toronto. In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to critique the loneliness, isolation, and lack of community in American suburbs. The third place is a public space that welcomes regular, informal gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home — the first place — and productive work — the second place.

Oldenburg wrote that third places “serve the human need for communion” and provide a space for escape and relief from the stress of home, work, or student life. Ideally, open daily and for long hours, a third place invites everyone to build and sustain experiences and relationships in an open space that people can come and go to as they please.

Oldenburg further stressed the feeling of warmth and comfort in third places, stating that warmth “radiates from the combination of cheerfulness and companionship, and it enhances the sense of being alive.” The third place extends similar psychological comfort and support of a good home, despite the third place being a radically different setting from the first place.

Oldenburg calls on prominent examples of third places from the past to illustrate its communal importance, including the agora: a kind of open meeting space found throughout ancient Greece where citizens could assemble. Agoras existed in the vicinity of public buildings or temples and were a routine part of fifth-century BCE Greek life for daily activities and gatherings.

I see no modern-day equivalents of the agora in Toronto, beyond perhaps gathering spaces on digital devices or the library. University students are particularly conscious of the absence of an informal public life. As you go through a substantial shift from childhood to adulthood — often alone! — it is easy to feel isolated, especially when there are few places you can go to for social interaction or a break beyond studying. Even with long study or focus periods, you still have a need to eat or a desire to be with people, and the responsibility to cater to this demand falls on libraries: the only place still open past the early evening.

Most cafés near the UTSG campus or in downtown Toronto I’ve been to have limited, small, or timed study space, no charging outlets, or tend to close by 5:00–8:00 pm. There are few convenient places where a student can sit down and study while having a bite to eat or drink and some conversation with a friend. Similarly, many buildings at UTSG close before 10:00 pm, limiting the spots one can do work on campus. As opposed to cafés, popular libraries such as Gerstein Science Information Centre, E. J. Pratt Library, and Robarts Library all close between 10:00 pm and midnight.

One could fix disruptive library etiquette by simply kicking out those who are boisterous or hungry. But doing so would ignore the larger underlying problem that students in Toronto face: a desire for connection and companionship that is difficult to maintain in a busy city that doesn’t allow you to stay in one place for more than three hours and falls asleep at 8:00 pm.

There is no doubt that third places are essential to a good and balanced life. The current structure of family, productive work, and consumerism is bleak. Libraries make a wonderful third place as they provide abundant free and accessible services and the warm, supportive environment Oldenburg describes to their patrons. 

However, libraries shouldn’t be punished with bad etiquette for being welcoming hosts. If you also struggle to find third places and resort to the library, please be respectful of silent spaces and mindful of the services you’re using and the surrounding people.

Mia Jakobsen is a third-year student at Victoria College studying book and media studies, sexual diversity studies, and digital humanities. She is the president of the Book & Media Studies Student Association and the director of marketing and outreach for VicPride.