(Version published in the Hamilton Spectator: April 9, 2024)

Nicole Dalmer


Carla Hayden, the 14th librarian of Congress, proclaimed that “there is a hunger in this digital age … to participate in programs, to just be in a place, a community space”. Public libraries play a crucial role in building our understandings of community and connecting us to community. My own work looks at the role of public libraries as very crucial, but sometimes overlooked, spaces of social connection in later life.


In stepping back and thinking more broadly about the public library and its capacity for supporting social connections in later life, I’ve been thinking about local public library branches as important third places – drawing on Ray Oldenburg’s popular book The Great Good Place. Third places, such as parks, gyms, coffeeshops, museums, and libraries are places distinct from the home (a first place) or work environments (a second place), where social connections and community building can be fostered. In other words, third places are spots where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.


As part of my research, I interviewed 51 older adults living in Ontario who frequented their local public library, asking them questions to better understand the many roles the public library has and continues to play in their everyday lives. My research in response to the International Federation on Ageing’s statement that “the number one emerging issue facing older adults in Canada is keeping older people socially connected and active”. Between 19 and 24% of older people in Canada experience some level of isolation. Social isolation occupies an increasingly important place in conversations surrounding aging in Canada, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic that exacerbated feelings of social isolation and in part due to social isolation’s negative impact on older adults’ physical and mental health, including reduced quality of life, premature mortality, depression, as well as increased risk for falls, cardiovascular disease, and dementia. Socially isolated older adults often have poorer health outcomes and more complex support needs and therefore require access to a complement of community-based supports – such as public libraries – to thrive.


As I learned from the 51 older adults who shared their experiences of engaging with their public library, it became clear that participants hold an intimate relationship with their public library branch – a relationship that typically spans the course of their lives. The library was often referred to as an “old friend” or a “trusted friend”. Public library branches foster feelings of social connectedness – not only due to the range of materials, programs, services, and spaces that can be used without expectation of payment or any pre-existing level of knowledge but public libraries also serve as trusted third places for discovering and accessing resources, enabling lifelong learning and fostering community relationships. As voiced by so many individuals who took part

in my study, public library offerings connect older library patrons with other people and other ideas, other events, and other services. Libraries were also spaces with free access to washrooms, places to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and important places where older adults knew they could stop along their daily walking route. Participants felt connected to library staff. This was especially so for those older adults living in rural areas, where staff knew them by name and could offer reading recommendations based on what the patrons had checked out in the past. Interestingly, older adults shared they felt connected to their community while in their library, even if they didn’t actually interact with other people. Merely being in the presence of others (whether staff or other patrons) was sufficient to feel socially included and connected.


Public libraries also nurture social connection through intergenerational connections. Intergenerational library programs (movie nights, music classes, book clubs, knitting clubs, and the like) are places where different generations can meet, interact, and build relationships – bridging generational perspectives and experiences.


So when we’re thinking about how to support social inclusion among older adults, it’s important to consider those third places, such as public library branches that can be crucial sites that foster, inspire, and encourage feelings and experiences of social connection and social inclusion.


Nicole Dalmer, MLIS PhD, is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University, an Associate Director of the Gilbrea Centre for Studies in Aging and a volunteer with the Hamilton Council on Aging. For more information or to donate to the Hamilton Council on Aging please visit https://coahamilton.ca/