Feeling lonely? Go to the library.

Costumed attendees at the Library of Congress’ Literary Costume Ball wait for their turn at a 360-degree spinning camera in an exhibition of Thomas Jefferson’s library.

Eliza Relman/Insider

Americans are lonely. They don’t know where to work or how to save money on socializing.
There’s a higher demand for third spaces, where people can convene outside of the home and office.
Libraries, a quintessential third space, want you to know they aren’t just for reading anymore.

Stephanie Garcia was dressed up as Emily Dickinson in a billowy black dress on a recent Thursday evening outside the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Standing in a line of hundreds of costumed people waiting to get into the iconic building, the 53-year-old Department of Labor employee chatted with two of her colleagues, who were dressed as Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and Willa Cather, the 20th century American writer.

The three were among about 2,000 people who scored free tickets to the Library of Congress’ first-ever Literary Costume Ball, an elaborate event featuring attractions including a DJ, dance floor, rare book exhibits, and literary-themed cocktails and snacks. 

Garcia, who works a few blocks away, long thought of the imposing building as a place for research. “I did my thesis here, so I spent a whole year downstairs,” she said. But these days, she uses it more as a place to have fun. She loves the Library’s relatively new after-hours programming.  

“Events like this bring people to the library. It’s very important because nobody reads anymore,” she said with a laugh.

It’s a new bet from libraries, and one that could help address a huge problem the American workforce faces: Everyone’s lonely, and no one knows where to go. If libraries can convince people they’re for more than just quiet reading, they might just be able to reshape the new social landscape.

Three years into the hybrid and work-from-home world, social time has plummeted. Americans aren’t socializing on weekdays, and are spending even less time with friends. Loneliness is on the rise. And it’s becoming clearer just how important “third places” — spaces for socializing outside of work and home — are.

But for cash-strapped Americans, going out for food or drinks is becoming even more costly. That’s where libraries come in. Today’s libraries have quietly shed their reputations as just book-borrowing hubs, offering patrons maker spaces, coworking spots, rooftop decks, and even dance parties — at no charge. And, if enough people take advantage of them, they could be key to solving the loneliness puzzle.

Literary Costume Ball attendees line up outside the Library of Congress.

Eliza Relman/Insider

Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, said she wants the Library to be a place that isn’t just for tourists, but functions as an “uber third place for DC residents,” she said.

“We’re really trying to make the Library of Congress more a part of the cultural and even social scene in DC,” she said in an interview inside her ceremonial office. 

The office took over our lives, and then it disappeared

Over the last 15 or so years, Americans in traditionally white-collar careers have been spending more time working and less time socializing. 

The office became a social hub for workers who only had time to wake up, commute, and then commute home to do it all over again — look no further than television shows like “The Office,” “Superstore,” or “Industry,” where almost all socializing was mediated through work.

At the same time, third places have been in decline for decades. Traditional centers of community like churches and local civil organizations have grown less popular. Younger people are drinking less and much more sober curious, leaving a void for a hangout space that isn’t a bar. And the privatization and rising costs of other gathering spaces — from $6 coffees to $200 gym memberships — have narrowed access to spaces they might want to be in. 

Libraries are no exception. Between 2000 and 2018, visits to American public libraries dropped by 31%, one report found. Almost 60% of Americans surveyed in 2021 said they seldom or never visit their local public library.  

Meanwhile, Americans have started spending a lot less time with friends and a lot more time online. From 2014 to 2019, the amount of time Americans reported spending with friends dropped by 37%, from about 6 ½ hours to four hours a week.

Then came 2020. Offices suddenly vanished for many and remote and hybrid work have taken over. Where’s everyone supposed to go?

The DJ blasted pop music on the dance floor inside the Library of Congress.

Eliza Relman/Getty Images

“It’s so new for everyone, the merging of your first and second place,” Brittany Simmons, a New York-based urban planner at a private firm who’s racked up over 2 million likes on TikTok for her videos on urban planning, told Insider. For some, especially as socializing went virtual during the pandemic, there was a realization: “Now I just have one place.”

People want to get out and do things, Simmons said — just not in either of those places. Maybe that’s why hours spent socializing have not ticked back up in recent years, like they did after past recessions.

“A lot of people like hybrid or remote work, but are really feeling the need for something else, really want their third place,” she said. 

Libraries could be the answer

Libraries are in many ways the ideal third place. They welcome all kinds of people. They’re multi-purpose venues for a range of activities. And they’re free.

“In many ways we see libraries as able to create that third space for people to work remotely, to come in and meet with people and serve in many ways much like a coworking space does. But the big difference being a public library is free for everyone to use,” Brooks Rainwater, the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, told Insider.

But people often don’t see them as places to hang out and socialize. 

“It’s one of those old stereotypes that just won’t die that libraries are quiet places and they’re reserved for silent study, but it’s just not that way anymore. They’re actually very vibrant places,” said Emma Wood, a librarian at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

That’s certainly the case for the Library of Congress. 

“The duality of it is yes, we are a world class research institution, we are a cultural destination, we are a monument to knowledge, and a DC tourism destination, but we’re also the local library for a lot of Capitol Hill residents,” said Katie Davidovich, the chief of visitor engagement at the Library of Congress. 

In May 2022, the Library began opening its doors every Thursday night until 8:30 pm for its Live! at the Library events, like the recent costume ball. Other Thursday night events feature concerts, book talks, and exhibits. They’re popular for dates and group happy hours. 

“I think we really found our audience recently — we’ve had huge numbers at these programs over this summer,” Davidovich said, adding that there are fewer tourists at the happy hour events. “There’s a lot of intention around people coming to these programs.”

Ball attendees drank literary-themed cocktails, danced, and mingled in rare book exhibitions.

Eliza Relman/Insider

College libraries are also expanding into third places for students. Tim Peters, the associate dean of university libraries at Central Michigan University, said that surveys have found students like the new comfy chairs, collaborative study rooms, and even tables that are easier to push together.

Peters has set out to make the university’s libraries meet students where they are. That includes switching up hours after Peters noticed several students trying to come in right before closing time. That’s “just recognition that students have different schedules than the library, perhaps. We’re making that space available for them to do work.”

Wood, who thinks libraries are “one of the last true third places,” explained that there are a range of spaces in her library. The first floor is the “loud floor,” she said, where students socialize, take Zoom calls with their families and therapists, or have a snack at the cafe. 

To open libraries up to more people, Samuel Abrams, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says they should extend their hours. They should also incorporate businesses like cafes, shops, and restaurants to attract even more people in. Abrams said he regularly drops by the New York Public Library just to pick up sticky buns from Amy’s Bread, a bakery with an outpost in the library. Public-private partnerships, he argued, can help fill funding gaps. 

Abrams noted that some libraries have moved many of their books to open up spaces that operate more as community centers. 

“The most effective libraries enable communities and a whole host of people to congregate and socialize,” he said. 

One trickier challenge is that there simply aren’t enough libraries. Abrams’ research has found that in order to become regular hangouts, libraries also need to be within 10 or 15 minutes walking or driving of people’s homes. 

Library attendance still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic numbers. Over 279 million people made in-person visits to libraries in 2019, according to a ULC survey of nearly 100 members across the US and Canada; in 2022, there were only 153 million visits. But, Rainwater said, “once we have the full numbers from 2023, I expect to see that coming close to back where it was pre-pandemic.”

A caricature artist at work at the Costume Ball.

Eliza Relman/Insider

In Boston, for instance, the Boston Public Library is thriving, Gregor Smart, the head of the Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center at BPL, said. The institution has “weathered a variety of storms,” including new bookstores and coworking spaces moving in on its turf, and has still emerged strong. That might just be because it’s a quintessential third space. 

“I like to think of us like the third leg of a stool,” Smart said. “We have a physical space that people can come to. We have the resources and then we have a slate of KBLIC advisors to help you, whether you’re looking to start a business, need help with building credit, tax assistance.”

In KBLIC, library patrons can book alcoves for calls, or private classrooms for small group projects. Covid taught the library the need for things like Macs with webcams, for instance, so library goers can hop on Zoom or do job interviews.

“I certainly hear from people who are working remotely, they have an apartment or some place to be, but they can’t be there due to roommates, due to distractions,” Smart said. “And they’re finding that this is a great place to be.”

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