Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Planning, Design, and the Built Environment

Committee Chair/Advisor

John Gaber

Committee Member

Aby Sene Harper

Committee Member

Enrique Ramos

Committee Member

Megan Weis


There are more than 9,200 public library systems with more than 17,400 outlets in the United States, more than 97% of the population lives within the service area of a public library, and libraries recorded 1.2 billion visits in 2019 (Pelczar et al. 2022; Pelczar et al. 2021). Public libraries are also viewed as trusted institutions and as positively impacting the communities they serve (Horrigan 2016). While the library profession has experienced a period defined by “crisis culture” following the emergence of the internet, there are now numerous studies within the field, as well as supporting federal policies, that position libraries as essential public facilities, important social and community infrastructure, and low intensive meeting spaces contributing to economic and community development (Buschman 2003; US Code of Laws; Klinenberg 2018; Aabo et al. 2010). Yet, despite the widespread presence of public libraries, recognition within the library profession and federal laws, public libraries are almost nonexistent from scholarship in the urban planning and community development discipline. Where public libraries do appear in the literature, it is often in the context of serving as a community asset or as an organization contributing to community development through service provision, and even then, rarely are libraries explicitly named in these contexts (Green and Haines 2016; Gallent 2020).

This dissertation necessarily looks to remedy the oversight within the planning field by exploring how public libraries might contribute to urban planning and community development processes as spaces and places for public participation in the context of the post-industrial, informational society (Castells 1989). Specifically, this dissertation uses a three article model to address the following research questions: 1) How has access to public library spaces and services changed over the last decade in relation to population density and funding? 2) How might urban and rural public libraries contribute to public participation in the community development process within the context of the informational society? 3) How might public libraries serve as thirdspaces that can be leveraged to increase public participation in planning and community development processes as part of the informational society?

These questions are addressed through a fifteen year longitudinal study using the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Public Libraries Survey to look at changes over time in public library funding and services, a case study of South Carolina assessing household and county level internet access, and an exploration of community development and library literature as a foundation for proposing a theory of public libraries as thirdspaces for community participation. A grounded theory approach has then been applied to the findings from these three articles to propose a substantive theory of public libraries as thirdspaces for community participation in the informational society. The intent is that this research will serve as a catalyst within the planning field leading to future studies and development of a formal theory about the role of public libraries as important spaces and places for participatory processes.

Available for download on Saturday, August 31, 2024