I had some fun over at the SLA Future Ready 365 blog this weekend when my post “Re-embracing the “Shush”–Can the Library be a Quiet Place in the Age of Social?” went up on Sunday. There is a lot of talk about how the library should be a place for social gathering, sharing ideas, and being a place similar to a Barnes & Noble or a Starbucks. I thought I’d take the other extreme and suggest that instead of pretending to be a business (something we are not), why not re-embrace what we traditionally think of when we think of libraries – a quite place to go to study, research and get things done.

The idea came from the following three things that I’ve recently read, watched and prepared:

  1. Ark Group’s February 2011 conference on Best Practices & Management Strategies for Law Firm Library & Information Service Centers – At this meeting, I will be co-presenting with WilmerHale’s Library Director, Matthew J. Todd, on the issue of reconsidering the physical space of a law firm library from a “Social Engineering” perspective. In other words, using the physical library as conduit for actually talking and sharing ideas with your peers in real face-to-face interactions.
  2. Jason Fried’s TEDx Talk on Why work doesn’t happen at work – The e-Discovery manager in my office sent this video to me a couple weeks ago and found it interesting the amount of time, money and effort that law firms spend on work space, only to find out that real work may be going on elsewhere.
  3. The University of Arizona’s law library got some interesting press in the student paper saying that the law library refuses undergraduates. It seems that one of the best kept secrets at the University of Arizona is that if you want a place where you can study and actually get something done without interruption, the law library is the place to go. 
If you think that the library is a place to get work accomplished, then instead of running away from the stereotypical ideas of what a library is, perhaps we should re-embrace those ideas rather than attempt to be some type of quasi-bookstore, coffee shop, or social gathering place, and return to being a place where you go to obtain information and work in a quiet atmosphere. 
Go over and check out the SLA Future Ready 365 blog, where you’ll find my post, and daily updates from other librarians that work in specialized fields. Perhaps you’ll even be motivated to contribute your own post.

  • Greg… I completely disagree with your statement in the first paragraph that the library isn't a business. Whether the library is part of a larger organization or free-standing, we are indeed businesses. When I was a county law librarian, I frequently told people that I managed a small business. I had inventory, staff and provided products and services to my customers. I also had a bottom-line that I was accountable for. I believe that we need to be more like businesses, not less.

    To the point of your article, if a product or service is not meeting the needs of your customer, you adjust or if the entire premise of your business model is under attack, you rethink it.

    Let's compare the library to a laundromat. The traditional laundromat doesn't seem very relevant these days, and certainly isn't a place people chose to go. Therefore, some laundromats have changed their business model to meet the needs of their customers and remain a relevant option. Look at Dirty Dungarees in Columbus, OH, a laundromat and bar combination with a daily happy hour or Brain Wash, a laundromat and cafe in San Francisco. The possibilities are endless, but the point is that these businesses took a task people don't like, and combined it with something they do like to remain relevant.

    Whether its playing to the nostalgic ideals of a quiet library or something else entirely, we need to change and adapt to the needs of our individual customer base to remain relevant. This isn't "one size fits all", so there are endless possibilities and options. We are only constrained by ourselves.

  • Colleen,

    When I said that, I was meaning that we are not Starbucks or Barnes & Noble type businesses. We are a business in that we are selling a service, and serving a community, but most of us simply cannot attempt to copy the models that Starbucks and B&N have adopted and expect that to be the value we bring.

    Like you said, there isn't a one-sized fits all answer. What you need to do to make your services useful to your community is completely based upon the community you serve. Special libraries (such as the private law library I serve) need to focus on the value we offer. In some instances, perhaps the value would be enhanced by bringing in an Xbox360 or big-screen TV's or serving lattes, but I would say that doing such things, in this specific case, would be counter-productive to what the patrons want and need in our services.

    It would be a whole lot more fun if Xbox 360 and ping pong tables could be brought in… I know I would love to take time to play on them. Unfortunately, for me, my community needs a place to go that is separated from distraction and allows them to get work accomplished without interruption.

    Luckily, the Starbucks is downstairs, and there's Books-A-Million two blocks away that can handle their coffee and Twilight needs.

  • Anonymous

    I liked Colleen's argument – well articulated. For us, becoming a more public place to encourage the gathering of people who may not otherwise meet up in the course of their everyday work is something that we have been (successfully) encouraging. And from what I observe in our Firm, offices seem to provide well enough for "refuge" when needed…