It's almost 2013 and some of my favorite institutions are in real trouble. But one—the library—is strangely positioned quite well for the future.
I like libraries, bookstores, newspapers, magazines, Wikipedia and the internet in general, but am increasingly disillusioned with e-commerce. What it lacks is serendipity. Algorithms don't do the trick. The desire for discovery isn't satisfied with "other customers frequently bought" solicitations.
Prompted by this fun story on updating what libraries are (and can be) to citizens, I developed a list of things that I think libraries can do to become a little more modern and awesome, and build on the huge advantage they already have—people increasingly demand information for free. Free information has been the library's core competency since time immemorial.
Here's the list:
Leverage Goodreads and Meetup. Disappointingly, Netflix never quite nailed the social elements that seem within reach for them—though they plan to take another serious crack at it in 2013. I could give them the benefit of the doubt and say, hey, maybe movie-watching is too personal and people didn't want to constantly share their viewing habits. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that there's anything too sacred to share online anymore for some folks. Goodreads, the social network for book lovers, (and other sites like it) should be the kind of tool that libraries can use to better connect with patrons who are increasingly discovering books online. Another highly valuable resource provided by libraries—gathering spaces—seems a natural fit for Meetup.
Both would require some thoughtful use, and maybe even brainstorming directly with the sites themselves, but it'd benefit both if the voice and presence of the library were associated with those discovery-oriented sites.
If anybody knows of examples of libraries making great use of these or other social networks, please let me know.
Beat coffeeshops. Why does everybody go to coffeeshops to work? Mainly because they have tables, coffee and wifi. So do many libraries. I could walk a block and a half to a library to work, but instead I walk about six blocks to one of a few coffeeshops. Why? Because it's just not that pleasant to work in my local library.
You don't have to blow a ton of cash and build an internationally recognizable library (although it helps). You just have to be a better gathering space than a coffeeshop. Provide cool space, sell caffeinated drinks—heck, if you're big enough, maybe you can even lease out space to two or three different coffeeshops. One can appeal to the Starbucks crowd and one can appeal to the indie-or-die crowd.
Libraries should be the default gathering places in our neighborhoods.
Beat bookstores. This shouldn't be hard, really. Bookstores are like libraries that charge you money. Yes, many of us (myself included!) want to buy and own physical books. But we're fewer and fewer in number, thanks to e-books, among other things, and so bookstores are closing. Many areas are underserved. How about giving the local Barnes & Noble a little competition, as is the Arlington Heights Memorial Library? This is from the above-mentioned Times story:
Renovations going on there now will turn a swath of the library’s first floor into an area resembling a bookshop, where patrons will be pampered with cozy seating, a vending cafe and, above all, an abundance of best sellers.
Learn from CSAs. This is a longshot, but look: People know generally what they want, but not exactly what they want. In the case of the CSA, some people want good vegetables, grown locally. They want them because they know that eating local vegetables is good for them, for their community and even for their planet. They accept the fact that every two weeks, they'll be given a box of vegetables that they didn't choose. It's a fun and healthy challenge. Can libraries recreate this? Would you be interested in receiving a package of three books, delivered right to your doorstep, based on your history with the library and/or your geography? Above, I said algorithms don't tickle my fancy. Here, I'm saying, What if they could? Deal with it.