Libraries, Google, and Space

At the Letters to a Young Librarian blog, Jessica posted today about the reason she’s not worried that Google is ringing the closing bell for libraries. To quickly summarize, she says that Google can’t compete with libraries because a library is a physical place. People get together there. You can’t get together at Google.com. Go read her post, and then come back.

Here’s why I’m not as comforted by this thought than I’d like to be: Google’s not a place, but it’s in other ways an every-place. Google is in the coffee shop or cafe or wherever community life is happening. Some people will accept the lesser information and assistance of Google if they can choose the place to use Google services. I think that’s a poor trade-off when it comes to doing good work, but I can understand why people might make that decision.

When I’m in coffee shops near campus, I always see students at work on their laptops with headphones plugged in. The coffee is part of the pull, but it’s not all of it. I chose coffee shops to work in myself, sometimes, to get away from the too-quiet of studying by myself at home or in the library. I wanted a hello and half-conversation with the barista. I wanted the opportunity to run into a classmate for a friendly interruption.

It’s not that libraries don’t offer this kind of community, but there are an awful lot of people walking past the front desk. A lot of times there may not be an interaction until the person has a question or is ready to check out–very late, compared to buying a coffee when you enter a cafe–assuming they aren’t using the self-check-out scanner. It’s a challenge to make personal connections, and I’m not sure those connections rank highly on library priority lists.

Community connections like this are vital to coffee shops. Without a vibrant community, a coffee shop will close. This happened in my neighborhood. Our corner coffee shop quickly became the central hub of the community. We’d see friends while walking to it, catch up with friends and meet new people when we were there. It was open early, but little parking made it difficult for the morning crowd, and it was never open late enough for the college crowd. Despite lots of traffic, volunteer workers, and love, it couldn’t stay open. It’s been closed a couple years now, and although people from the community still meet to try to reopen it, it still hasn’t happened.

It’s not that libraries aren’t under cost pressures. Certainly they are. But it doesn’t seem that they’re under the same month-to-month risk of running in the red and closing their doors for good. Libraries don’t have the same pressure to build community, or at least it seems that they don’t feel that their lives depend on it. Having a space isn’t enough.

Having an espresso bar isn’t enough either. But having open doors doesn’t mean that a community will adopt it as their space. I don’t think libraries should replace coffee shops as a Third Space, but I do think they’re often have the same audience. If it were vital to get college-age students into libraries, the coffee shop challenges would be familiar: what hours are the doors open, what events take place there, what room is available for interaction and study, what vibe does it have?

Libraries can take on Google any day of the week when it comes to useful information. But with Google available every place that has a WiFi network, libraries and Google aren’t just competing for ideas. They’re competing for space. And that puts libraries into competition with unlikely contenders.

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3 Comments on “Libraries, Google, and Space”

  1. Jessica says:

    I agree with everything you say. We’re working on getting a coffee shop, expanding hours, and changing our focus. W haven’t left the purpose of an academic library behind, but we’ve started incorporating more popular culture. For instance, I’ve run Humans vs. Zombies in the library twice and have a third session planned.

    Thanks for fleshing out the seed of the idea I brought up with my own post.

  2. soulcayke says:

    Yes and here, here. At some point the collectivist we, started accepting lesser quality in exchange for More and Immediate. I know i do. A few years ago i read this and it made sense then: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/magazine/ideas/2009/#g (good enough is the new great) Which to be honest i never would have taken the time to find in an actual physical space, nor, it might be pertinent to note, that in this season of my life with wee ones and all, could i have. This wee article blurb led me to this slightly larger article: http://blogs.hbr.org/davenport/2009/12/have_you_lowered_your_information_standards.html

    Jessica and Swontech, i agree with both of you. Though libraries may not have quite the performance-based burden that coffee shops do, the irreplaceable Other in the physical space does have them vying for the same audience. So how do we keep the libraries and the coffee shops viable & open in the long run? Perhaps a slight adjustment in the targeted audience.

    Perhaps part of the answer is here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/02/can_asians_save_classical_music_.html

    Just as book readers beget book readers and coffee drinkers beget coffee drinkers and classical music lovers beget classical music lovers–the old-fashioned way! Attracting and (if you will) marketing aggressively to parents with children starts ’em young. Raising children to love, or maybe even just make a habit of libraries & books (physical ones in this instance) and coffee (hot chocolate for beginners of course=) brings in the usual suspects along with their posse. True, we’re still talking about the same audience, but that audience brings a friend or three. The Posse will one day wonder why they have no problem walking past the HyperOsmosis straight-to-your-brain bookdownloader so they can sit down with a book across from the spiral staircase in that library or see the names of great writers written in gray on the ceiling in the library back home, kidlings in tow.

  3. soulcayke says:

    *also note that the hours open and programs would be the vehicle for getting me and wee ones there in the first place, quality and quantity notwithstanding =)


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