Saving libraries and the culture of reading

LIBARARYI was reading about the death of bookstores and the lamentation of the masses, who will no longer have a place to meet, talk, and browse novels before going home and buying them on Amazon.

Someone mentioned libraries should take their place; the mission of a library, after all, is to provide a central repository for books and, by extension, a place for people to read them, talk about them, and enjoy them.

I find libraries a little sterile, however, at least as a place to work or socialize or form a community around reading. I know that sounds strange, but I don’t think I’m alone.

So, what if public libraries started outsourcing concessions to local coffee shops and converted some of the (often, though not always) unused meeting places as de facto cafés where books could be browsed at no detriment to the owner (the library), more patrons might show up and hang out because of the convivial draw of the coffee, and some amount of the profit goes to the library to support the ever-diminishing public funding they receive?

I’ve never worked in a library nor a coffee shop, which means my “great idea” probably has logistical holes you could drive a truck through. But if so…what are they? Are they unsolvable? Is this a viable concept? Tell me why or why not in the comments.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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12 comments on “Saving libraries and the culture of reading
  1. Vicki H says:

    I would love to have a coffee shop in the library. It may actually convince me to go in one. I love libraries but you have to be so quiet and they seem so sterile, like a hospital, that it would definitely make it more appealing. Just my opinion!

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Vicki – Yes! Exactly like a hospital. Even though librarians are wonderful people and libraries wonderful places, I still always have the feel that I should hush myself and walk around on tinterhooks (and those are painful, lemme tell ya)–this is not the most genial atmosphere to talk about books, meet for a book club, relax and cozy up, etc.

  2. This is such a great idea, and I know of some areas that have instituted this concept with terrific results. Unfortunately the library in my area has chosen to do exactly the opposite. They have eliminated their sponsorship of all social groups and gatherings, and although areas are still available for meetings, they are now “open” sections of the library where any and all patrons (even small children) wander through and interrupt discussions and/or presentations. I will not be surprised if/when this will ultimately lead to the demise of this facility.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Good lord, that sounds terrible. There are so few free, public space left where we can forge community. Is it because of funding problems, or is it more bureaucratic stuff that’s eliminating the amenities?

      • officerripley says:

        County library volunteer here: yes, it’s both funding and bureaucratic stuff that’s eliminating some amenities (mostly funding). Say someone at a library-sponsored social event spills & gets burnt by coffee; all you-know-what breaks loose & the lawyers get involved (the mind reels) and since our poor old county has to fight tooth & nail to even keep the doors of the library open, they just can’t afford the liability hassle. (What I get for living in a rural area: 1 of our county supervisors, when asked if he would please vote for more $$ for the library, said, “The library! Not only will I never do that; if I had my way that place would close for good & stay closed! I figure every hour that damn place is open means another drug dealer on the streets.” So unfortunately, I bet this is not the only place in the country with that 1800s/law&order/who needs “booklarning” kind of mentality, sigh.)

      • Matthew Iden says:

        It’s unfortunate that it’s red tape and litigiousness that stands in the way. I wonder if some of the liability could be shifted to the coffee shop owner in the sense that they MUST have some way of dealing with injury liability (“Caution: Hot Coffee is Hot”, etc.).

        And, if we could get more “community” in community library, maybe clowns like that county supervisor you mention would either be convinced his screwball ideas are wrong or just get voted down by smart masses.

  3. Matthew, had to wait til today to get enough time to search out some recent libraries that give some good example-answers to your questions (there’s lots of info out almost daily).

    Both these, very coincidentally, because I found these via library news papers with stories from around the world, are in Texas.

    This is a great story of a local community in great need. As per one image, a group of boys is huddled around a toy project. I know where I grew up, no group of boys is gonna be “that” quiet in any setting, even church! (smiles).

    And this latter link in to a converted abandoned Walmart in south Texas. I hope Walmart contributed to this (and they get credit for it if they did).

    This one includes several images, one this caption on one :

    “And they even have a section for teenagers, who might not be able to control their noise levels. You know what the designers did? They soundproofed the teen lounge. Now there is less stress for both librarians (who don’t have to shush constantly) and teenagers (who don’t have to be shushed constantly).”

    So much is possible!

    Actually, since libraries are a local “thing,” I believe libraries can be anything the folk in that community want it to be. And having a multiple use library with both quiet and active (read, noisy) zones, is not only a good idea, but totally possible.

    Divert less than a fraction of one percent of the cost of any war, and we have libraries.

    And if ever one needed first hand reasons and ways libraries can and do function, the 300+ comments from librarians around the world to this next article, tell tons –

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Adan – Great research, thanks. I especially like that Wal-Mart conversion. I found the Forbes article scary at first, then inspiring, because it points exactly to why libraries–as community centers–should be reimagined and reinvented.

      They shouldn’t be the book equivalent of a drop-off dry cleaner where you pick up your laundry once a week. With innovation and some investment, especially in suburban and rural areas of the country, they could really become centers of culture. But I think there have to multiple reasons to go there and increasing the conviviality aspect while maintaining the primary mission could turn the dusty old library into a new center of town (and one that wouldn’t need a Johnny Rockets, Gap, and Olive Garden to keep it viable).

  4. Susan S. says:

    The change you are talking about is already happening, quite a lot, in academic libraries. I work at UC Davis and the talk there is not so much about books specifically, but, like you mention, the space itself. Libraries can no longer look at themselves as places that just catalog and care for books. They truly have to view themselves as “stewards of information”, no matter the form and there is a great revolution coming with all of the e-books and e-journals that are becoming so important to so many. Adding or changing spaces for coffee shops or group study/meeting space is very important and many librarians out there are working hard to figure out the best ways of giving the population that uses any particular library the kind of space they want and need and continuing to provide the best access to information, no matter how it is stored. This kind of change is much more difficult for public libraries that usually work on smaller budgets and serve a far wider population. It’s coming though, so you’re not off in your thinking and desires. It may just take awhile for the community of professional librarians and information specialists to figure out how to pull it off.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Susan, thanks so much for your input. It’s good to hear that the change is coming. It’s funny you should mention university libraries as leading the charge: after I wrote my post, I realized that what I was actually after was a kind of student union concept where, on some campuses, the bookstore, library, cafeteria, cafe, and required services (tax help, medic, etc.) are located either nearby or in the same building.

      Since universities are mini-cities in some ways, I don’t see why we shouldn’t emulate this on a larger scale. Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language talks about similar logical dovetailing for health clubs being the location of your local doctors’ offices. A solution where libraries become social and information centers makes sense on a number of levels and doesn’t have to take away from any of the institutions involved.

      I’d love to hear more about how this idea expands at UC Davis!

      • Susan S. says:

        I think I should have spent a little more time proof reading (or not trying to compose a coherent thought when I should be getting ready for bed). I should have written that I work at the *library* at UCD. Changes the tone of what I wrote a bit, I think. It will be interesting to see how things change here over the next number of years. Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. officerripley says:

    To Mr. Iden: unfortunately that clown of a county supervisor very popular, he’s running for assessor now and likely to get elected, too many people around here think he’s right, sigh.

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