Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Library as CoWorking Space?

Note: I am trying to post more regularly, but still life happens. Ah well, at least my average is up!

Here's one to stretch and reinvigorate the public concept of libraries. Today, BoingBoing featured this article from BusinessWeek: Where the Coffee Shop Meets the Cubicle: Co-working facilities blend the appeal of an independent environment with many of the advantages of the traditional office.

Essentially, co-working facilities are fully-equipped small business spaces rentable by the day or month. You get a desk, power, 'net access and an array of small business machines at your disposal, but also a space to interact with and network with other entrepreneurs just like you. The newest facilities have cafes, lounges, hammocks and conference rooms, all open to any renter.

I thought of this concept myself a few months ago while busily tapping on my laptop at my favorite coffeeshop, but now I'm seeing it through the lens of the librarian. Why can't a library building that has a good focus on business materials not also offically offer their space to small business owners for meetings, conferences and daily work areas? We couldn't ask for a direct fee (non-profit public status and all), but perhaps encourage a business-level membership in the Friends group?

Some libraries have a specific injunction against businesses using their space for for-profit activities, but how do we define those activities now? What about the patrons who are buying and selling over eBay during their one hour of computer time? Why can't I offer the person who comes in and asks me to help them extensively with business research -- effectively using me as a corporate librarian -- a space to meet with a client, or comfy places to do work via laptop. We've got the huge pipe to the 'net and the photocopier; why can't we take it one step further?

In the report from the Urban Libraries Council, (big PDF file) there's an entire chapter on "Small Business Support Through Public Libraries." The concluding paragraphs directly address the need for space and informational support:

Public libraries should identify and support the specific business information needs of area micro-enterprises, as well as developing partnerships with local technical assistance providers.

I don't have answers to these questions, but I'd love to hear thoughts on the matter.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

33 Reasons Why We're Still Here

As a follow-up to my previous post, here's 33 Reasons Libraries and Librarians are Still Really Important by Will Sherman (via many, many sources). What's fun is that Sherman is writing for students, reminding them of what previous generations of Americans seemed to know from birth: that libraries are important, useful things.

Absolutely worth the time to read through.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why Do This Thing We Do?

There's been quite a pause since my last post, mostly due to personal life events taking center stage in my free time. However, my resolution for the new year was to write at least one entry on this blog per week; I'm only five posts behind so far.

My thoughts this week have been focused on Why? Why am I in this profession? I will spare you all the incessant omphaloskepsis that usually follows such a query and move to a better one: What are the parts of public librarianship that excite me? Why do I care, and why should anyone else?

For the past year or so, what's excited me is the technology. I'm not a technoevangelist in the ways that Michael Stephens or Beth Gallaway are, but I do believe the ever-increasing pervasiveness of tech is a trend that can't be ignored. Librarians still have the rep of "knowing everything" and that's one of our greatest assets right now. We're still relevant because folks believe that we know a little bit about it all. However, for many (and not just older) librarians, technology is only a step removed from magic in its esotericism. We can't afford to remain ignorant in this way, not any of us. No, we don't have to have a comprehensive knowledge of CSS, RSS or AJAX, but we need to at least know enough to find the right shelf range for more information, or to purchase the books that our patrons want to read.

Patrons come in and ask us questions: How do I fill out this form online? How do I save my resume to this flash drive? Why can't I connect my laptop to your wireless? Do you have any books about MySQL? A good reference interview means that we use creative questioning and our own experience to determine what will satisfy the patron's needs. How can we do that if we have no context? Worse yet, how many patrons do we lose because they decide in one interaction that we can't provide what they want from us?

At another level, having this knowledge ourselves means that we can educate our patrons directly, through workshops and in-the-moment training. A gentleman who has come to me a few times asking for NY Times articles in an electronic format was astounded to learn that a free web-based RSS feed aggregator would push content to him, and he could choose what to keep and how to organize it. I walked him through setting up a Bloglines account and sent him off, perfectly happy that I'd given him the tools to achieve his goals more efficiently. I satisfied his larger need, rather than just answering his question.

Technology also has the potential to expand our reach far beyond the limitations of our buildings. I touched on much of this in my article about Internet Librarian, but it's only becoming more obvious to me. Last week, I explained to my boss what purpose email reference serves, and refined this thinking through a later conversation: as a distance-reference tool, IM and email work perfectly in tandem. The patron begins the interaction through one or the other mode, then the librarian can ask clarifying questions in return. IM provides a more streamlined experience in this regard, but it can be done with a few well-constructed email messages as well. Sarah kept asking: "Well, why couldn't she just come into the library and ask us?" Time, travel, sloth and lethargy – all of these are reasons why, and all of them are valid.

I will now state that I am not one of the doom-sayers who believe that the library is obsolete, or even in serious danger. However, in some very fundamental ways, what our patrons want from us and expect us to be able to provide is changing, and the longer it takes our profession to react, the more we'll have to do to catch up.

One thing you'll notice about my blogging style is that I tend to work things out as I go along. There will be more on this idea, but in the interest of freshness, I'm hitting "publish."