Saving our public libraries.
By Brad Beckstrom
We used to have a Borders bookstore down the street. We also had a couple of independent bookshops with a smaller more curated selection of books.
Both are gone.
It seems like a brick-and-mortar battle in which the big guys and the little guys both lost. I used to go to bookstores all the time. I like to have a destination when I go on a bike ride, maybe get a cup of coffee and thumb through some new releases or the crazy selection of 1000s of magazines they had. It wasn’t frugal either. I could walk into a Borders and spend 60 bucks on books and magazines, sometimes work-related, sometimes something I had no intention of purchasing when I walked into the store.
Then along came Kindle, iPad, audiobooks, feed readers, ebooks, and podcasts. One click ordering from Apple and Amazon. Strong competition from every direction. It’s so easy. You hear about a great book, open up the Kindle app on your iPad and download a free sample. If you like it, it’s yours with one click, usually for less than 10 bucks, sometimes for $1.99, sometimes free. The books even sync across devices. I read a lot more now, fewer magazines, more great writing.
The problem with doing all of your reading on a digital device.
First, we were spending more on books than we ever had, thanks to Amazon’s recommendation algorithms and one click ordering.
Second, l like to think of bookstores and local coffee shops as a destination, even an experience. It’s like a third “place”, it’s not work, it’s not home, it’s an “other” place. A place that was both quiet but had good coffee and lots of cool things to look at. A destination, a hang out. Sort of like what you wish your local public library was like.
The other place
In the search for this other place, I’ve rediscovered our local public library. It’s always been there. We have two within a quick bike ride from here. Sometimes I would take my boys there on a rainy day.
On a recent visit, I could tell they’ve been making some improvements, a spruced up used bookshop, lots of local artwork on display, a digital helpdesk where they can help you get set up to download free e-books.
I had explored their e-book lending years ago but ended up leaving the library with a headache after learning all the steps and devices involved. Our library has been working on steadily improving this. It’s far from perfect, but I found the libraries Overdrive app worked on both my iPad and iPhone, and linked with my library account so I could search and borrow electronic books just like paper ones. I can fill up a queue of e-books and audiobooks I would like to borrow and then be notified when they are available via email. Then I just open up the app to read or listen. If the books not available in electronic form, I can always still reserve it online and go and pick it up at the library. The Overdrive app works on my mobile phone and links to my Arlington Public Library account.
This seems like a great solution, saving lots of money on all types of books, finding that “other place”, getting some exercise riding my bike to the library or walking, listening to audiobooks. My son even went there the other day to get some studying done. He came back frustrated that there was no place to plug in his phone or charge his laptop.
I agreed, if they want people to spend time there reading and using their free Wi-Fi they need to make a few improvements.
My thoughts on, making the public library more of a destination.
- Embrace younger patrons. Expand seating and study areas and make sure there’s plenty of charging stations for phones, tablets and laptops. For some kids, their phone is the only digital device they own, work harder to accommodate them.
- Serve affordable hot coffee and ice water. A recent study in the UK showed that adding coffee alone increased traffic by 8%. More importantly, charge for it. Sure there will be some spills but the revenue earned by a quality coffee machine or small coffee bar would more than offset that.
- Think like a retailer, improve ventilation and lighting wherever possible. This and a hot cup of coffee will help make this a great hangout.
- Rebrand your help and check out desk as a Genius Bar where visitors young and old can get help with all kinds of things, including how to set their devices up with their library account so they can find anything they’re looking for.
- Ask Google to help you redo your search engine. Misspellings or even incorrect titles should not discourage someone from finding a book. As with many sites, I can jump off the library’s website and quickly find a book that I know they have using Google. Make this easier, with more similar book suggestions and auto corrections.