In my last post, late night wifi, an opportunity for libraries?, Eric Frierson comments that he liked the idea, but also that he’s

…not sure why it should be a *library* venture if the purpose is to provide coffee, free wifi, and non-circulating magazines.

The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that the concept of a cafe branch is a great idea. Libraries are doing the reverse and putting coffee shops in libraries, why not go all the way and put a library in a coffee shop? The idea doesn’t seem that radical to me. Here are some characteristics of my hypothetical cafe library branch:

→ provides access to information
→ has some computers available
→ provides help finding things (if asked)
→ provides access to content (magazines, newspapers, some books strewn about)
→ is a community gathering place
→ holds some special events
→ has reservable group study space

Pretty traditional stuff, right? People might bristle at this idea not because of the traditional services it would provide, but what it would lack. In particular, a collection of books.

coffeeNow before anyone gets bent out of shape, let me be clear. I’m not saying that all libraries should be like this, just that this model is an option. Libraries can certainly be much more than what I’m describing here, and they should be. However, libraries don’t always have to strive to be their full incarnation 100% of the time. Just like a small neighborhood branch probably doesn’t have an extensive collection of periodical back issues, so my hypothetical cafe library could shed some library baggage to free it to explore new territory. The geographical language is appropriate. Without large collections to house, the relatively small cafe library can fit into spaces that other branches couldn’t. (Wouldn’t it be great to have space for picking up and returning holds though?) This might allow it to be located in vital and busy areas with tons of foot traffic.

I know you didn’t get a Masters degree to serve coffee. No big deal, it wouldn’t be part of your job. The “shift supervisor” could be a “for real librarian,” managing staff and doing other librarian work like monitoring the library’s IM reference service.

I’m not convinced this idea would work in every context or community, but sitting here in Little Beirut where many people are fueled by their neighborhood coffee shops, I can think of a number of cities where this would work.

This library cafe branch would not just be a means to the end of getting people to use other library resources. It would be legitimate on its own, but wouldn’t it do a good job marketing the larger library too? Among the locally made art on display there would be adverts for relevant library events. Each time someone logs into the wifi network they’d be greeted with list of library resources and be authenticated into library databases. Oh, and how about this? People don’t need a library card to access the wifi, but customers get a 50% discount on coffee and food when they sign up for one. And a 10% discount on each transaction when they present the card.

In a certain sense, a cafe branch would be for a niche market. This is a good thing because we know that niche markets can become obsessively enthusiastic about their interests. Because they’re often concerned with trying to be many things to different people, libraries often miss out on capturing this passion. Last time I checked, we want people passionate and excited about libraries. Having a narrower focus might be one way to cultivate more use and zeal for the library.