more thoughts on a cafe branch

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.

Now 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.


  1. sarah
    Posted 25 Jan 08 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    i love it! and while i didn’t get my masters degree in order to serve coffee, i do often fantasize about leaving the library behind and becoming a barista. i’d love to pull espresso while providing readers advisory!

  2. Posted 25 Jan 08 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Awesome. So that makes two of us ready to sign up. Now we just need a willing library system to let us carry out this plan!

  3. anonymous librarian
    Posted 25 Jan 08 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    We did this at our Main Library and the coffee bar quickly went away. Now the coffee bar is in a branch and having a little more success. My suggestion, if you are going to do this do it right! We outsourced this and the people who run the bar come and go as they please and the patrons get upset because the hours are unreliable. Also once you start allowing food and drinks in the library from the coffee bar, people will start bringing in bagged lunches, McDonalds, and everything under the sun. Some staff did not mind this but others did. So now we’ve gone from the traditional library model to the coffee shop model and back again to the traditional model complete with no food and drink signs prominently posted at eye level on the front doors! I think it can work but you have to be willing to plan it out and do it right!

  4. Alan Kirk Gray
    Posted 26 Jan 08 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I think you should emphasize even more the ability to make and pick up reserves as a way to extend the library’s reach (BTW, our patrons sure know what a reserve is rather than a hold — and I bet we use “hold” in a way that most people would think of as negative: “I’m sorry, someone else has a hold on that, you can’t have it.”)

    But even more importantly, what a great laboratory for testing and figuring out how to serve “niches”, as you call them — what I think of as the relatively small groups of community members with similar interests down the Long Tail somewhere. Jeff Bezos, in another context, calls them the “hard middle” — sets of prospective customers for books or other items he wants to sell (in our case a service or an interest we want to satisfy) that you must find a way to communicate the availability of without the expense, overhead and waste of broadcasting to everyone.


  5. Posted 27 Jan 08 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    thanks for the report. i’m glad the the coffee shop in your branch is having more success. i really think that having the entire branch BE the coffee shop could work too.

    would it play in Darien? 🙂 i’m glad you like the idea. my only issue with it is that it is the speculation of a librarian. granted, it takes into account how some people use the library and is therefore at least slightly user-generated.

    i’d sure like to see some feedback from the public about this. if the survey describes the cafe branch, it could conceivably not even contain the word “library.” if there was a large enough sample to use, it would be interesting to administer one survey with library language in it, and one without to see the difference in reaction. (just thinking while typing there).

  6. Alan Kirk Gray
    Posted 28 Jan 08 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    Aaron: Darien is a pretty small place, and we’re building a new library with a cafe in it, so wouldn’t want to dilute that focal point in the new building right away.

    But, “just thinking while typing,” I wonder if we couldn’t open up our first “branch” in a neighboring library’s community by taking your idea and plunking it down there 🙂

    Here’s where I think it would work (all kidding aside): if your library has a brand or attribute — friendly service, “extreme” customer service, great collection, insightful reference staff, fast fill rate, drop dead fantastic readers advisory, whatever — and you want to get it into the public eye, so more community residents visit the library, take that attribute to the cafe branch. Don’t make the cafe branch a symbol that you can’t make it as a library, make it a symbol of what you do really well.

  7. Posted 29 Jan 08 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I like the idea (I would love such a service as a library patron, and I don’t think it would be half bad as a librarian)-but I think I would like it even better if it were combined with some kind of library branch/outreach spot in a less privileged area.

    The most recent Pew study (about how young, affluent people are heavy library users) worries me. I’m not opposed to serving young, affluent sectors of the population, in part because they are part of our tax base and are good advocates to for libraries. But I worry that serving them further will take our services away from those sectors of the population who need them most.

  8. Posted 5 Feb 08 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    This is genius, brilliant, I love it! This is a strategic plan that libraries should be headed towards in the near future. Small subunits within the city attracting the tons of foot traffic found in major cities, oh and a place to drop off the books I checked out at the major/larger branch. Sweet I love it.

  9. Posted 21 Feb 08 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Howdy! I’m the blogger who linked to your piece and used it as an example of library as rhizome. Well, I thought of your cafe post again today as I read the press release of the Contra Costa County Library announcing that it will offer ATM-style book lending machines at certain Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. Pretty nifty, eh? Cafes, train stations-the library could definitely go viral. Here is the link:

    Cheers 😉

  10. Posted 11 Mar 09 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Okay, so I’ve read this post very carefully several times and am still in love with the idea. What many librarians, as well as staff misunderstand is the term “service.” We are librarians and in this vocation we give service and if that means in serving our community we serve coffee alongside of it, then so be it, because it is our duty. An information professional should understand that forward thinking is a gift and an oportunity to create and re-create, even if there is failure. If the cafe branch fails, then you take a step back, re-evaluate by collecting data and statistics on what made it fail and then apply alternatives for a possibility of success. Please continue to posts your insigts, as it slowly curves the mentalities of those who are boxed.

  11. Posted 11 Mar 09 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Glad you like the idea! It is something I’d really like to pursue.

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  1. By prada transformer opens | walking paper on 29 Apr 09 at 1:00 am

    […] have been interested in libraries using slightly alternative form factors for a little while (more thoughts on a cafe branch, also see Nate Hill’s library outpost) and I’m increasingly interested in library […]

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