The Social Physical Library: fostering connections & giving patrons a reason to come inside


The fate of the library's physical space in a digital era often comes up in discussions of libraries' futures. At times, I've found that future physical space hard to visualize, outside of less shelves and neato computers and funky sleek study spaces, etc. (like Dave's fairly standard vision in the most recent strip). I've found it hard to imagine why people getting most of their books/movies/music/reference service through the library's digital branch will come into the library building, unless they don't have their own computers or are coming for storytime (a social experience I think folks will continue to find valuable for a longer while).

This morning, I thought of a reason patrons might come inside. A way to make a visit to the library full of potential for them every time they walk in the door. A "you never know what you might find" kind of a thing. A way to build community, foster local connections, empower our users to learn new things, and accomplish this all--perhaps most importantly, these days--on the cheap.

People love making online connections (Facebook, Twitter), but they want local connections, too--that's why we see Twitter apps to find local people to follow (and resulting tweet-ups), dating apps to let you know if someone single that might be a good match for you is in the same coffee shop as you right now, and to some degree, the success of Foursquare (where you can see who frequently visits the same physical spaces you do). But, while you can freely start chatting with someone local via Twitter, you don't usually feel as free to strike up a conversation with a stranger in physical space. We assume people are on social software sites/using social apps to be social, and it makes them easier to approach, especially if we see we have mutual interests. In person, we have no way of knowing if anyone else in the building is also a big China Mieville fan or also writes Modern Family fanfic or also wants to learn Tagalog, unless by some chance we both have the same phone, use the same apps, and are currently using those apps--and even then we have no way of knowing whether they'd like to talk to or work or study with someone else in person right now.

One of my library system's objectives is to serve as a gathering place. Our mission is to "nourish minds, change lives, and build community together." I know many libraries have similar missions. One way libraries strive to build community is by offering programs--lectures, YouTube viewing nights, open mic poetry readings. Folks come together and hang out with their neighbors with similar interests (if only passively, while  listening to a lecture in the same room together). The thing with events, though, is that people have to a)hear about them, usually in advance b)remember to come to them (if they're still in the mood), etc. They also c)usually require a significant amount of planning on the part of library staff, and perhaps even some money.

What if (in addition to these events) there were neat, social, community-building opportunities for patrons to engage in whenever they happened to step foot in the library? That didn't require planning on the library's part, or remembering on the patrons' part? That were targeted to their own individual interests? That fostered connections between them and their neighbors? That made stopping by the library just to see what's up in the building worthwhile, as opposed to only using the digital branch? That helped people to learn and to better use our resources and our spaces?

Here's what I'm thinking: a living, updated-in-real-time site (somewhat like Twitter or Foursquare in the way it works--and it would need IM capabilities built in), ideally displayed prominently on a large screen in the lobby/entrance, but workable even if it was just on the web via a link on the library's home page (that automatically loads when you use the library computers, and that wireless users can choose to load). The page's content:

Who's Here? (and what are they doing?)

The large prominent screen (almost like a flight status screen at an airport) would be nice because most of us are curious--even if we're just dashing in to the library, not logging on to a computer, we'd glance at the screen to check it out, then maybe find something we want to stay for. You'd automatically look at it when you walked in the door.

But, for cheapness, for budget-cut times, let's say it's just a site or page or "living bulletin board" or whatever would be the most apt word (it won't catch the eye of the dashers-in, but will still attract those who sit down and log in). In college libraries since way back when, there have been whiteboards or blackboards in the lobby where students can leave messages for their friends (I'm in study room A, 3rd floor). This digital page/board could also be a way to leave messages for friends, but, more importantly, it would provide a way to leave messages/invitations for strangers. Fellow patrons, but not necessarily even acquaintances yet.

Patrons can create user names and leave "statuses" if they're interested in connecting with other patrons in the library. You wouldn't log in if you didn't want to be bothered, or didn't want to let people to know you're in the library: you'd only use it if and when you wanted to.

I'm envisioning content like this:

member: burbuja
right now: working quietly, but interested in practicing my Spanish conversation skills. Message me if you are, too, and we can have an informal conversation circle

member: gwangai
right now: reading aloud to my kids in picture book area because we missed today's storytime. Here with your kids? Come on over and we can have our own spontaneous storytime--more the merrier!

member: oliogirl
right now: cramming 4 Moudry's chem midterm. If u r 2 and want a study buddy, holla

member: bellzy98
right now: anyone here have protractor and compass w/them that I could borrow for a few min? Msg me

member: jacksonp
right now: working on my blog about ham radio stuff. Feel free to contact if interested in blog/forming group

member: utherdoul
right now: chess in teen area, anyone?

member: newjillcity
right now: drafting biz plan for my potential new small business. would love to talk to anyone who's done this before or is a running a local small business, to share tips and strategies

member: elloyd74
right now: I bet I can beat you at Boggle

What excites me about this is that unlike, for ex., on Craigslist, you wouldn't have to look for someone to practice Spanish with, contact them, make an appointment and settle on a place, and then meet them there: you're already in the place--your library. Sure, there might not be anyone there that day that wants to practice Spanish. You might not find a connection every time. But some days there will be, or there might be someone who didn't know she wanted to practice her Spanish until she noticed that someone else in the library wanted to--the availability of the option might awaken the dormant or idle interest. Key words: spontaneity, serendipity, community.

I think this could work really well at academic libraries and busy publics, and it doesn't seem like it would be that hard to design and implement. What do you think? Has anyone heard of a library doing anything like this?


the.effing.librarian said...

we need "avatar blinders."
you print your facebook or twitter image out twice and then cut 1 (or 2 ) strips of paper about 2 inches longer then the width of your head.
secure the strips to each avatar sheet with the image facing out and place the blinder over your head to obscure your face from the sides.
so unless you look directly at someone you won't become disturbed by the reality of a real person and can just remain in the fantasy digital world of online avatars. and the person wearing them won't become distracted from the computer screen by events in the periphery.
can you whip up a pattern? :)

Anonymous said...

As a patron (and librarian), I like it. I live alone in a medium sized city and find it really hard to make connections.

I want to play scrabble with someone not online!!

Kathy said...

I love it!

Katie Birkwood said...

Ooh, what a great idea. An additional thought to what you mention: even if there wasn't anyone interested in real time in a request/status update, the updates might be searchable, so that people interested in practising Spanish conversation in the library could find each other and arrange to meet in the future (and put an update about that so that more people would hear about it)...

Have you seen the post about 'crazy' library ideas over on thewikiman's blog? There are a load of other interesting ideas there, too, and I'm going to add a comment there with a link to this, as I think people would be really interested to read this.

Emily Lloyd said...

Wow, GITM, that's a fantastic link! No, I hadn't seen it--thanks so much for pointing it out.

re-tired.re-freshed said...

Hi Emily, thanks for articulating this! :) I've been wondering about the same issue too. I was thinking more of a mobile phone app, as that offers a greater degree of individual privacy. A user might "check in" to the library via the app. Then receive prompts of who might be in the immediate vicinity within the library space. Could be other visitors who share the same reading interest, or pondering about the same reference question. These users could have already connected online (I guess kinda like Facebook). If the user isn't quite comfortable in meeting up with a total stranger face-to-face, then they can ignore the prompt. Or they can choose to stay "invisible" but receive prompts. Hmm... maybe this is about online chat being brought to physical.

Emily Lloyd said...

Hi, Ivan--I think a mobile app might be a quick step in the right direction, but when I look at who has checked into my library via Foursquare, our regulars aren't there. It excludes a lot of folks who don't have smartphones (myself included), plus it's an extra thing to do: check in on your phone, where a screen on a wall requires no extra step of effort on your part to view: you'll see it, even if you're just dashing in. Privacy-wise, of course, if you don't want to participate, you don't participate--if you don't want the potential of being contacted, you don't "check in" and invite folks to message you. But the easy availability of seeing what folks who do participate are doing--what's going on that you could possibly be a part of (conversation circle, study group, whatever)--I think would excite people about the library's physical space, maybe enough to encourage them to participate--and if not, enough to allow them to perceive the library's space as a potential resource if they ever do want to participate. Just knowing what's available to you is inspiring. Libraries have a hard time, it seems, really letting people know what's available to them (for ex, when it comes to databases). One reason is because we rely heavily on face-to-face transactions and events to publicize what we do. At my library, we've started marketing databases in the stacks with little signs (for example, in the automotive section, a sign like "Looking for more information on your car? Check out ALLDATA," etc). The point is to make things easy to know about...or even hard to not know about. That's why I favor a screen.

re-tired.re-freshed said...

"The point is to make things easy to know about...or even hard to not know about. That's why I favor a screen." - That makes sense. Thanks, Emily!

Unknown said...

I've seen this project where the Kelvin Smith Library uses monitors real-time search terms and usage stats to connect the physical space of the library to usage. I haven't seen something that you suggest, which is awesome! I don't think it would be that complicated to create. It could also provide insights into what types of groups need space to meet.

Our site is drupal and there are modules for facebook-like statuses. But integrating it into twitter/fb etc would probably be the way to go.

Matt Weaver
Web Librarian
Westlake Porter Public Library

Abby said...

I am a library school student, and I find myself continually writing/thinking about the public library as a gathering place/community center. I love this idea. I hope that I get the chance to work in a public library with a forward thinking librarian like yourself!

Unknown said...

I agree with Abby. I'm a library school student and would love to implement something like this here at the Denver Public Library. This would work great here.

I'd have to think a while about how to get it started. Like any social networking tool, it would only be as useful as the users are invested.

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