I am a huge fan of the book store, the library and all things book-related. The library has narrowly edged out the bookstore as my favourite air-conditioned hang-out (I do not have air conditioning) because of the free wifi. But is that enough? Can the bookstores and libraries of this world stay viable and relevant in this age of e-downloads?
I think they can. But they need to expand their definition of business a little if they’re going to do so. One clue as to how this may evolve can be found in the way other businesses are updating themselves these days. And in my news feed these days, the big buzzword has been the ‘hub.’
WHAT IS THE HUB?
The ‘hub’ concept is the idea that instead of offering a single, discrete service, one offers a range of services centered on a single, discrete theme. The local school board here was the first to raise this idea—they proposed that rather than positioning themselves as merely ‘the place where your children go to have their school lessons’ they instead position themselves as ‘the hub for all child-related services.’
So, for example, they might continue to offer the free public school education as their primary mission, but they could rent out surplus space to businesses and community groups offering other services for children, such as those who run preschool programs, after-school programming or summer camps parents typically need to go elsewhere for. It would be the best of both worlds: under-utilized facilities could find new usefulness and generate extra income for the local school, and parents would have one-stop shopping for all things kid-related.
THE BOOKSTORE: A HUB FOR ALL THINGS LITERARY
A local bookstore is taking the ‘hub’ idea into the book market. I wrote about this place earlier for Teleread. Basically, the owner is viewing his store not just as a place to sell books but as a ‘hub’ for the local book scene. In addition to the usual book-selling, they have space available for writer’s groups and zine publishers to hold meetings, event and classes. And yes, a coffee shop too.
What used to be simply a place to buy books is now a performance space for authors, a workshop space for writers and a place for the community to come together and discover what’s new in the local writing scene. That’s not a business model in jeopardy—it’s an improvement on the model we had before!
THE LIBRARY AS A HUB FOR ALL THINGS ‘INFORMATION’
And how about the library? Is that in jeopardy in this growing digital age? Maybe, if you see is as is merely a repository for books, and if the librarian’s job is simply to put books back where they belong. But how about if you view the library as the ‘hub for all things information’?
Our local library system spends a lot of time helping newcomers to the community—they have kits to help people learn English, they run classes on how to find a job and use a computer, and they have an extensive directory of community organizations they can refer people to for various issues. In this age of information overload, there is a place for a hub like this!
They also work a lot with students of all ages, teaching them how to research, how to read and explore. It’s not just about going to Wikipedia and copying down what you find, it’s about learning how to find the right resources for the project at hand. Sometimes, that will be a paper resource—I got valuable aid from a librarian when I was researching a project for a course I took, and kept finding references to a seminal article on the topic that dated back to the 1970s. I wanted to track down the original article, and my local reference librarian had a grand old time helping me with my good old-fashioned search.
And sometimes what you need will increasingly be an electronic resource. But consider this: there are a million free books on Google Books alone! Most sites like that are great if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but they are not so great for the casual browser. There is still a need, just like in the old days of paper-only, for an educated cross-referencer who can say to the book lover ‘here are some other books you might enjoy.’
As my local library branch undergoes a renovation—this is the third time a local branch has closed down for a year as soon as I move close to it—I would like to offer a humble suggestion. Thing big a little. Could you put in a garden with some outdoor reading space? Maybe a vending machine, or humble little coffee bar? Could you leverage the free wifi and comfortable hanging-out space into something that would truly be a community destination? Think big, because you are no longer merely a repository for books. You are a vital ‘hub’ for all things ‘information.’