Next spring, Phoenix’s Burton Barr Central Library will open its first coffee shop, the Open Book Cafe, joining several Valley libraries that offer coffee bars.
It’s part of a national trend to turn libraries from quiet, solitary experiences into participatory community spots. The new look, sometimes coming with cutting-edge programming (such as Glendale Public Library’s fall series on puberty and sex education), has coupled with the flagging economy to send circulation numbers soaring.
Library patrons today may be playing the video game Guitar Hero, sinking into comfy sofas to visit with a client or taking a yoga class. And they still drop by to use computers or even check out a book.
Like churches, libraries are a social function. They can sell coffee without being “only” a business. (If something sells coffee, does it “=” a business? No, unless its function is dominated by sales.)
People like social-cultural spaces to hang out because they need places to go that aren’t home where they can socialize or be alone, possibly get a few things done, but mostly have a place to hang out.
Churches also serve this function, which is why even if you hate religion, you should try to reform religion instead of dismissing it, because they are useful community spaces. “God” means the mysterious unifying force of the cosmos that produced everything and somehow invisible regulates it; interpret as you will! — as an adult, I’ve come to realize that over half the people at churches are well-meaning atheists.
For students, schools with their student centers, cafes and libraries serve some of this function. For people out of school, we need more social-cultural spaces, because every other option is “shopping,” disguised. Book stores. Restaurants. Bars.
If libraries help us discover this need, that’s even better because there’s a connection to the one activity that every person can do: thinking.