Why should cafes be allowed to replace public libraries?

Is it a cafe or a library?

Cafes are full to the brim with books and often look more libraries these days than our actual libraries. The world does indeed work in mysterious ways, cafes are piling books along their walls in an effort to look trendier and at the same time libraries are being told by their City Councils that books aren’t cool anymore so they should stop buying and issuing so many.

One guide to the aesthetic of cafes remarks that the key to good design in a cafe context is “vibrant colours, playful wall graphics and designer chairs for made lingering.”.

Lingering is something libraries were once very famous for. In fact the book is the ultimate symbol of lingering, with some of the great ones requiring prolonged and concentrated reading time. Some of the great figures of history notably took advantage of the lingering that libraries afforded people. One example being Karl Marx, who was mentioned in a previous post as being famous for seating himself every day at the O7 desk at the British Library.

It is the cafe which captures our imaginations now. Wander into most cafes and you’ll find at least two or three people using a cafe’s wi-fi and caffeine to quietly create or consume information. At the turn of last century, these people would have been at the public library or at home – coffee and tea houses were for socialising.

Now cafes are not only the favoured haunt of most people who choose to venture outdoors, but they’re also the favoured creative haunt of those who produce ideas – even when they’re producing those ideas as individuals and without teams

But why?

After all, cafes cost money, don’t have a ready supply of stimulating free books, are often short of free seats, and are (theoretically) noisier than libraries.

Relaxing at the local library
Man relaxing at his local library

Although libraries are still largely silent – and focused on allowing people to engage in deep reading – I mentioned earlier that this might prove problematic when it came to encouraging the creation of valuable ideas in the modern world. However, some parts of the modern library are also designed to be de-facto community centres that encourage noise. This latter idea is also a problem for the creation of ideas, especially when these areas aren’t properly segregated from one another.

This might seem like a contradiction after I’ve just made the point that many public libraries are too silent, but let me explain. Most people are comfortable with noise in terms of a cacophony of multiple sounds at a reasonable level, but they are not comfortable hearing one person’s conversation loudly pierce through a whole lot of silence (which is what the noise in the library often ends up becoming). This should theoretically be a problem in a cafe too, which is why cafes often play music to stop individual noises from being so noticeable.

Which also brings up another ingredient – music – that we’re used to having when creating ideas, and one that is sadly often missing from libraries. Yes, we could just play music through our headphones, but then again, you could just go to a cafe and not have to wear any headphones at all.

How, then can cafes afford to do all of this and libraries can’t? One reason is investment, the libraries of today were built for the deep-reading silent-contemplation of a previous age – and governments are resistant to the idea of giving libraries more money to change their approach.

The other is that cafes don’t attempt to do all of the things libraries do all at once. Some cafes are good for reading, others are good for guffawing loudly and yelling at people.

The current proposed solution appears to be for public libraries to ape University libraries. Thus new libraries that are being built tend to be super-libraries – like the one currently under construction in Perth – where multiple facilities are combined into one. In these super-libraries there are rooms for group study (as in University libraries), some more open-plan communal areas where talking is allowed (as in University libraries), a few chairs scattered here and there in case you don’t feel like reading at a desk (as in University libraries), noise-free zones (as in University libraries), and workshop rooms for cooking and community classes (okay maybe this doesn’t exist in University libraries but certainly there are lecture/tutorial rooms in some of them).

Perth City 'super-library' currently under construction
Perth City ‘super-library’ currently under construction

But are University libraries are the right model for public libraries?

After all, University students often have no option but to use the University library for their study needs (they’re often too poor to study at cafes and their communal dorms/apartments/houses are often too full of ‘distractions’).  People in the community, on the other hand, often have many options (other than the very poorest of course). It’s true that libraries are currently largely targeting those who don’t have any such options, but I also think it’s true that this isn’t a viable long-term plan for public libraries (as I suspect this only creates an environment where the public library ends up only being used by one section of the community and the overall case for public libraries is undermined in the long-term). University libraries also only tend to be used at study time, and are largely ignored up until then. It is rare to find people hanging out at the University library for fun.

The provision of all of these services, one on top of the other, does not necessarily result in a library that is more than the sum of its parts. After all, if you wanted to provide a free internet cafe and a noise-free zone simultaneously, you’d probably be better off providing both services in separate buildings rather than together. Combining the two in the same space wouldn’t necessarily end up producing much free internet access for people or much of a quiet space for people desperately in need of one.

Another consequence of constructing a super-library is that they tend to be blocked off from the sunlight and closed-off from the outdoors. Yes, there are windows and outdoor areas in some of them now, but the very physics of a super-library mean that it is near possible to provide natural light to as many people as might be provided in, say, a cafe.

Perhaps the better model then, is the cafe, an institution which succeeds when it encourages people to linger, think, converse – and yes, read. It’s also an institution which captures our imagination by being associated with the creation of ideas.

The cafe also does not try to be all things to all people, but different cafes provide different services in different places, and end up providing the same service overall.

The new Adelaide City Library seems to take its inspiration from cafes rather than other libraries
The new Adelaide City Library seems to take its inspiration from cafes rather than other libraries

The new Adelaide City Library seems to be a welcome break from the super-library, and more in the vein of the cafe. It is smaller than most city libraries, and more spacious, with a modern design that exudes warmth, cleanliness, and coziness. Still no music though. For something like music they’d probably need to provide another library or a properly segregated room (so that the people who didn’t like music wouldn’t be disturbed). And perhaps this is how libraries and governments should be thinking: how can we provide all of these services, and are they really best delivered together?

Libraries should not just be about making libraries of use to the community, but also about getting the community inspired about spending inordinate amounts of time lingering at their local one.

After all, why should cafes be allowed to have a monopoly on inspiration, excitement, and lingering – especially where ideas are concerned? The public library – and the councils/state governments that fund them – have just as much of a need to deliver on all of these things as ones local cafe does.

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