The Incredible Shrinking Library

Physical library footprints anchor the library in a community, so long as the community can reach it.  But what if they can’t?  Public libraries have been taking some interesting steps to put themselves in the way of citizens wherever they are.  Some ideas seem better than others.

Extending Library Reach

This is really all about print books and services; electronic content is already where citizens are, if they can be connected to it.  Bookmobiles are perhaps the best example of extending reach past the physical library.  It’s a good mixture of person and collection and services.  Pop-up libraries are a riff on that idea, it seems to me.  I always wonder about whether the inconsistency of location is a barrier.

One idea that seems like a no-brainer is the drop-box-away-from-the-library.  I’ve heard of them being placed in malls, for example.  One of our local libraries has one on the GO train platform in their town, so I’ve jumped off the train, dropped off a book, and gotten back on.  This is a huge convenience for me.  It doesn’t eliminate the need for a library visit, like using an e-book would, but it reduces the number of times I need to make a dedicated trip to the library.

An Alabama public library system is rolling out a book lending machine.  It’s intention is to create a small, local collection that people can access without visiting a library building.  This seems like a step along the path towards little free libraries.  As I’ve said before, I think little free libraries are a great way of sharing books.  But, as this librarian noted recently, they’re not really replacements for a well-organized collection that you’d typically find in a public library.  If the purpose is just to share whatever books people have on hand, why not?

Is the Extension Just Shelving?

The challenge with a book lending machine, though, is to demarcate a collection that can stand in for the full collection and yet fit in a much smaller container.  Unlike the bookmobile, you don’t have a person involved.  If a library wants to successfully project itself outside of its physical building, it would seem to need to do it so that the experience is the same, just further away.

  • The dropbox, for example.  I don’t need to interact with anyone to use a dropbox.  So putting the dropbox on a train platform or in a mall doesn’t impact how I use it.  It’s location makes it more convenient.
  • Instead of a lending machine that works like a candy vending machine, perhaps a better alternative would be something like Amazon’s Lockers or Walmart’s Grab & Go lockers.  In a concept similar to that of shared mailboxes, requested books could be left in lockers (next to a dropbox?) for patrons to pick up – books they’d requested – as opposed to leaving a relatively random collection of books and other media on the hopes they’ll use it.

An additional rub is how to measure whether your extension is effective.  You can count returns to a dropbox, or pickups from a locker.  But like library shelves, you can’t necessarily determine whether someone looked at the collection in a lending machine and decided against borrowing.  Unlike a little free library, though, a library may potentially know what the lending habits are of a population from a given area and could try to align a mini-collection to that audience.

I don’t mean to suggest that book lending machines don’t have merit, but I think they’re a good example of where an easy extension of library service may not be appropriate in every library.  Some extensions will try to shift too much of the library workflow or interaction to an automated process that can’t, in fact, emulate the entire experience.