It’s 9:45 on a Monday morning, and Jonathan Marino has just arrived at his tech startup in D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood. The 30-year-old director of content for Map Story–which aims to be the Wikipedia of interactive maps–greets his two interns with a huge smile, joins them at an open table tucked inside a glass-walled pod, and fires up his laptop. Hunched over their computers, the group looks like any other early-stage startup, with one key distinction–their “office” is merely a meeting area inside Washington, D.C.’s main public library.
Home to nearly 784 million printed books, U.S. public libraries aren’t just a place to peruse them in silence anymore. Over the past decade, dozens of reading rooms have been reincarnated as de facto coworking spaces. Some, including D.C.’s Digital Commons and Scottsdale, Arizona’s Eureka Loft, cater expressly to startups by helping them find funding, mentors, and other resources to advance their business plans. Others take a laissez-faire approach geared more toward solo artists seeking a no-frills space. Altogether, more than half of all public libraries now offer workspaces for mobile workers, according to a new study from the Information Policy & Access Center.
For the growing ranks of freelancers whose alternatives range from a cramped corner of their bedroom to a $500-a-month, private coworking space, the new library work zones are a boon. Decked out with fast Internet, 3-D printers, meeting rooms, whiteboards, and plenty of space to spread out, they’re much better suited to getting work done than jostling for counter space at a noisy coffee shop.
While each library coworking zone has its own vibe, all were created in response to a singular need: reinvention. When Benjamin Franklin donated 116 books to a small town in Massachusetts to create the first public library in 1790, access to bound volumes other than the family bible was a luxury. Now that we’re deluged with the written word both online and off, the demand for a central repository of free reading material can feel antiquated. “The role of the book is changing,” notes Brooklyn Public Library president Linda Johnson. “It won’t be long before it is less important to people.”
New York Public Library president Anthony Marx puts it more bluntly: “Books are a 500-year-old delivery system for providing access to information. We aren’t getting out of the book business, but now we are providing new ways to access information.” Nationwide, book collections at public libraries have shrunk 2% from their peak of nearly 800 million in 2003, according to data provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
But to some patrons, moving books aside to create more communal spaces feels like a classic case of mission creep. “Aren’t books really the backbone of a civilization?” asks David Levering-Lewis, a Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer who says he wrote six of his eight books using reference material from the New York Public Library. The scholar was a plaintiff in one of three lawsuits aimed at getting NYPL to shelve a plan to replace the research stacks that held millions of books at the central library in Bryant Park with a circulating library featuring new spaces for people to plug in their laptops and tap away on tablets. (The library dropped the controversial plan this past May, citing high costs, but promises to increase public space in the building by 58% with a more modest renovation.)
“It’s valid for libraries to have workspaces in them,” says Michael White of the advocacy group Citizens Defending Libraries, which joined the suit against NYPL, “but taking a library and just making a Starbucks out of it is really duplicating what we are going to have tons of anyway.”
Step inside the lobby area at Brooklyn’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza, and there’s not a book in sight. Instead, there’s a café, an art exhibit by the library’s artist-in-residence, and the book-free Info Commons. Opened in 2013 and financed by a $3.25 million private grant and $560,000 in federal funding, the space was nearly full on a recent Wednesday afternoon when the temperature outside hovered around 90 degrees. Among the dozens of locals seated at the long tables and counters there, a young woman was teaching herself to type using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a guy with a ponytail and chunky headphones was designing a logo using Adobe Illustrator, and another guy wearing pink shorts and a T-shirt was browsing templates for music websites on Wix.com–all on the library’s widescreen Mac workstations.
Terrence Hamilton, a 32-year-old real estate agent, spent the afternoon at the Info Commons updating listings on his laptop. He says he likes working there because it gets him away from office chitchat and out of the house when he’s between appointments. “It’s inspiring,” he says. “I see all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, and it motivates me.”
For Jonathan Marino of Map Story in D.C., working out of the public library isn’t just a way to save money on office space; it helps him grow his business. The startup partnered with the library to digitize some 8,000 historical maps of Washington, D.C. then import them into Map Story. Marino also holds informal focus groups at the library in which he solicits feedback from anyone who walks in off the street to find out which features they like. And because Map Story’s ultimate success or failure depends on how well the public embraces it, “being embedded in a public space,” as Marino puts it, makes perfect sense.
How does working at the library compare to private coworking spaces? For one thing, the crowd at the paid spaces is noticeably less diverse. A block away from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library where Map Story is based, seats at an open table inside WeWork’s loft-like space start at $325 a month. Touring the space, I can’t help but notice that everyone there looks young and white–a stark contrast to the multiethnic crowd at the nearby public library, which is about half African-American and skews much older. Jacqueline Chenault, an actor and software developer in her late twenties, says she joined WeWork in part because of the other people working there. “The networking opportunities are a big part of it,” she says, noting that several of the people she met there have become clients of hers. “That’s not happening at the library,” she says.
“25-year-olds who are entrepreneurs don’t normally think of the library as a cool place to be,” notes Micha Weinblatt, 31, whose startup Betterific operates out of the D.C. library’s Digital Commons. When he tells people he works there, he says, “people are like, ‘you are probably working in a dodgy room with stacks all over and slow Wi-Fi.’” In reality, Weinblatt’s team passes its days in a glass-walled pod on the first floor of a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed building featuring 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling windows.
That perception gap may be libraries’ biggest hurdle in attracting more freelancers to their increasingly accommodating spaces. Given the diversity of people who patronize them–a mix of the homeless, college students, retirees, freelancers, and entrepreneurs–chances are these public spaces will never match the intensity of hard-charging coworking lofts where everyone pays for access. While I saw plenty of “workers” at the main Brooklyn and D.C. libraries, there were just as many, if not more, people checking Facebook, watching YouTube videos, spacing out, or, in one case, taking a long nap.
How to pay for these new spaces is another key concern. Libraries’ shrinking budgets have resulted in millions of dollars of deferred maintenance, making it hard to justify buying dozens of high-end workstations when something as basic as the air conditioning isn’t functioning properly. Brooklyn relied primarily on private funding to pay for its Info Commons because it could do the renovations “faster and better” than if it had used public funding, which would require using the city’s contractor, according to library president Johnson. While the Info Commons got fast-tracked, the Art Deco building it resides in still needs $100 million in repairs to its roof, ventilation system, and elevators.
Libraries catering to workers walk a fine line between appealing to business-minded patrons who help energize their once-sleepy reading rooms and avoiding the appearance of playing favorites in what has traditionally been an egalitarian space. To do this, they may finance startups indirectly by connecting them with private sources of funding or waiving other costs that a typical startup would incur. For example, the D.C. library is using a $10,800 federal grant to digitize its historic maps, which it will then give to Map Story for free. In Scottsdale, Arizona, the winner of the library’s annual Gadget and Demo Day, Morgan Coffinger, says she got 20 new customers for her Japanese-style composting system–but no prize money–as a result of the exposure. And since 2003, the Brooklyn Public Library has held an annual business plan competition with cash prizes of up to $15,000, all paid for by Citibank.
D.C. Public Library president Richard Reyes-Gavilán defends libraries’ growing role as business incubators, despite their tenuous connection to books, literacy, and information access. “Libraries have always been a place for personal betterment. We are providing a space for people to get a leg up on their lives, whether that’s someone running their own business or getting their library card for the first time so they’re better able to tackle first grade.”
Adds NYPL President Marx, “libraries should be providing free access to information and physical space to engage in the life of the mind whether it is a new business idea or thinking up a new novel.” It’s a nice idea. But as demonstrated by the failed plan to gut the stacks at the crown jewel of the New York Public Library system, trying to accommodate everyone in a finite space is just begging for a turf war.