While almost every academic librarian I speak with shares the same story about a resurgence in the use of the library, I don’t doubt that we’d all like to see an even greater number of our community members making use of their library. Take my own library as an example. Even though we are crowded during the peak hours of the day – even bursting at the seams at times – the number of people in the library still represents only a small percentage of our total community of 40,000 students and faculty. What are all those other students and faculty who never come to the library doing? Where are all these non-users getting their information? Where are they doing their work? We might assume that they use the library virtually from their home or office, and that they’ve got a better place to study or use a computer, perhaps at a local coffee shop. We might also assume many of them never use and perhaps never think about their library at all, physically or virtually.
How would you convert a non-library user into a passionate library user? What must you do to get their attention? I previously suggested that we may want to save our energy and just conclude that we’ll never reach everyone, and that instead we should just focus on creating a core library user community of passionate users – those who will give us their loyalty and tell others about the library. Even accomplishing that requires librarians to design a great library experience that is unique and gives individuals something they cannot obtain elsewhere – on the Internet, at a coffeehouse, or even in the comfort of their own home.
That’s exactly where some progressive shopping malls are focusing their energy. Malls are in big trouble. That’s because most of the retail operations in the average mall are now easily replicated on the Internet. Why bother going to the mall to shop at GAP, when the selection is better online, you can still get good sale prices, and the terms for buying and returning make it a simple experience. You save gas, time, effort and no hassles finding a parking space. For some consumers the only reason to go to the mall is for “showrooming”, a practice where they only want to see what something looks like or to try it on, but then they scan the barcode and find the cheapest place to buy that item on the Web. Retailers are scared to death of showroomers. Does the average mall’s dilemma remind you of any other institution finding its community is deserting it for better alternatives found on the Internet?
To stem the loss of foot traffic and attract customers that will do more than just window shop, malls are catching on to a new strategy: deliver a unique experience. It’s actually simple. What can the mall offer that people cannot link to on the Internet? For many individuals that thing is creating something for yourself. People can buy just about anything on the Internet, but what they can’t do is create something with their families in real time. The article mentions a new mall resident called Make Meaning. What Make Meaning sells is hands-on activity and personal engagement, be it building your own picture frame, candles, jewelry and more. The whole point is to bring in the family for some creative fun – as opposed to having every member of the family at home in their own room connected to the Internet. I did a little investigating at my own local mall last week, and found that the apparel stores like GAP were pretty empty while the Build-A-Bear store was jumping with activity as parents and kids worked together to make something. Admittedly, motivated individuals can build things at home if they have the time and skill. But few individuals have the time or skill – just as they don’t make their own clothes – so why not make that one more thing you can acquire at the mall – especially when it’s not so much about the product as it is the experience you have creating something unique for yourself. I think Make Meaning has hit on a great name. It’s not about making a candle or a frame. It’s about creating some meaning in your life, and having a different, memorable experience.
Some public libraries are already moving into the “maker” movement by creating opportunities for community members to visit the library for special production equipment or to obtain help with particular skills needed to make things – or to get the books and knowledge required to be part of the maker culture. That certainly targets the “give them an experience they can’t get elsewhere” approach to bringing the community members back to the library. I think there are many other ways that libraries can offer experiences that community members cannot get elsewhere, particularly on the Internet. In academic libraries, offering students and faculty personalized research help is a way to provide customized assistance that no Internet search engine can deliver. Media labs are an attractive way to provide the tools for creating digital products, and many students and faculty are looking for someone to help them get skilled with the technology and techniques they need to have a great experience as a maker – and develop marketable skills.
As a community commons, the library is perfectly positioned to be the gathering point for those who have creative skills they want to share with those who want an outlet for their creativity. Bringing people together this way creates a unique teaching and learning experience that offers meaning for those giving or receiving. Perhaps you will want to take a trip to your local mall soon – not to buy something you can get on the Internet more easily and inexpensively – but to do some first hand research into how consumers and our community members are becoming more drawn to the stuff that gives them meaning rather than the stuff they just accumulate.