To strengthen public libraries, wake up and smell the coffee

Posted on February 25, 2014

I’ll bet you know somebody who goes to a bookstore to read, relax and drink coffee. Millions of Americans do that regularly. So why not create that same kind of coffee shop experience at your local library?

According to the American Library Association, a number of libraries already have their own coffee shops. They tend to attract younger patrons; 40 percent of 18-to-24 year olds and 54 percent of 25-to-39 year olds drink coffee every day. These are just the kind of users we need to keep our library systems vital.

Great libraries are essential to the quality of life in our communities. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Libraries promote literacy. Governments spend tremendous amounts of money on public education, and especially in the current school testing environment, our grade schools are trying every kind of gimmick to improve literacy. But there has always been one best way to promote reading: provide easy access to books, stories and articles that people want to read.
  2. Libraries provide a peaceful place to study. In urban areas, and especially in low-income neighborhoods, there aren’t many places residents can go to sit and study in relative quiet.
  3. Libraries encourage a sense of community. They are an excellent place for both formal and informal meetings. It is common for established civic and educational groups to gather in libraries on a regular basis. But they can also be a perfect impromptu meeting place for friends.
  4. Libraries promote citizenship. Libraries routinely promote voter registration, encourage civic engagement, and often serve as polling places. Getting people to go to libraries also tends to get them involved in their communities.
  5. For low-income residents, libraries are often the only place people can go online. Nowadays it’s hard to look for a job or opportunities for advancement without a computer. Today, everyone needs to be able to access email.

Over time, a library coffee shop will likely break even or turn a profit for the library whether it’s run by the library itself, by a non-profit friends of the library organization, or outsourced to a chain.

What’s holding back most libraries is the fact that almost every business loses money at first. Elected officials can kick-start library coffee shops by making available grants or loans to help with the start-up costs.

Getting a coffee shop for your own constituents in your local library has got to be great politics. Books and coffee go together! Let your friends and neighbors savor the experience.