Originally posted here.
Public libraries are everywhere, all over the world. Odds are, wherever you are, you’re within a short distance of one… perhaps even walking or biking distance.
When one thinks of a library, one might immediately think of stacks of books— still useful, but becoming increasingly marginalized in today’s digital world.
But libraries serve all sorts of functions. They organize free events. They let you host your events. They almost universally have free internet. They even have computers to connect to that internet, in case you don’t own one (and millions of Americans don’t).
Any town of a decent size in America has a public library, and they’re all paid for with tax dollars.
Why do we pay taxes to keep library doors open? Paying taxes to things like police and fire stations, transportation, infrastructure, security, all make obvious sense— but what critical function does a library serve that makes it such a staple of every city?
It’s historically played an important part in bridging literacy gaps, and has helped make information more accessible to the masses. While not formally part of a public school system which has its own buildings and libraries, the public library seems to exist as an optional, open public service for those who elect to learn more on their own. The non-compulsory part of public education.
The discussion on the future of the library is a fascinating one, for certain. What I am more curious about, personally, is the potential of new constructs which might follow in this path.
If it weren’t yet obvious, I’m thinking about where this intersects with coworking.
Right now, countless coworking spaces are popping up all over the world. They’re not publicly funded, but they do exist because of the largely altruistic ambitions of their founders— independent, passionate individuals who, for the most part, don’t expect or seek to take personal profit from their efforts.
One of the challenges for coworking space owners is finding a sustainable model for the future. Without the ability to generate enough revenue to pay people to run the space, spaces must continually depend on the good will of someone willing to donate their time to keep things running and breaking even.
This may be a sustainable model unto itself, if we presume that a good healthy coworking community should be predicated upon a minimum amount of passion and good will.
But for many it’s a struggle. Coworking spaces need to generate enough revenue to, at the very least, pay the bills, and that means a significant amount of work has to be put into marketing, accounting, management, maintenance, and more. A coworking space that had enough money to pay for those services, I believe, would be truly sustainable.
Getting a coworking space to the point where it generates enough revenue to pay the salaries of the people who run it, however, is a high bar to set— perhaps requiring a size or price point high enough that it compromises the needs of the community.
Where, then, might coworking spaces find a sustainable model to follow?
What if we started thinking about the public service coworking spaces provide to their area? The economic development they facilitate, the flexible, affordable workspace they provide, the community events they host (often for free), the sanity they provide for lonely people working form home— these are a true public good, and increasingly important in our current world.
What would a coworking space look like if it were publicly funded? What if it were thought of as serving a similarly critical public service as a public library?
Could they be free? Could they help underserved and unserved communities? Could they be established in suburbs to encourage people to telecommute and save on carbon, gas, traffic, and aggravation?
These and so many more questions are still outstanding. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to answer some of these questions.
Libraries are changing, the workplace is changing, and education is changing. How and when and how much for the better they change is up to us to figure out.