Coworking at the Public Library

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Coworking at the Public Library
Coworking is a modern work innovation where people in various creative professions share a common work space, synergizing their talents and making best use of fixed-cost resources. Here is a portrait of how coworking might develop in public library spaces as public libraries transform themselves in coming years. Architects, take notice.

Do you work as a computer programmer, writer, editor, animator, or graphic designer? Would you like a free desk to do work at your public library? What's the catch? The catch is that you need to contribute 10 or 20 percent of your time to serving the public in some way. You can either set aside time to answering the public's questions or teach classes or work on public-oriented digital projects of various kinds. You might also mentor a youth or an adult. You might want to cowork at the public library just three days per week, in which case you need to contribute just 10 percent of your coworking time. If you cowork at the public library five days a week, you would need to contribute 20 percent of your time.

Coworking at your public library would bring several additional benefits to the coworkers. They would have discounted access to the digital production services of the library. Digital production would include not only video production, but also animation, photography, graphic design, editing, and computer programming services.

Coworkers would have access to a meeting room in which they could choose to meet with other coworkers for a given number of hours each week. They would also have access to kitchen facilities at the library, as well as access to the library's “hackerspace,” where small-scale invention projects of various kinds would take place.

The benefits of coworking at a public library would be such that they would strongly attract someone who would otherwise be working in the solitary environment of their home. What would be the upshot of having these coworkers in a public library? The upshot would be an increasingly vibrant public knowledge commons. On any given day, 20 or 30 or 50 coworkers would be spending part of their day sharing their expertise with the public. In that situation, the library would become a buzzing hive of ideas and creativity. Would librarians still be needed? More than ever. Their role would shift, though, to being the convenor of conversations--as well as their traditional role of being guides to the knowledge universe.

What would an ideal librarian in this setting look like? An ideal librarian here would speak several languages, play more than one musical instrument, dabble in several art forms – with deep strength in at least one art form. An ideal librarian would also be very outgoing, have a nuanced understanding of the human mind, be cognizant of the many dimensions of social and political issues, have a deep understanding of power structures in society, and be engaged in one or more community service initiatives outside of the library. An ideal librarian would have unbounded curiosity. An ideal librarian would also have a very serious work ethic, being able to drink several gallons of information each day without getting waterlogged.

Getting back to coworking: How might coworking best be implemented? Perhaps the most effective coworking happens when coworkers are given many options in how they share their talents with the community. They should choose the option that works best for them. This may require some experimentation to get right. We can't expect coworking in public libraries to blossom fully the first time it is implemented.

Coworkers would need to apply for a limited number of coworking spots at each library. They might serve a term of six months. Their term might be renewed with approval of the community.

And just as the library might reserve desks for coworkers, so too might it reserve desks for retired members of the community who wished to share their time and talents with community members. Retired community members might choose to volunteer one morning or one afternoon each week. If 20 desks were reserved for retired community members, then 40 (or more) retired time slots would be available each week. Can you picture the quantity and quality of conversations going on in the library under that scenario? As you might expect, these conversations would need to happen in separate, sound-proofed small rooms. Retired community members might also choose to teach small group classes of various sorts, using team teaching to make the teaching less stressful and more enjoyable.

Where would all the new space in a library emerge from to host these coworkers and retired community members? As library holdings become more and more digital, space will become available. We should be talking about the best uses of that space before it becomes available, not afterwards.

Can such conversations start taking place in public libraries now, or are there other, better venues for such conversations to occur?

Phil Shapiro

The blogger, a member of the Internet Press Guild, is an educator at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area and teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

Previous blog posts about public libraries.

It's Time for Public Libraries to Get Creative

Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity

Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries

Previous Community Voices blog posts.

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