What is coworking? Is It Really Part Of Your 21st Century Library?

A recent article by Cat Johnson caught my eye, describing “5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers”. This piece joins earlier articles with the same topic by Hamilton and Lussier.

Everyone agrees that a public library might host a coworking space. These articles put forward the case, citing examples. However, a close reading shows that there aren’t really very many examples—the same ones are mentioned by everyone. I know of roughly 15 of the thousands of public libraries in the world that have opened (or at least proposed) a coworking space.

The case itself is simple. Public libraries are about serving their communities, and in the twenty first century, this means many things besides books. Johnson states the case for coworking in a public library succinctly:

As the needs of communities change, libraries around the world are innovating to meet those changing needs. For a growing number of libraries, that means supporting the workforce by providing coworking spaces, internet access, business incubators, and networking opportunities.

“Coworking spaces and business incubators in libraries serve freelancers, students, entrepreneurs, remote workers, job seekers, independent professionals, and more.

The examples are mainly form the US and the Netherlands.  Here is a list of all the coworking spaces in libraries that I have found:

Akron-Summit County Public Library. Microbusiness Center
Brooklyn Public LIbrary. The Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons.
DC Public LIbrary. The Dream Lab.
** John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Co-working at the Library
Maricopa County Library District. The InnovationHub
Mesa Public LIbrary. ThinkSpot
Phoenix Public Library. About hive.
Richland Library. Reserve a Coworking Desk
*** Seats2Meet. Seats2Meet – Connecting and empowering you to excel.
Spokane Public Library. Level Up Coworking Space.

* This branch is closed for renovation. It is uncertain whether coworking is still available.
** This project was funded for six months in 2015. It does not appear to have continued.
***   Seats2Meet reports sites are four libraries in Netherlands, and there is a site at the Rochester NY library. No information is avialble about the individual sites.


How is this new or different for libraries?

There are some basic semantic questions about what “coworking” actually means.

Public libraries have long offered a workplace, meeting rooms, and digital infrastructure. Libraries are open to the public, provide service at low cost, and rooted in local communities. What does it mean for a library to host a “coworking space”—if the distinction even matters? What do these cases of “coworking” offer that is different from what libraries already have done for years?

Several of the projects described are very similar to services already offered by the library. Indeed, the Brooklyn library is part of its “Information Commons”, which most libraries already have. The DC project was similar to this. .As far as I can see, the difference between an “information commons” and a “coworking space” is desk reservations. And many libraries already have carrels and meeting rooms that can be reserved.

Of Johnson’s five cases, Seats2Meet is a well known coworking chain, with its own unique approach (it is a “Serendipity Machine” [5]). The canonical description of Seats2Meet involves a large (noisy) commons, meeting rooms, and a free buffet lunch [5], This would be a considerable departure from conventional library space! From the article and general information, it isn’t clear exactly how it is integrated with the library.

These spaces offer infrastructure and training in business development, similar to what is offered many coworking spaces. The Akron space is labeled a “Microbusiness Center”, and the Spokane space is also an incubator. There is a cluster of facilities in Arizona, evidently the product of business development initiatives and Arizona State University.

These spaces resemble the business incubators as much as a community of freelancers. There are many coworking spaces with similar goals and programs. On the other hand, the training programs themselves are probably not that different from programs found at other libraries, even if they do not enjoy dedicated space in the library.

How Coworking Works In A Library

There seems to be a number of differences between these coworking spaces compared to conventional coworking.

One prominent asset is that these coworking spaces boast of the deep and broad information resources available from the library. A generic coworking space certainly does not have reference librarians and large collections of information. In house.

On the other hand, these workspaces must cohabit with the rules and customs of the library they inhabit. Some of the spaces advertise “collaboration”, but none of them encourage playing loud music, playing video games in bare feet, or sleeping at your desk. Generally, the coworking area is open only while the library is open—definitely not the place for an all night coding blitz.

Worse, libraries are generally still “shh!” zones. The Richland coworking rules include: “Please do not disturb your coworkers. The Coworking Center is not to be used for interviews, telemarketing, meetings or other loud or disruptive activities.” This is definitely not the classic coworking scene!

Is there a community? What kind of community.

Libraries are rooted in the “come one, come all” spirit of a public service. Coworking is for “members”, and works best when the workers actively participate in the community in the space. A coworking space is a clubhouse for a relatively small number of people, a library is for everyone equally.

These are both “communities”, but different sorts and scales.

Along these lines, it is interesting to observe that libraries have a tradition of individualism. Each individual patron uses the library for his or her own purposes. Many libraries host events, programs, and groups such as book clubs, but most users of the library most of the time are not there to be part of a group, or to spontaneously meet people.

In contrast, coworking is all about community, it is communal. Workers spend time in the coworking space, and expect to commit time to the other workers present. While coworkers have their own independent careers and tasks, they cowork in order to have friends, help and be helped, to collaborate, and to make connections.

This difference is a big reason for the “no talking” versus “talk as much as possible” rules.

Is coworking a good fit for a library?

As I have said, libraries already have infrastructure and missions that a simpatico with coworking. On the other hand, every coffee shop and restaurant has similar infrastructure, as do many residences.

There are reasons why coworking isn’t a good fit for a public library. At it’s best a coworking space is a kind of club house, and coworkers are committed members. Coworking is deeply social, “a respite from our isolation” as Klaas put it [3]. Coworking is also about collaboration and serendipity [5]. These are not traditional missions of a library, and fundamentally clash with the “open to all” philosophy.

Does this mean that libraries can not or should not host coworking? Not necessarily. However, much of what libraries call “coworking” is really just renting out infrastructure, which is neither particularly valuable to the community, nor particularly good use of library resources.

In particular, the library should consider its competition and what the goals are. If there are insufficient workspaces (and incubators) in the community, then by all means a public library can step into the gap. But if there are coworking and other similar service available, then why should the library get into the game, too?

In some cases, the library is following its traditional mission of serving the underserved, offering low cost or free workspace to those who might not have access. This might be very valuable, but unless this is actually a community of workers, it isn’t really coworking, in my opinion.

Libraries are a great thing, and coworking is great for some workers.  But coworking isn’t necessarily a great idea for a public library, nor is a library necesasrily a great place for a coworking space.

  1. Anita Hamilton, The Public Library Wants To Be Your Office.2014, http://www.fastcompany.com/3034143/the-public-library-wants-to-be-your-office
  2. Cat Johnson,  5 Coworking Spaces and Business Incubators in Libraries That Support Local Workers. Sharable.April 3 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/5-coworking-spaces-and-business-incubators-in-libraries-that-support-local-workers
  3. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning, NEURUS Research Exchange, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/11486279/Coworking_Connectivity
  4. Kathy Schwartz  Lussier, Your Library Is The Perfect Coworking Space. workfrom.February 28 2017, https://workfrom.co/magazine/story/library-perfect-coworking-space
  5. Sebastian Olma, The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0, 2012.


What is Coworking?

Please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming  in 2017.

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