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Libraries and Grocery Stores Have A Lot in Common

What can libraries learn from the reenvisioning of the grocery shopping experience?



People need food just like people need information. It's a matter of survival these days. Whenever we think about the drastic changes taking place in the grocery industry we can't help but think similar changes would benefit libraries.


Take Amazon Go for example. The idea that you can just walk in, grab what you need, and walk out. Libraries could function the same way and track use data without collecting personal information at the same time. For that matter, all retail could adopt this model, and most likely will in the future. This is an opportunity for libraries to be on the forefront of new technology before it becomes so mainstream that libraries are left behind, which so often happens. Recently, the Art & Architecture Library at Virginia Tech tried to acquire library shelving that had electric outlets and ethernet ports embedded in it, and a well-known vendor, who shall remain nameless, did not want to produce this product. It is 2020 and we can't get library shelving with an electrical outlet!


Libraries need to think less about the resources we are providing (we've got that down) and more about the experience we are offering. In the near future we won't go into a grocery store to buy groceries, we'll do that online. we'll go into a grocery store to try the local beer or wine, grab a bit to eat, and pick up some local, farm-raised fare. At least, those will be the grocery stores we will be using in the future.


Even more, grocery stores, once big box stores, are now worthy of good architecture. The ones that are well done are about an immersive experience that moves from physical to digital. Libraries have the same opportunities available to them. We are so concerned about protecting user data that we are sacrificing a better experience for our users. Maybe they want to see their browsing history, past check outs, and recommended resources on their mobile devices on an opt in basis. Based on the use of social media platforms they have far less concerns about their personal data than we do.


If you could do all that digitally, then you would come to the library to grab a book off the smart shelf, get a little bit of work done, attend an event, etc. Libraries need a new sense of place, something to get their users emotionally invested. They have long been thought of as worthy of good architecture in the design world. In that sense, we've had a one up on grocery stores all along.


Anthropologie is an enchanted attic, complete with enticing cupboards and drawers. Trader Joe’s is a crew of carefree, hippie traders shipping bulk goods across the sea.

Above quote from The Man Who's Going to Save Your Neighborhood Grocery Store.



What does it mean then for a library to be unique? As e-books and open access become more of a thing (and they will) what value does a library add? Users can get instantaneous access to an e-book and almost anything can be delivered through interlibrary loan. By the way, this service is overdue for modernization. Two-day shipping or drone delivery, anyone? Just like the everyday essentials and dry goods can be ordered online. The special stuff like locally-raised, grass fed beef that bring people into the grocery store. It's about time libraries start making an investment in independent publishers and under represented communities to build unique, library-visit worthy collections.


This is, of course, all what makes working in libraries exciting right now. We're on the edge of reenvsioning that is dependent on good design and new technology.