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5 Lessons Public Libraries Could Learn From Startups

For the past few months, I've been working with the Strategic Planning Committee for Lexington Public Library. This has been an amazing opportunity to interact with a group of people who are passionate to the core about public libraries. I've also been leading my company through seed accelerator applications, business model redesign, and lots of customer conversations. Building a startup is probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Every day is do or die. As I have learned, in the midst of a rapidly-changing society, the days of the public library as we know it may be numbered. As neither I nor my fellow committee members want libraries to disappear, I want to share some advice. Here are a few mantras from the startup world that I hope will help not only the LPL, but all public libraries struggling to define their futures in these turbulent times.

Leverage the value of your community.
Library user interaction is frequently viewed as unidirectional. The library is the expert, dispensing knowledge to its patrons. In a time when nearly the entire sum of human knowledge is available through the internet, libraries need to go deeper. There is a huge opportunity to connect patrons to other patrons, to retrieve the type of human experience that does not easily fit into a digital repository. The Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory has an interesting anecdote of a professor who hoarded a particular set of books just for the chance to meet the students who wanted to check them out.
References: Threadless, Quora, WordPress

Less is more.
Make everything easier, because easier always wins. What can you take away? What if libraries didn't have buildings, just librarians stationed in public places all around town? Pubs, coffee shops, schools, churches, the DMV. That could work. And if buildings do stick around, you can forgo the complicated signage. Libraries need only one sign: "Ask us anything". Couple this Google-homepage-esque, Spartan front-end with an incredibly capable backend. I don't care about how much money you spent buying a database license, or how many volumes of books and magazines you have on your shelves. That doesn't impress your library patrons. We just want to quickly find the one thing we're looking for. Make it invisible to us. Make it simple. Make it just work.
References: Google, Octopart, Dropbox

Customer service is your differentiator.
See Zappos as a case study. They sell shoes, but what causes consumers to buy shoes from Zappos? It's their customer service. If the shoe doesn't fit, just mail it back. For free. As many times as you want. Does your library have the reputation as the friendliest place in town? I've seen many librarians who will go the extra mile to find not only an answer, but also the right answer for a patron, even if it takes 3 databases and 2 interlibrary loans. That's excellent customer service.
References: Zappos, Wufoo, Fog Creek

Your culture is your most valuable product.
With e-book readers, Amazon, and even coffee shops competing for attention that was once the sole territory of public libraries. Yet, public libraries feel distinctively different from over-caffeinated beverage shops, offices, schools, and even coworking spaces. Culture is unique. Nurture it. Curate it. Obsess over it. Because that's why people come back.
References: Graphic.ly, Zappos (again), Startup Weekend (they're contagious)

The public library is the ultimate API provider.
A library is a platform. People get out of it whatever they want to get out. Different patrons create different mashups. The library's job, like an API provider's job, it to make your data and services super easy to use, then to promote anyone using and creating with their platform.
References: Twilio, SimpleGeo

Ok, comments time! So this is the part where you can debate my thoughts. I'm not an expert on library management, and this is only my first startup, so my comparisons don't have years of experience behind them. But I do know that public libraries are on the brink of disruption, and the people who run them are facing some difficult decisions in order to avoid that fate and continue to thrive. If you're also new to this space, it might help to check out a brief history of public libraries (a particular type of libraries) to better understand how this free information resource set the stage for today's incarnation of the internet.

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