Last week George Needham of OCLC wrote a post titled "Is Borders Becoming a For Profit Library" at It's All Good. He linked to this article on Borders' new strategy for integrating technology-based services into the bricks and mortar bookstore experience:
"... Borders' newest retail strategy: a digital center where you can download music or books, burn CDs, research family histories, print pictures and order leather-bound books crammed with family photos — with help from clerks who know how to do those sorts of things and won't embarrass you if you don't...reinventing itself as a hub for knowledge, entertainment and digital downloading."
Ah, what you can do with money! Here at PVLD we'd love to offer services like this, and to have the resources to train staff to "do those sorts of things".
For me, however, the most telling part of the article was not the description of the gee-whiz technology, or the description of how the new Borders "concept "store will be organized, with "... new themed book islands are built around lifestyle genres, including travel, cooking and health."
No, for me the most telling part of the article was this (emphasis mine!) -
"One of the saving graces for bookstores, say analysts, consumers and industry officials, is they offer people with shared interests a site to gather and socialize. The addition of coffee shops — which you'll find in nearly every Borders and Barnes & Nobles store — has accelerated the trend. Now, Jones hopes digital downloads can take the stores to the next level.
"Bookstores are typically the place that people like to go and congregate, so if (the stores) can monetize that, it's powerful," says Schick, who calls Borders' move "an attempt at evolution."
That's something that Amazon, for all its considerable market muscle, can't quite duplicate."
A major theme of the article is the threat that the slowing economy poses to bookstores. When people are worried about job security, the housing market, and gas prices they are less likely to buy books. That's good news for libraries because we offer much of what the book store does (ok maybe not the digital kiosk!) and its free. That's why library use goes up in tough economic times, while bookstore sales go down.
The bad news?
If you didn't know they were coming from Borders, phrases like "a hub for knowledge, entertainment, and digital downloading" or "they offer people with shared interests a site to gather and socialize" could have come straight from the strategic plan of many a library.
I'm one of those who thinks that bookstores actually do pose a competitive threat to libraries and that we need to face that threat head-on, and articles like this just reinforce that view.
Borders and its ilk are definitely playing on our turf, and if they succeed in "monetizing" services that we offer for free (or close to free) while we struggle to maintain and improve services with budgets that are under even more pressure than usual in tough economic times, we're going to have to be pretty creative to hold our ground long-term.
But back to some good news...evidence of our creativity abounds! With examples like the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenberg County's Learning 2.0 program; the growing use of free Web 2.0 tools like Meebo or eBlogger to deliver library services; a culture that encourages sharing and collaboration; and technology-based tools that make that collaboration easier than ever before (witness the viral spread of the aforementioned Learning 2.0 idea), I think we have the ability to meet the competitive challenge, even if it sometimes feels like David vs. Goliath. We should disregard what the bookstores are doing at our peril, though!