The Future Of The Library Is Not The Apple Store

I tuned in to a recorded archive of a program about the future of the academic library. One participant described as a “no brainer” the idea that the library of the future should be something modeled on the Apple Store. I can see the appeal because Apple Stores are really happening places. When you go there (at least on the weekend) the place is packed, and there’s a waiting list to talk to a “genius” at the genius bar. It is an engaging experience because the wares are right out there, not behind glass cases. The products are loaded with software and apps so you can feel them, interact with them, listen to them – it’s all part of a unique experience. And on top of all that, the geniuses and customer representatives are quite knowledgeable and appear to truly enjoy their work. It all adds up to a great user experience. Some would say that Google’s home page is a masterwork of simplicity and execution. But I don’t see much advocating for it to be the model for the future of the library home page – and a few libraries that have tried it have since given up on it.

What’s not to like about the idea of the library replicating the Apple Store? Why wouldn’t we want lots of loyal, passionate people milling about just waiting to ask a question or find out how to use a resource? Hands down the Apple Store is a much cooler and more fun place to spend some time because there are plenty of gadgets to explore. Libraries have computers and many are adding devices like kindles, iPads, GPS and digital cameras. So libraries have gadgets too, but we ask – in most cases – the user community members to check them out. We could, but do not put gadgets on display for play. But I’ve not heard of an Apple Store that lets you borrow the gadgets to take home – at no cost. Still, few folks would likely rate the library experience as highly as the Apple Store experience – even if the library does have experts who will answer any questions.

My main reason for arguing why we should avoid modeling future libraries on Apple Stores is that the whole point of designing a user experience is to create something unique and fun for your local user community – and which is based on the needs of the local community. Apple Stores have the luxury of being somewhat cookie cutter in how they are modeled. The Apple Store in Manhattan, while larger than the one in my own vicinity, is pretty much the same Apple Store that I would go to at the mega-mall. It has a brand identity to uphold across the globe. Your library may have a brand identity as well, but likely only within your own local community. Rather than working to re-invent our libraries in the mold of the Apple Store we should invest time and effort in understanding the community, and then designing a unique experience that delivers on and exceeds their library expectations. In designing that experience we may find an idea or two to borrow from the Apple Store and other retailers that deliver great user experiences. That’s why we need to pay attention to these retailers – and I think that is what the presenter probably intended. But whatever we borrow should be mixed and re-formulated as the library experience – not merely a copy of the Apple Store concept.

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