An op-ed piece in Sunday’s Denver Post made an interesting suggestion. People who work—or want to look like they are working—in coffee shops ought to move to their public libraries instead.
Then coffee shops could go back to being coffee shops—places of intellectual ferment and conversation, instead of solo customers taking up a booth or table while they stare into their screens.
And libraries would have a new clientele of media-savvy communicators to lobby for them.
Cafes have always served as venues for contemplation and composition, though historically conversation has shared an equally prominent place at the table. But with the increasing availability of cheap and free wireless access in cafes, and the recession-laden economy rendering private work spaces less affordable, the cafe has become an obvious alternative for virtual workers. The phenomenon’s effect on cafe owners has been well-documented. There is a delicate balance between filling seats, particularly during daytime hours, and the cafe’s need to turn a profit through a steady turnover of customers.
The ubiquitousness of technology has had consequences far beyond the complex relationship between cafe owners and their customers in-residence. It has perceptibly drained cafes of a more traditional social atmosphere for engaged, dynamic and discursive exchanges. Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, has documented the fall and labeled those de rigeur accoutrements of modern living — the cellphone and the iPod — as “conversation avoidance mechanisms” or worse, “a distraction that undermines conversation.”
A few years ago, my university library installed a coffee bar and wireless Internet—the latter part of a campus-wide project. It was like civilization!
Now the building is gutted for remodeling, but I expect to see the coffee bar back.
Some public libraries have added coffee bars. More of them should.