In his 2008 book, Setting the Table, wildly successful restaurateur Danny Meyer shares his favorite quote: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and intertwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others” (Kennedy Fisher, 1943, as quoted in Meyer, loc. 2023). What does that have to do with libraries? Just as restaurants are about more than menus, libraries are about more than books. In the end, both restaurants and libraries are about people. Setting the Table offers customer service lessons that are directly relevant to libraries seeking to develop a deep sense of community. Danny Meyer is an expert in creating positive outcomes for his patrons by ensuring they feel like they belong there. Two of Meyer’s key concepts: hospitality and context can be mapped to one of the most exciting and important trends affecting libraries today: participatory service. In fact, Meyer’s unique take on what it means to be hospitable, expressed through a set of coherent, hard-nosed yet deeply personal lessons are applicable to all libraries everywhere- not only those aiming for excellence, but even those that are simply trying to stay afloat during a time in which disruptive technologies are demanding the creative evolution of libraries.
The big kahuna of disruption is, of course, the World Wide Web. In its wake we find a changed socio-technical landscape in which a web-enabled read/write participatory culture expects information to be ubiquitous, easy to find, highly personal and interactive. These expectations are driving libraries to morph from information gatekeepers into learning platforms, resulting in deep user participation and wider community development. In this scenario, libraries focus on developing meaningful dialogues with their community and on finding the right context for value-added services. This reimagined library can be understood as the participatory library and it is nothing if not user-driven. It turns out, the participatory library is not unlike a well-run restaurant.
I’m on Your Side! Hospitality as a Customer Service Tool
The term customer service is about as dry as a boneless, skinless chicken breast cooked on the grill. Yet, in the hands of Danny Meyer, it becomes succulent. For Meyer, taking good care of customers boils down one inescapable, essential and even innate factor: the generous extension of hospitality. Meyer has a unique brand of hospitality that results in the unmistakable feeling that the restaurant and it’s employees are “on your side” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 188). Not only do they recognize you and want to serve you, but they want you to win. For example, in Meyer’s restaurants reservationists are prized because they are the initial point of customer contact and are trained to be “agents vs. gatekeepers”; their purpose is to “make things happen” for the client (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3818). A Zagat Survey participant reports, “The reservationists even feel badly when they can’t accommodate you” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3830). All of Meyer’s employees are tasked with “figur[ing] out whatever it takes to make the guests feel and understand that we are in their corner” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1069). There are stories of waitstaff who extended no-questions-asked credit to a woman who left her wallet and cell phone in a taxicab, (while she enjoyed her meal, the staff traveled all the way uptown to retrieve her belongings); of a staff member offering to return to a patron’s home in order to transfer a forgotten bottle of champagne from the fridge to the freezer before it had a chance to explode (and leaving behind a box of chocolates and a handwritten note wishing the couple a happy anniversary); of creating a dessert that a patron had merely mentioned in conversation and presenting it at the end of the night. These stories are sensational in order to illustrate the concept. But the reality is that this kind of upgraded hospitality has been institutionalized across all of Meyer’s restaurants and is truly the source of his success. His employees do this in their sleep. In fact, they were born to do this- Meyer’s strategy from the get go was to to pick the right people and then empower them to shine.
Be the Girl Who Does Stuff: Hospitality in the Library
It’s easy to imagine how far the concept of “making things happen” could take a library. Librarians who are truly “on your side” are outcome-focused, not format-focused. They take the long view. So, yes, they want to solve your immediate problem, such as locating the “story about a girl who does stuff”, but they know that their ultimate goal is to somehow enable that young patron to be the girl who does stuff (McKinney, 2014). These kinds of librarians, including our own @mollymckinney, are not gatekeepers, they are agents. And they belong in the participatory library.
Like Meyer’s restaurants, the participatory library is first and foremost a place where people gather. “A business that doesn’t understand its raison d’etre as fostering community will inevitably underperform” warns Meyer (Meyer, 2008, loc. 2111). Hence, the “stuff” of a library, like the food in Meyer’s restaurants, can be seen as secondary to the community it engenders, the ideas it fosters, and the opportunities it enables. Participatory libraries, a la DOK Delft (aka “Library Concept Center”) and The Human Library
where you can check out a person, are places where people- patrons and employees- participate to make things happen. This kind of library becomes a platform for action, dialogue and outcomes, not a container for “stuff” (Schmidt, 2010). As David Weinberger puts it, “libraries as platforms [focus] our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment those resources engender. A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources. A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub” (Weinberger, 2012). In order to evolve beyond the container model towards a more participatory, library-as-platform model, libraries must heed Meyer’s warning: it’s about the community, stupid.
Hospitality in the Right Context
To create a deep sense of belonging, Meyer advocates an active, conscious, and genuine form of hospitality. But for this to work, context is crucial. Having the right context is about a restaurant, or a library, or a business, or even a piece of architecture that is for and of it’s community; it is not imposed on it, but rather indistinguishable from it. Thus, achieving the right context necessarily involves ongoing, lively, purposeful communication between an institution and its constituents. It won’t do to say, “Here is your library.” That’s a monologue. Instead, we might ask “What do you want your library to be?” That is a dialogue.
Once again, Meyer’s take on things is helpful: he differentiates service, which he sees as the technical delivery of product (and essentially a monologue), from hospitality, which he says can be thought of as a dialogue (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1042). As Meyer found out on a fly fishing trip, trout only bite on something that resembles what is actually hatching (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1234). Hooking, or engaging customers in a dialogue, involves spending a lot of time, through a number of different and perhaps unexpected channels, taking genuine interest in discovering what they actually want, what they like, and ultimately where they’re trying to go in life. Explains Meyers, “When we take an active interest in the guests at our restaurants, we create a sense of community and a feeling of shared ownership” (Meyer, 2008, loc. 1240). This, I think, is the cornerstone of the participatory library model. When patrons are invited to participate with library employees and each other:
through interior design that promotes sharing and transparency;
via technologies that break down barriers to access and enhance communication;
through user-defined programs that address real needs through collective action;
by adding their own user-generated content to a library’s permanent collection;
by taking part in regular assessment of the library’s value proposition
there will be a sense of shared ownership. And as the saying goes: together, we can move mountains.
In case you’re not convinced that a restaurateur understands the heartbeat of a library, consider playing this simple word game in which you take the author’s core message, replacing his restaurant words with your own library words, and see if it still hits the nail on the head:
“…beyond [cooking your food] and [doing the dishes], a [restaurant] must provide a public social environment that distinguishes it from the experience of [eating at home] (Meyer, 2008, loc. 3855).
Here’s my take: “…beyond [providing free access to books and computers], a [library] must provide a public social environment that distinguishes it from the experience of [using your computer at home].