Food is Love. Libraries are Community. Why Librarians Should Take Lessons from the Restaurant Business to Heart.

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


Hospitality: The Playbook
Hospitality: The Playbook

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].

What’s yours?


McKinney, M. (2014, February 9). A Story About A Girl Who Does Stuff [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Meyer, D.  (2008) Setting the table. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from
Schmidt, A. (2010, October 25). Services before content [Web log post].Walking Paper (Reprinted from Library Journal, June 11, 2010). Retrieved from
Weinberger, D. (2012).  Library as platform. Library Journal, 137(18), 34-36.  Retrieved from



Participatory Service in the Hyperlinked Library

citizen_participation_medThe hyperlinked library model is, above-all, user-driven and the one element that makes this all possible is participation. I’m not talking about participation in the sense that ‘it’s everyone’s library – all are welcome’, but rather that everyone is welcome to participate, literally – in planning services, in evaluating services, and by being present and actively engaging with the library community.  As Casey (2011) points out, this is waaay beyond “public input.”  It’s not even about blogs or Facebook or other social media tools, UNLESS, those tools are engaging patrons in a bi-directional flow of information. It’s about a conversation, not an announcement.

So, we have the LA Public Library crowdsourcing the design of their new facility , libraries offering display space for people’s personal collections, libraries providing digital storytelling tools and maker spaces, tool lending, teen festivals, seed-saving, garden-creating programs- you name it, somewhere somebody had a good idea and it became a reality…at the library. @joleneck said it so perfectly: “If we build it…they may not come. If they build it, they are already there!”  

Lightweight Library Programming

In reality, however, we can’t go implementing every idea that gets dreamed up. That’s why I  appreciated Harris’ (2006) point about using  “lightweight library programming”. Go easy; try it out; don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Have fun with it.  Adapt and recover. Harris’ thinking aligns with Mathew’s Think Like A Startup ideas, but is a bit gentler, a skosh less less adventurous. Yet, anything sounds possible with this concept of “lightweight” – it takes the edge of trying something new.  

Perhaps he’s also warning us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We don’t necessarily need a wholesale replacement of all services and systems. Find out what is already working and leave it alone. Similarly, the library doesn’t need to provide all the pieces to the puzzle, or shoulder all of the costs of a new program. Harris’ (2006) conceptualization of the library as a platform instead of sole provider, means that the library provides the space, and even more crucially, the impetus, for the program, but the rest of the community- patrons and partners-  can and should bring something to the table.  Remember, the magic comes from community participation. Just as the ‘sage on the stage’ model of education is faltering, business hierarchies are being blown flat, and authority structures of all kinds are morphing, so too should the library evolve away from being primarily a provider of free content; of operating with a top-down information flow.  Escaping that unwinnable situation means reinventing libraries into what Stephens (2011) calls “community based space focused on helping people.”

Helping Who?

Harris (2006) also talked about libraries being “above the level of a single patron” (paragraph 18). Here, he urges libraries to meet community needs in a way that doesn’t impact what was already working for the majority of patrons. This really hits home with me, considering what went down here today at the library. I decided to study at a nearby library because I had heard that it had some neat features, such as a living ‘green’ roof, a teen room, and interesting commons area. And it did. It also had a big hullabaloo. That is, everyone there today experienced a frightening situation. An elderly man left the library and was accosted by a young, and obviously mentally ill, patron who followed him out, shouting profanities and stopping just short of physically abusing him. The screaming insults were heard throughout the library. Mothers pulled their children close. I grabbed my belongings and looked around for an emergency exit. It was not unrealistic to expect gunshots.  In the end, nobody was (physically) hurt, but everyone was shook up. That poor old man will probably never set foot in the library again.

So, I kind of hate to bring up this subject when we were so nicely cruising along, but it fits. What are the limits of ‘helping people’?  A  consistent portion of public library patrons are mentally ill, many of whom are homeless and wind up at the library to escape the streets. These are full-fledged members of our community. We cannot close our doors to them, nor can most of us, turn a blind eye to the situation. To the extent that they are disruptive, problematic patrons prevent libraries from being above the level of a single patron, so to speak. But we cannot pick and choose our patrons- that’s what country clubs are for- so we must come up with a community-wide fix, or at least  a patch. In any event, I don’t think libraries can be saddled with too much social work. In the context of ‘service before content’ (Schmidt, 2010) wherein the value of a library is tied to its ability to positively impact the community as a whole, dealing with the homeless-in-the-library problem feels a bit like an unfunded mandate. And not the only one.  It is well known that the public library is turning into the unofficial point of access for an increasing array of eGovernment services (Bertot, Jaeger, Langa & McClure, 2006). In 2011, Libraries Connect Communities reported that that 96.6% of libraries helped patrons apply for or access eGovernment services (as cited in Bertot & Jaeger, 2012, p. 32). As early as 2006, Bertot and Jaeger found that government agencies were referring people to the public library for both access and assistance, wherein libraries were increasingly becoming facilitators of eGovernment. Perhaps this is our rightful role- to come in where the government left off, but we can’t do it for free.


Bertot, J.C., Jaeger, P.T., Langa, L.A., McClure, C.R. (2006). Public access computing and internet access in libraries: The role of public libraries in e-government and emergency situations. First Monday (Online), 11(9)

Bertot, J., Jaeger, O., & Sarin L. (2012) Forbes Folly. American Libraries, 43(9/10), 30-33.

Casey, M. (2011, October 20). Revisiting participatory service in trying times  [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

Harris, C. (2006, January 10). SL2.0: Synthesis 2.0  [Web log post]. Infomancy. Retrieved from ” href=”″>

Schmidt, A. (2010, October 25). Services before content [Web log post].Walking Paper (Reprinted from Library Journal, June 11, 2010). Retrieved from ” href=”″>

\Stephens, M. (2011, April 15). Stuck in the past [Web log post]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

photo credit: <a href=””>opensourceway</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

The Hyperlinked Library Model

As luck would have it, my purchase of a smartphone and accompanying 2 Gig data plan coincided with registering for this course. I truly believe that I could not have fully appreciated the writings and central themes highlighted in this course if it wasn’t for my phone.  Yes, the course provides vivid examples of what it looks like to interact with a hyperlinked world, but my own personal shift from a regular cell phone to a smartphone, which basically amounts to a tiny, all-powerful highly mobile computer,  has helped me feel, at a gut level, what it means to be connected to exactly who I want, when I want, where I want, and how I want. It’s revolutionary. And I’m never going back.

Of course, I was already “connected” with my old phone  (it even did text messaging! ) but there’s ‘connected’ and then there’s connected.  I am now both consumer and creator of information, on the go, in real time.  Armed with twitter, feedly, foursquare, gps, e-mail, and the internet over the 4G network, I finally feel like the master of my domain.

This is why I am able to understand at a deeper level why people are no longer happy to just receive information blindly from various ‘authorities’- be it professors, the media, commercial push marketing campaigns, bogus company newsletters, or the library.  Crucially, we also want to be creating our own  information and sharing content in ways that are personally meaningful.  We have always done that-  it’s the part that makes us human- but now we are creating and sharing at such a speed and depth as to make it an entirely new and altogether different phenomenon.  I imagine that, for many of us (excepting early adopters like @wderman) this burning  desire to ‘participate’  remained undiscovered until we casually, perhaps even accidentally, stumbled onto the web: looking for a software workaround, searching far and wide for classic car parts, uncontrollably sharing  pictures of our new babies and pets with the whole wide world.  This led us down a deep rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser!  Down there, everything is connected to something else; there are no dead ends.  And now, the distinction between “down there” and “up here” has become so fuzzy.

The web has changed the way we connect and the level of connection we expect.  Weinberger (2001) has a fair bit to say about this.  Using seven defining characteristics of the web (hyperlinked, decentralized, allows people to work outside of ‘work’ hours, open-access, data-rich, culture of experimentation, and abundance of connection), he convincingly maps out a metamorphosis of the modern workplace. Since anybody in the organization can (theoretically) find out everything about everything online, it can be said that the web has subverted the top-down flow of information that was keeping everybody ‘in their place’ and which provided the very superstructure on which the organization rested. The web has also helped people connect informally with others, both within and outside of the company, to get things done. This also supports a shift in centralized power. Of course, nobody is working in a completely flat organization and we are not yet living in a landscape free of power clusters. In fact, the gap between those who know how to find good information and those those who do not, is growing wide (more on this later).  Nevertheless, ubiquitous connection, the reliance on collective intelligence, and the shedding of formality has given rise to a preference for authenticity and a culture of experimentation, two concepts incongruous with the traditional workplace. This ain’t your mamma’s company-  that place is gone, and it ain’t never comin’ back.

So, now we have a growing number of regular people*, like me, demanding continuous computing with their fancy phones; a sea of employees who are increasingly becoming unmoored from staff hierarchies, and the widespread sentiment that the web (i.e., the place that used to be ‘down there’ which we now realize is ‘up here’) is undermining what it means to be an expert. What does that mean for the future of libraries?

One of these days I’m going to have a concise answer for that and, oh, will it be a happy day. Until then, I will resort to listing keystone concepts. (That’s my new favorite thing to say when people don’t really ‘get’ where I’m coming from: “It’s conceptual!” I say, just a little too quickly, a little too high-pitched):

  • Libraries will have to be where the people are; that is, online, in airports, at the farmer’s market, or in the case of the Biblioburro– on the back of a donkey. (C’mon…the bookmobile is so-five-minutes-ago!)

  • Libraries will have to be transparent. This involves implementing user-driven programs and policies. Ask. Listen. Implement. The library of the future will be in perpetual beta and both the employees and the users will dig it.

  • In a similar vein, libraries will have to be authentic. Public libraries with four walls will thrive on local collections and programs that bring the community together based on the real needs and wants of its local constituency. Programs like The Agora at DOK reek of authenticity because they are so personal, as does the gardening program at the library where @judypoe works.  Even inviting patrons to add tags to the catalog fits here.

  • Libraries will need to be fun. Before we learned to think of learning as something solitary, quiet and sober, our 5-year old selves innately understood that learning was all about trying new things, and also making funny farting noises inside your elbow. (I know this because I have one of these creatures at home).  The Unquiet Library is a brilliant example of the learning-is-fun idea. Following the shift from a ‘culture of perfect’ toward a ‘culture of play’ (Stephens, 2011) will mean that makerspaces, library concerts, gaming, and endeavors like the Transformation Lab will become the baseline initiatives that all libraries will try to emulate and improve upon.

*Did I ever tell you about that homeless guy at one of the nearby intersections? It was a windy day and he was having trouble keeping his “Please Help” cardboard sign up; mostly because he was so busy surfing the internet on his touch screen phone. Poor guy, it really does take two hands to hold up those signs properly.


Stephens, M. (2011, February). The hyperlinked library [White paper]. Tame The Web (TTW). Retrieved from

Weinberger, D. (2001). The hyperlinked organization. In C. Locke, R. Levine, D. Searls, & D. Weinberger, The cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual (115-159). New York: Basic Books.


A Reflection on our Foundational Readings

These readings remind me of just how trendy it has become to embrace change—concepts like disruptive innovation and flat hierarchies are all the rage. Are they more than buzzwords? Buckland’s manifesto opens with the blazingly simple but often overlooked principal of making a distinction between means and ends. In essence: change for change’s sake is dumb. Surveys performed by Casey and Savastinuk found that employees are fed up and demoralized by this kind of reactive behavior fueled by “technolust”, as Michael Stephens so aptly puts it.

Mathews talks about this too.  I think Mathews probably succeeds in getting most readers excited about innovation, but his bass note is clear: “Our focus can’t just be about adding features, but about redefining and realigning the role and identity of the [academic] library.”  The message that most resonated with me from Mathews’ work was that we must “test and validate our assumptions.”  What’s crucial about that concept is that we not only do the research (environmental scan, sound assessment) but also that we give new ideas a real go of it.  Here Mathews takes it one step further than Buckland, who describes innovation as “selecting or rejecting available options.”  Thinking like a CEO of a startup, Mathews urges us to actually implement…quickly and without fear.  And then refine and re-implement indefinitely.

This is where his fail faster, fail smarter concept comes in, and where, I suspect, the whole thing comes crashing down.  I think people will buy into this idea intellectually, but what will it look like in real life?  People don’t like messy.  Frontline workers certainly don’t like messy, and administrators like it even less.  Implementing innovation (i.e., “crazy ideas”) on an organization-wide scale is a tall order.  And don’t forget that you are also asking patrons to play along.  This fail faster fail smarter concept probably represents the biggest leap of faith for all involved. And if you involve everyone, as you should, then it’s a gigantic leap.

Mathews writes, “The Roomba is a revolution! It’s a new way of thinking. It’s solving a problem in a different way.”  Well, it also creates new problems, as identified in this video:

The Wrong Automation by Kaseyacorp

Still, we can’t stop progressing and trying new things for fear of unintended consequences. So, ultimately I’m with Mathews.  I’m just not sure how we get everyone on the bandwagon on a meaningful timescale. It’s a matter of culture, and we all know about cultural lag. Gosh, what a downer I am! Easier to criticize than move productively forward, eh? Allow me to make an attitude adjustment:

We’re up against some sticky issues. Just to name a few:

  • the shifting of authority structures in an increasingly participatory information culture;
  • information overload and ‘ubiquitous computing’ (and the concomitant problem of teaching new information literacies);
  • the breakneck pace of technological change

But there must be ways to leverage these problems into solutions. Certainly, we can begin by turning many of these ideas on their heads, re-framing them into something more palatable: collective intelligence sounds better than dumbing down (or, to reach way back to de Tocqueville: the Tyranny of the Majority); Big data is so much more optimistic than information overload, and the term innovation has a nice way of restoring the personal control that is so sorely absent from the word change.

See? I can be cheerful.  This is all well and good from the comfort and safety of my little theoretical bubble, but how would I act on this in the workplace? What if my boss was a dud and sent suspected change-agents straight to the gallows? What if my boss was awesome but my co-workers lacked enthusiasm?  What if our library lacked sufficient time, money, and expertise? None of these what-ifs are that far-fetched, except maybe the gallows bit.

How would I go about effecting well-targeted, warranted, meaningful change quickly and without fear in my workplace?  The short answer is, I have no freaking idea. The more proactive-yet-still-totally-vague answer is that I would start at the end. What kind of impact is my library having on its end users (which, by the way, include people who do not actually use the library)? Starting at the end means recognizing that the real value-add of a library is not measured only by service-quality, user-satisfaction and efficiency, but also, crucially, by what it can do in its community-at-large. I’m thinking partnerships forged, novel ideas enabled, safe social spaces created.

Maybe I could use Twitter to get a dialog going between civic groups, library patrons, and local government that would help align library programs more closely with public policy goals, which would in turn help justify budget requests. That seems like something that could be done on the cheap, instantaneously without too much disruption. Oh, and I dig that commenting-on-a-card-catalog idea they did at Ann Arbor District Library (Casey & Savastinuk  p. 68-69). The point is, just ask. And then listen. And then do.

Foundational Readings:

Buckland, Michael. Redesigning Library Services: A Manifesto. Retrieved from

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, N.J: Information Today. (Provided by the instructor.)

Mathews, B. (2012, April). Think like a startup [White paper]. Retrieved from


Greetings! Thanks for taking a look at my blog. I hope it’s the beginning of an ongoing conversation between us.  I really enjoyed reading everyone’s blog last night- we have an amazing group here; everyone is so engaged. This is an exciting  semester for me … Continue reading Greetings