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How Would You Start Your Own Library?

We see it all the time–someone leaves a business because they think they could do it, whatever it is, better. I love my job, but I will admit that I have a crazy dream. I have had it for some time in fact. To my knowledge, nobody has ever said “You know what? I’ll start my own library. I’m out of here.” I want to be that person. When I can, this is definitely something I want to explore. How to start a library.

It’s a fascinating question for me. I believe if you polled 100 library users and asked them what the best part of the public library were, you would probably get a majority saying “It’s free.”

Agreed. Free is one of the best parts of the library. Taxes pay for it, but unlike the fire department and police forces, which I hope I will never be in immediate, dire need of, the library is something I can always use. If I choose to, I can always point to it and say, “See? My taxes do something.”

I also believe that the complaints of most library lovers would also overlap. That is what a library entrepreneur would probably need to focus on.

Now, free is the first thing I would removed from the library that I would start. What would this for-profit library include? Could it still be a library if it deviated from the free model? Or would it just be a club that had the word library in the title?

Libraries are an idea as much as a series of buildings, and their functions change from location to location, and may very well change drastically from era to era.

I’m just brainstorming here, but I’m going to throw out some suggestions (based on complaints I get at work) and not think too much about censoring anything:

  • Adults only
  • A bar?
  • All of the most in-demand books, and lots of them
  • Ditto with movies
  • Computers for private internet use – Lots of them
  • Nice library chairs
  • Suitable music
  • Air fresheners
  • An area for eating

Let’s see…I think I’ll leave it there for now. How about you? If you were going to start your own library, as I eventually want to, how would you do it? What would it include? What would it exclude? How would you justify a price?

Just thinkin’…

Let’s talk.

For further reading for this discussion, if you haven’t read them yet I’d suggest:

PS: I need someone to design the logo. Any takers?

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  • Brianna October 20, 2010, 10:11 am

    I love the idea of opening a library. A friend I have tossed around the idea of used bookstore/coffee bar, but a library sounds better. More accessible, especially in this economy.

    • charle quist June 1, 2012, 12:56 pm

      thats a great idea,the ability for you to think to such an extent is enough

  • Ted @ Cubicle Warrior October 20, 2010, 10:21 am

    The most over-looked and undervalued portion of the library may be a quality reference librarian. I would expand that role and possible add additional deputies ranging from roles from virtual private assistants to concierges to ‘optimizers’ who, due to their extensive education and training would be able to de-##$%@ your life/business/etc.

    Going back to your Dune recap, think a bunch of Bene Gesserit without the eugenics.

    Oh, and frequent stops by authors (just went to Chris G’s AONC book tour – awesome) and ‘How to do this’ lecture series / practicals.

  • Michelle October 20, 2010, 10:39 am

    How about an Adults Only section with a bar?

    Also, I’m a graphic designer. I’d love to help with a logo for your For-Profit Library.

  • Fred Blue October 20, 2010, 10:41 am

    Josh, if you have a chance I would look over this discussion (see link below) about revamping public libraries. It looks at ideas from the Netherlands and Canada. I heard the podcast portion over the weekend, even though it originally aired in the summer. It may be some value… or not.


  • Amy October 20, 2010, 10:50 am

    I would pay big bucks for a library that had a daycare in it. Even if it were very limited hours available I would be able to go get books for us without having to fight with a 19 month old and a 10 year old who don’t want to be there. A toy library would be pretty cool too.

  • ami October 20, 2010, 11:01 am

    air fresheners? But suffering is part of the experience, isn’t it? hehe, sorry I just thought that one was funny – maybe b/c my library doesn’t smell funny. But if you’re going to go there, might as well make it aromatherapy.

    Perhaps the for-pay library could follow the public broadcasting model, i.e., pay what you can/want to be a member, but membership is not required to use the majority of assets.

  • Ry St October 20, 2010, 11:12 am

    If I were to start my own library, it would be a hackspace with a “take one leave one” library system. No censorship but probably only a couple of shelves (at eye-level or higher so as not to get in the way of all the macrame and violins)

  • Dermanus October 20, 2010, 12:27 pm

    I generally agree with the sentiment. If you’re going to have a for-profit library the focus would have to be on delivering quality information on any subject.
    Sometimes this would mean having really old books, it would also mean having excellent internet researchers.
    Having a subscription to services like PubMed and other scientific journals would be great.
    I like @Ry’s idea of a hacker space, but that may need to be it’s own section since power drills would tend to interfere with other people reading.

    I’m not sure having all the latest books would be ideal; then you’d be competing with the Chapters of the world and they’re already well established in that space.

    Powerful computers for helping people do things like data visualizations and number crunching. Combine that with subscription services to massive data sets (things like census data) and you have a great recipe for amateur scientists. I’m thinking something like a really beefed up version of Gapminder (Google it, I don’t know the rules about embedding links)

    • Josh Hanagarne October 20, 2010, 1:06 pm

      Comments with more than one link go to the spam filter. One is fine.

  • Dallas October 20, 2010, 12:34 pm

    Just curious, but doesn’t a ‘Barnes and Noble’ fill most of those requirements? It would just need a few minor changes and it could satisfy all of them, maybe you should just buy into the B&N franchise. Of course if you are looking to call it a library that might not work for you, just a thought.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 20, 2010, 1:06 pm

      Maybe. But it doesn’t feel as awesome. I worked at BN for a while and think I can do better.

      • Dallas October 20, 2010, 1:10 pm

        That is what I am saying, if you owned your own you could make the much needed improvements. But in the end, you are right, it doesn’t feel as awesome.

  • Jodi Kaplan October 20, 2010, 1:12 pm

    There’s a restaurant/library in New York. I can’t think of the name, but while trying to find it, I came across a public library in Texas that just opened a cafe.


  • Erin October 20, 2010, 6:48 pm

    My husband is from India, and the library he frequented growing up (and still frequents when we visit) isn’t free. Instead, if you’re a member, you can check out a book for a small percentage of the book’s cost. I believe it’s around 10%. So, when a book has been checked out 10 times, it’s been paid for and they can reinvest any additional money back into the library.

    It would also be interesting to base a library on a subscription model instead. Like a health club, you could pay x amount of money for unlimited monthly use. Or, like Netflix, there could be different levels of membership: 1 book at a time, 3 books at a time, etc. or even 5 books a month, 10 books a month…

    What a fascinating question! Now you’ve got me planning…

    • Michael Golrick October 21, 2010, 10:31 am

      The subscription model exists here (primarily in big, older cities). I know of places in New York, Boston, New Haven (CT), Newport (RI) that exist on the subscription model.

      It is also how the public library movement got started. I know my hometown library (growing up) started as a subscription library in about 1740. It became tax supported in the mid-1800s when the public library movement took off.

      (Nothing new under the sun?)

      The point of the public library model in the US is to provide valuable services to everyone because the whole community benefits from having a public library. Most recognize that those who can afford it least are the ones who need it most.

    • Alex April 11, 2012, 11:14 pm

      Lease-itarian! Yes! The Ultra Library could just be the Hub in the building. Lease a book at so many dollars or cents a week, choose how many weeks you’ll lease it. Zen-tastic!

      Around the library could be a garden, a meditation space, a tablet and Nook lounge….

      Private libraries can be specialized and Very Upscale. Readers are not consumers digesting the lastest Stephen King book. Readers are creators, creating cool new things for humanity.

      Nano libraries of 10 or less titles would be cool, as also would be Giga Libraries of 100 plus titles.

      Pass on convenience. Go for luxury and great atmosphere. “Ah, Jeeves and Jasmine, you belong to the Ultra Library! Ah! How Beverly Hills of you! What new proving grounds are you a part of? ”

      Why not create these Ultra private libraries that will inspire any one who is a member? They will greatly enjoy being a part of the knowledge/wisdom space!

  • Armen Shirvanian October 20, 2010, 9:28 pm

    Hi Josh.

    I can’t think of much about current libraries around me that I don’t like. Your ideas are pretty cool too. An eating area is a nice concept.

    I like older libraries more than modern ones. I prefer when there are all kinds of different corners and sections and small closed areas instead of big open spaces.

  • Kellye Parish October 21, 2010, 10:19 am

    Hey Josh!

    I like your ideas about the for-profit library (particularly the part about the adult section with a bar) but to be honest, I don’t see such an establishment staying in business for very long as a profit model, simply because I can see online databases such as Project Gutenberg putting *all* book outlets out of business eventually, even B&N.

    However, one thing I would really love to see in a library is easy access to expensive, high-end computer programs, such as Paintshop, Photoshop and other computer design/publishing programs. I would love to train myself to paint digitally since I am a painter IRL, but the start-up costs of buying those computer programs are prohibitively high. Borrowing (or buying) time with them would be a much better solution.

    • Alex April 11, 2012, 11:16 pm

      Profit model could be annual membership fee (modest) and per book lease fee (so many dollars or cents per calendar week). Garden and meditation space and Nook/tablet bar could be a part of the membership and could have modest daily fees, too.

  • Laura Cococcia October 21, 2010, 6:54 pm

    Love this idea! I would definitely include food – it brings people together for discussion automatically – we all have to eat. And, book clubs are a must (I think). I’d also include a place for people to publicly write book reviews in an accessible place for people to read. Short, quick ones that are associated by interest. I would definitely come to your library!

  • AnnaLaura Brown October 28, 2010, 4:56 pm

    What if it was like a Barnes and Noble only you could borrow the books? Say unlimited checkouts for a monthly or annual fee.

  • Lisa Binggeli November 6, 2010, 8:16 am

    What type of permits would you need? Because it’s not against the law I suppose, right???

  • Shalini December 12, 2010, 4:00 pm

    I have wanted to do that for sometime now. 😀
    I guess its going to take a while.. But i plan to do that.

  • P. Corrie July 2, 2011, 4:56 am

    I have it on my mind too-opening a library. Of course, my circumstance is different-I’m based in India and the population is so high that I’m guessing that there are going to be takers.

    My view on doing something of your own is that it has got to have meaning and an objective: like say, an opportunity for people to have access to great books, the latest ones at an affordable cost. Personally, my favourite library is this really small library with the most amazing books and I’ve always wonderered-How? Cuz it’s so small and yet they’ve managed to stock up some of the best books around. That’s an inspiration for me.

    You could check out these books-‘The go-giver’ by By Bob Burg and John David Mann, ‘The art of the start’ by Guy Kawasaki and ‘Escape from cubicle nation’ by Pamela Slim (Check out her blog too)-All good books on the subject of doing somethng from your own.

    Just curious but have you begun starting out one?

    • Neha September 14, 2011, 10:16 pm

      Hello P.C,

      I, too put up in India and have a dream of starting my own library, exclusively for kids. But, I really do not know where to start from. I would love to have pointers from people like you.


  • Emily H July 28, 2011, 3:09 pm

    Let’s take this question a little further…How would you organize your own library? Alphabetically, by genre, or your own made up system? I have started a library in my small community and plan to open in about 2 weeks. I have over 350 boxes of books to put on shelves but way too many ideas on how to organize. Thoughts?

    • Josh Hanagarne July 28, 2011, 4:23 pm

      I think the perfect library would be organized by thought.

      I actually think that would be perfect. 350 boxes of books? My thought is holy crap! My other thought is, I’m jealous.

      • Alex April 11, 2012, 11:22 pm

        Its not really the size of the library (L of Congress is huge) but rather the size of the idea. I could see a great library of 50-100 titles only being replicated in 10 to 20 cities across the world. A library is a communal place of learning and discovering. Buying a book and reading it at home all the time can seem too “flat screen” as opposed to going to a movie theatre.

        I think design and atmosphere and the mission of the library will be huge, and will attract those who want to support it. Online “libraries” can be fun. Ultra libraries in physical spaces will greatly appeal to those who want to learn and meet in public.

    • Vicky January 30, 2012, 3:08 am

      You can’t go wrong either way, as long as you have some sort of classification in mind — the main idea is to be able to locate any book. However, since we are on the theme of classification, you can select either LCCN (Library of Congress, mostly followed in the US) or the universally adopted DDC (Dewey Decimal) — the two most prevalent library classification systems.

      You may also adopt the Open Source Integrated Library Automation System KOHA (see koha.org) which can get your library OPAC on the web (I have done this for about 20/- USD per month). This may take a good amount of effort on your part, but would be worth your while in the long run. Besides being able to importing cataloging records directly from LOC.org or NYPL.org et al, KOHA has a robust patron management system including fines, due date notifications etc.

      PS: Lot of help available online for Koha.

  • Laura Dix-Peek September 24, 2011, 5:27 am

    WOW! I’ve been wondering how to start a ‘Homeschool Library’ here in the U.K. I love our local library but it just doesn’t have what I need i.e. early readers, curriculum advice, support etc. All the best curriculums and homeschool things come from the USA – the UK just isn’t geared up for it. So I figure if I started a library with different curriculums people will be able to ‘try before they buy’ and find the books they need for each stage. I like the idea of charging a percentage of the book’s price but maybe a subscription charge would be better. Maybe it should be internet based? Like lovefilm but for schooling? I’m definitely thinking much bigger now! All the best with your plans too.

  • Lisa W. September 29, 2011, 10:45 pm

    Finally someone who thinks like me!! I’m currently getting my MLIS and my goal is to start a subscription library in my town. There are some aspects that I think I have a pretty good handle on but others, not so much. I’m doing lots of research and planning and hopefully in a couple of years it will be a reality. I’d love to exchange ideas.

  • Tamika October 14, 2011, 8:23 pm

    I’ve been thinking about starting a mobile library for NYC students in grades K thru 8. There are some amazing library buses and England has mastered the Double Decker buses. This blog has been really helpful in thinking outside the box. I think a subscription service is a great idea…even if it is a low-cost subscrption. Instead individual patrons subscribing, I would have the school subscribe, host bookfairs, listening parties for the very best audiobooks, have professional storytellers engage the students with stories, have read-alouds (must read The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease), have poetry readings and spoken word and have a language section to teach sign language and foreign languages…Now that I have officially written it down, I must follow through. Thanks for helping organize my thoughts!

    • Josh Hanagarne October 15, 2011, 4:27 pm

      You’re welcome. I think that’s a wonderful idea. Let me know when you move on it!

  • Jade November 19, 2011, 11:43 am

    Its so amazing that I finally find so many people with similar minds. i have wanted to start a for-profit library for a long time now. Currently in UK, just finished my graduate studies and plan to return to my country Uganda to set up something of this sort. I really enjoyed using the libraries at school as well as the local ones where I was quite surprised at how so much reading material can be FREELY available!! Many people in Uganda look to importing expensive business related (MBA, Economics, project management, CPA,CFA etc) books from the US or UK because they are not available in the country and I would like to provide to this particular group of people. My only worry is how to ensure that books that are taken out of the library will be returned :p (we don’t exactly have proper home addresses over there!!) Plus, where to source these books in the first place!

    • Vicky January 30, 2012, 2:01 am

      First enumerate the books that you want to source. Second check for the availability of these books for Asian Economy Editions, say from India, where the prices are about 25% that of US/European editions.

  • Danny August 20, 2012, 5:05 pm

    I’ve long had a mind to found a library, or museum, or library with “realia” curation (you get the idea) centered around all things fungi and mycology. This comment box cannot do the enthusiasm I have for this project justice. It lingers on as all dream and no doing on account of having little to no idea where or how to start and having to devote time to more pressing matters (ie: rent, nutrition, etc.). My personal collection would constitute the foundation of such a library’s holdings, with the promise of contributions from others elsewhere in the country and the world. The emphasis would be equally digital and print. If someone stopped me on the street tomorrow, extended a hand, and offered to pledge their time and expertise toward making the most wonderful, boundless and awe-inspiring of mushroom libraries a reality, come hell or high water, I would, after recovering from many tears of joy, clear any manner of preexisting schedules to begin breaking ground. Sadly, I think such a specific pince(ss) charming is unlike to ever arrive. Needless to say, collaborators welcome.

  • Diane October 15, 2012, 1:44 pm

    I am a public librarian and have toyed around with the idea of opening a small, subscription library in my town. I used to belong to the Mercantile Library in New York City many years ago, and loved it. My library would be only for adults, would have the latest fiction and nonfiction, and a smaller backlist. Also, a good collection of newspapers. No a/v. There would be wi-fi but no computers. I am talking small! I envision a friendly, cozy environment where people could come, sit, read and work. Good lighting is a must. Anyone out there ever attempt this?