In “A Genius Idea?,” Michael Stephens’s recent Office Hours column (LJ 3/15/14), Stephens refers to a post on the Librarian Shaming Tumblr that called for libraries to have their own “Genius Bars,” reminiscent of the Apple Store’s famous retail innovation.
As Stephens points out, many libraries are already adopting—and adapting—this concept. Some stick close to their roots, providing tech support to community members, such as the Digital Media Lab at Skokie Public Library, IL, or Princeton Public Library, NJ, which runs well-attended Ask the Mac Pros sessions, according to Timothy K. Quinn, communications director and a 2013 LJ Mover & Shaker. In Apple’s hometown of Cupertino, CA, the public library has a rolling technology petting zoo staffed by trained volunteers that Mark Fink, Cupertino community librarian, refers to as a “genius bar on wheels.”
Not just tech
Some libraries are applying the Genius Bar concept more broadly, applying it to kinds of learning that have little or nothing to do with technology. Alex Cohen, president of library consulting firm Aaron Cohen Associates Ltd., cited a project the company is working on at Corning Community College, NY, now in the construction phase, as one of the most far-reaching applications of the Genius Bar idea. Corning’s plan is to take all the different support labs on campus—science, math, writing—and coalesce the silos into a single space as a knowledge bar. “They were the first of our clients to go hook, line, and sinker into this concept of not having the traditional service point,” says Cohen. “Since then, we’ve been doing them in virtually every project.”
Jason Fowler, director of library services at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), Wake Forest, NC, says he and Bruce Keisling, then director of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), implemented something similar in Fowler’s previous position as associate librarian at SBTS. “We tweaked our customer service model by shamelessly ripping off the Genius Bar idea,” he says, based on Carmine Gallo’s The Apple Experience. “I hired tech-savvy, energetic, and highly personable PhD students with significant knowledge in specific theological curricular areas…. We created an area that we called the Research Hub, and we called the students who worked there research experts. We moved our circulation desk to a more remote location and placed the hub in a place where it was the first thing that students saw when they walked into the building.
“Students could go there to get research help, tech help, a tour of the library, or just talk…. The people who worked there really took ownership of all that we were doing in that area, so they enjoyed it. Patrons [appreciated] that our service did focus on them and that we were fanatical about meeting their needs. The administration liked it because it made stats like gate count go up, and people were excited about being in a library even though we basically still had the same tired space…we did make some basic renovations of that area to give it a Genius Bar feel, it only cost a few thousand dollars.”
What makes this bar so smart?
What makes something a Genius Bar, besides calling it one? Cohen cites design elements including stool height; few or no barriers between staff and users; a gathering point for users to interact with one another, not just staff; and a setup that makes it easy for different staff members to rotate into the space as needed. A sleek, modern, tech-heavy look can also evoke the requisite atmosphere: Hunter College Library, New York, has a new Genius Bar–style interactive reference and information desk that will feature a scrolling LED “zipper” display. Cohen also suggests an innovation from its project at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston, where the architect placed a media tower next to the consultation bar for people waiting.
Signage using everyday idioms rather than library-specific phrasing is also part of the appeal—Stephens cited “Ask Here” signage at Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN; the new Central Library in Madison, WI, and Columbus, OH, branches have gone even simpler, using just a question mark.
Making it clear that walk-in visitors are welcome is key, too, especially since, Cohen points out, traditional, appointment-based reference consultations are on the decline. One Cohen client, Robert Morris University, Pittsburgh, found that such consultations had declined 20 percent over the previous decade, leading the school to develop a consultation bar.
“If you have a knowledge bar, you give people the opportunity to sit and chat,” Cohen says. “That kind of dynamic is a little different today—it is a kind of empowerment.”