Monthly Archives: May 2011

My Current Inspiration: Starbucks

Standard

At the moment, the thing I’m drawing the most inspiration from is, oddly, Starbucks. Well, perhaps not oddly at all. Starbucks clearly puts a lot of effort into making their shops places people want to return to. That’s not really all that different from libraries, though the public relations and innovation budget Starbucks allocates to the process is far and away greater than any library’s. In fact, I’m not sure too many libraries would even set aside money or time to even think the way Starbucks does. A profit motive certainly alters the way you proceed. Generally that idea make me a bit queasy, but some of the things I see going on at Starbucks have forced me to put my anti-capitalist streak aside and really learn from what Starbucks is doing.

The core of what’s inspiring me is these cards. These “Pick of the Week” cards. Have you seen them? There’s a new one every Tuesday, sitting by the cash. They’re business-card sized, feature a band on the front, and instructions and an iTunes redeem code on the back. Each card equals an iTunes download. I’ve been picking them up for a few months now, and holding on to these cards thinking about what this means for libraries. It’s a genius thing they’re doing there: if they want me to drop in at least once a week, they’re doing a good job by tempting me with free music. I know every Tuesday I will find a new song, and I get to pick it up and stick it in my pocket. Something that lives exclusively digitally becomes something I can pick up and hold, study as I wait in line.

Of course, free music is not really free: someone’s paying for it, and I’m paying for it with my time and attention. I understand it, in principle: Starbucks is selling its atmosphere, not its coffee, and giving away music a team has vetted chosen, letting me take a bit of the Starbucks atmosphere with me, is smart. It’s constructing Starbucks locations not just as places to pick up a drink, but as hubs of a certain kind of culture and exchange. Starbucks is far deeper into the music business than seems rational on the surface, and I think that’s very interesting.

So my interest in these cards keeps growing. I love these bloody cards.

The manager at our library’s Starbucks tells me that at some locations, the wi-fi network is set up to let you download whatever music is currently playing. That is bloody genius. GENIUS.

Now: as an academic library with campus-wide wireless, and with material that we’ve already paid for, I’m intrigued. The problem we have currently isn’t getting things for students to access, it’s connecting students to the material we already have. That being true, we could presumably give stuff away with cards as well. Articles? E-books? Why not? E-book of the week? Article database of the week? Cool research highlight of the week? Faculty recommended articles, maybe, those articles that bend your brain? (Immediately I imagined a card for Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, or the preface to Edward Said’s Orientalism, among others. Maybe some citation guides? I dunno, the opportunities are endless.

That was one idea, but as I pick up these cards every Tuesday I keep thinking of new things I could do with these cards.

The other one intersects with something I’m planning to do this year: introduce cool web apps, software and tech tools to students. Tech Tip of the Week? Why not? Rather than a code, I could put up a URL and a QR code. Image on the front, name of the web app, some limited instructions on the back. Then I could link it to some more information about how/why the thing might be useful. Google Docs, Zoho, Mibbit, tinychat, that awesome new aim video chat (how ridiculously awesome is this?), Evernote, dropbox, aviary, the list goes on and on. Cool things students should know about. I can time them to come out when that particular web app will be most useful. Keep them in a neat little holder by the loans desk, or at the registrar’s office, or wherever. Distribute them to the departments. Something you can pick up, look at, hold in your hand, that expands online into a larger thing. Something that connects you to this tool that will be useful to you.

Still thinking about those cards.

We do a lot of faculty support for courseware (it’s kind of our bread and butter around here). Every year we look at what we’ve done before and throw most of it out, saving only the approaches and techniques that were the most useful. We threw out the lecture method; we threw out sitting in a lab. We threw out stacks of manuals. In our redesigned approach to teaching faculty how to use courseware, we’ve ended up with a more petting zoo style of experience, where instructors need to actively participate and make decisions about what they need. They talk to us. They move around the room, looking at different features. They talk to each other. Get ideas. We brought back a bit of paper with a one-page tip sheet per tool/function we were highlighting. These are extremely popular. People feel good walking away with something relevant, something they chose to pick up. But why a whole piece of paper? Maybe we can condense our tip sheets (how to do very very specific things) into cards. Beautiful design. Extremely short instructions on how to do this thing (3-5 steps), QR code, URL. We can hand them out when people ask us a question; you get an answer and something in hand. And we can distribute them to others to hand out. If you get it, you can pass it on when someone you know encounters the same question.

Cards. These simple little cards from Starbucks! It’s not the cards that are so sexy, really, it’s the idea that you get a bit of digital information, a gateway into something bigger, in something you can hold in your hand. Stick in your wallet. Stick in your pocket. A little thing, it makes it seem approachable. Simple. Not a sea of words of “click here” and “go there”. One, two, three, you’re done. Small space.

Starbucks and their cards. It started as a minor bit of musing, but now I can’t stop myself considering more possibilities every Tuesday when I pick up a new one.

Compassion

Standard

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.