Pump Up Your Patrons: By Emulating the Best Features of Health Clubs, Libraries Can Ensure Their Future as a Physical Place for Exercising the Mind

By Wilt, Larry; Hrabowski, Freeman A.,, III | American Libraries, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Pump Up Your Patrons: By Emulating the Best Features of Health Clubs, Libraries Can Ensure Their Future as a Physical Place for Exercising the Mind


Wilt, Larry, Hrabowski, Freeman A.,, III, American Libraries


Experts who speculate on the future of our profession often focus on the library as place. Their conjectures range from doomsday predictions of empty buildings to optimistic scenarios of a reconfigured space with a new range of services. We want to weigh in on the optimistic side by offering a different conceptual model for the role of libraries and their spaces: the modern health club.

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What are the defining features of the modern health club? It's a fashionable, high-tech, full-service, well-staffed business that invites you to buy into not just a few hours of sweaty exercise each week, but a new lifestyle and self-image.

While their core remains sweaty exercise, you'd hardly know it from the images they convey to the public. They show the finished product first--the svelte bodies, along with the specialized and good-looking gear that you buy there and wear with pride; the friendly environment, with smiling attendants and supportive trainers; the state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, well-lit and inviting enough to make the inevitable suffering tolerable; a snack bar with "healthy foods" served with speed and convenience for those exercising on a lunch hour; and sometimes value-added services such as a steam room and sauna, a barber shop and beauty salon. The images attract you; in fact, once you're there, why would you ever want to leave?

The modern health club is an American success story. It is reproducing itself, Starbucks-like, everywhere. But who would have predicted that success? It seems irrational, on the face of it, that we would spend $50 or more per month so we can exert the extra effort of traveling to another location and renouncing our privacy, when for the cost of three months' membership we could buy a set of free weights and exercise at home. The intangible value people now place on going to a health club is hard to understand before you experience it. Actually, even for some of us who have been there, it still is.

Similarly, the value of going to a "fashionable," well-equipped, full-service library is hard to see when information is becoming easier by the minute to get from home, in our offices and cars, and everywhere else. It is especially unfathomable for the millions of potential library users who didn't show up even before the online revolution gave them another reason to stay home. Yet, just as entrepreneurs figured out how to configure and sell the health club idea, some librarians are figuring out how to attract users despite the belief of some people that "we don't need libraries anymore."

We believe that helpful entrepreneurial insights for libraries can be found within a "health club model." Using that model as the paradigm for the 21st-century library can advance our thinking on how to develop library services and space.

The health club model is already being used elsewhere in education: Language labs are a close analog. In the for-profit education arena, language study is being reshaped on the health club model: The Wall Street Institute links online resources, texts, and teachers with a health club-like "Speaking Center" where students can use resources and get assistance and coaching on a drop-in basis (www.wallstreetinstitute.com).

Which principles of the health club model can be applied to libraries? We are not going to be passing out towels in our libraries. But outside of the particulars, libraries can, and increasingly do, function as health clubs function:

1. Better facilities and equipment than home. OK, we grant that maybe for some--especially the information gurus with new and expensive computers and fast internet connections--the library would not be better than home. But then, some rich and fanatical fitness buffs own better equipment at home than most health clubs.

Library equipment does not have to be superior to every piece of each person's home equipment, but we should have some equipment that is superior for each client. …

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