Mixed-use libraries are becoming co-working spaces

When Terry Stoush was in the middle of a Zoom conference last February, he was discussing the next quarterly assignments when a loud bell went off. 

“Man, that sounds like a school bell,” his boss said. 

“Well funny story, that’s exactly where I’m at,” Stoush replied.

Stoush, a regional pharmaceutical representative, was on vacation in Copper Country when he was asked to be available for the meeting.

Jumping onto videoconferencing was not out of the norm, so he headed to the Calumet School Public Library for internet access. Although he has often used libraries as co-working space, Calumet marked the first time Stoush visited a mixed-use library inside a school for his office needs.

“I was surprised to be at a school because I think of co-working spaces are coffee shops, offices or libraries. It was definitely a unique place to work,” he said. 

While libraries are a typical hub of visiting white-collar workers in rural areas, different types of libraries are often a change of pace for travelling employees.

According to the Library of Michigan, most libraries are created at a municipal or county level through charters or through the Home Rule Act. 

In many places in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula, however, mixed-use libraries prevail. These locations provide both the public and the local school district with library services from book and movie rentals, printing, computer and internet access as well as programming.

Mixed-use libraries still have a research area that is often full of people looking for a quiet place to work.

“We don’t have any libraries like this that I know of,” said Andy Petralia of Indianapolis. “It’s all very separated experiences of the schools are over there and the libraries are over here. The public spaces are always apart.” 

Petralia was vacationing with his family when they arrived in Gladstone, just north of Escanaba. He and his family were doing a Lake Michigan circle tour when the rain hit and disrupted their schedule. While waiting for their hotel room to open, the entire family used the school-public library in different ways. 

“My wife and I were responding to emails on vacation anyway, so accessing the internet while the kids played was awesome. It wasn’t what we were initially looking for, but my wife and I can’t usually bring kids into a co-working location,” he said. 

Working tourism is growing in the Upper Peninsula, with many different types of employees taking time out of their vacation schedule to finish projects.

Others, like Jax Hollend, lives on the road. Hollend is a data-entry specialist and travels the country in his RV. From May-July 2022, Hollend visited multiple libraries in the Upper Peninsula to complete his work. He said that while he never had a problem finishing his work at any type of library, there were differences in the experience.

“You get to a regular library and it’s straight forward: art and books and reading nooks. A school-public library, it has life. There’s visuals and larger children's sections. It’s an active location, especially during the summer,” Hollend said. Everyone is going to have their preference where you work, but it was energizing to me to work (at a school-public).”

While students and bells might not be considered professional workplace environments, school-public libraries rarely, if ever, receive complaints from people looking for co-working spaces.

Even Stoush said his boss and coworkers laughed off the experience given the novelty. With increases in remote working since the COVID-19 pandemic, location is a second thought to the quality of internet connection and completion of necessary tasks.

First-time coworkers in school-public libraries recommend getting there early to get used to the feel of the space. Finding school-public libraries is a little harder than other libraries. School libraries usually have two entrances, one that leads into the school for students and faculty to use and the second public entrance in a tucked-away location further on the school grounds.

“I went around the block three or four times before it hit me that the school was also the library,” Petralia said. “The signs say school, it looks like a school, but Google was adamant that we were in the right spot and eventually we found the one sign that said library on it.”

Small differences from traditional co-working places can be overworked by taking a walk around first. 

“For me, the biggest difference was the furniture. Hard chairs, straight-forward tables — it wasn’t elegant by any means,” Hollend said. “It’s great when you are just looking to get work done quick and back out to the environment or your vacation.”

However, many people in support of libraries as a co-working space said they would reuse the services if they were needed again.

“It was a different experience than usual, but it still gave me everything that I needed to get my work done,” Stoush said.