Reimagining the library as an Anti-Café

Reimagining the library as an Anti-Café

Ema Engel-Johnson

It is quite difficult to think of a social space that is truly free of costs and social boundaries. Parks, beaches and woodlands would fit this bill in the natural outdoors. Indoors, the public library is the only readily available option. First established in Campfield, Manchester, libraries have been a public right since 1850, yet heavy cuts and closures are putting their existence at risk. The institution may have lost its identity and relevance for some, as library usage between 2005-2015 fell most in the 16-24 age group. Growing up with multiple digital interfaces for leisure and knowledge exchange, a library may not be experienced or understood, by young people as an inviting and enriching space.

Through my on-going research, I have found that this is not the case for older people. Some older people may own a smart phone and PC device, but they do not transfer material practices over to the digital world easily. The traditional paper book is still favoured, as is renting audio books from the library as opposed to downloading them. Furthermore, the library is the sole source of Internet or computer access for many.  It also acts as the access point for immigrants to a new area, an important place for grappling with social system bureaucracy and connecting older people and job seekers caught in the digital divide.

Libraries have been underfunded and disregarded for over a decade but this has not gone unnoticed. A BBC 2016 report documented that since 2010, 8000 library jobs have been lost while 15,500 volunteers have been recruited. This is the result of communities stepping in to uphold the service when closure is threatened. Nonetheless, public financial support and input is vital to shape library services for those who use and need it most.

The library taskforce, in Libraries 2016 – 2021 report that, as an institution, libraries must innovate and become community hubs. Such innovations do not have to be grand or expensive. Inspiration can be found in the principles of the English coffee houses of the 1650’s and the future focused anti-cafés surfacing in European cities today. In fact, these principles have been harnessed, in part unknowingly and by experimentation, in a library ‘living room’ in Blackpool.

The first coffee houses in the 1650’s were male only spaces and labelled ‘Penny Universities’, the penny entry afforded access to the common man not just elites or academics. They were renowned for debates, knowledge creation and exchange among strangers. (A.Ellis, 1956, M.Ellis, 2004). Dr Matthew Green describes the coffee house as a place where men would walk in, sit down and ask a stranger ‘what news have you’, with a view to engage in a lively exchange. Coffee houses became popular for intellectual and sober conviviality, in contrast to the alehouses of the time. They provided a space, in the ‘enlightenment period’, which allowed social, political and economic thought to flourish. The newspapers and the London stock exchange are documented to have their beginnings in London coffee houses.

Contemporary coffee shops, offer a far more bland and privatised social experience, yet provide an important space for a variety of people. A getaway space for homeworkers, a safe and sober date space, a student hang out, an open place for mums and children and a social space for older people. Just as the globalised restaurant industry experienced a backlash against blandness in the form of supper clubs or ‘anti-restaurants’, the ‘anti-café’ has now emerged. These counter-cultural spaces have similar intent to the historic coffee house. I would suggest that with subtle inexpensive changes local public libraries could become similar spaces.

Ziferblat is a Russian born brand of anti- café, which are also known as a ‘pay as you go’ cafés, currently. I visited Ziferblat in Manchester, housed on the first floor of an office space in the Northern Quarter, one damp Tuesday night. There are numerous sofas, armchairs and table configurations. I sat at an old writing desk with a piano in front of it. There were around eight other people present, the majority are sitting alone. I went over to the kitchen, which in contrast to the lounge area was brightly lit. There is a long island resembling an office grazing table crossed with a children’s birthday buffet with jars of Bombay mix, wagon wheels cut in half, mini Bakewell tarts in aluminium cases, slices of lemon loaf and coffee cake, jugs of cucumber water and squash.

Returning to relax into my seat I noticed a young couple playing Connect 4; they did not look old enough to frequent the bars across the street. A young mid twenty’s man was sitting on the floor, one phone charging and another in his hand. Another young man walked in, got a drink, and sat down at the piano. He turned the radio off and struck up a loud moody melody sliding into softer dulcet tones, for about half an hour. Totally immersed in his own performance, he was obviously surprised at the gentle applause. He turned the radio back on and moved to slouch on a sofa.

The piano playing transformed the atmosphere of the space unexpectedly and it is quite difficult to imagine many other public social outlets where similar experiences are possible. I consumed; a mug of tea, a coffee, two glasses of squash and a vegan hobnob alongside an intimate piano session for £8.48 (calculated at 8p per minute for 146 minutes). The anti-café shares interesting symmetries with a Camerado ‘living room’. Albeit serving a different customer.

Camerados aim to create intergenerational spaces, which produce ‘friends and purpose’ to break down social isolation. Their living room/cafe in Blackpool central library was a pop up model, but recognised for its value by Public Health England and funded for a further year. Older people frequent the space as customers and volunteers, as do marginalised male groups, some recovering from addiction and/or depression.

Situated opposite the central job centre the library attracts the unemployed jobseeker pre-or post-appointment. The library manager had previously rented the same space as a café, to increase visitor numbers, but it was handed back after a year as it was unprofitable. Camerados operates a small low cost menu with the option to “Pay it forward”, which means customers can purchase a meal or donate enough additional money to pay for those who cannot afford to buy lunch.

Camerados is described as “… a new kind of public space where you can go to hang out, regroup, or just be.”  On one particular visit, five women sat knitting all afternoon, accompanied by a man asleep in his coat and hat. A young man, rucksack and book in hand, joined the space, he did not purchase anything, and proceeded to read before also dosing. There was music, which carried softly to fill the large library space. Two more young men entered chatting loudly.  They noticed the man in the coat and hat, one roughed up his head saying “alright fella” followed by “you wanna brew?”. Over the afternoon, the sofas were frequented by lone men in mid to later life. They chatted about their frustrations, “I have to fill in the bloody thing online …and for what? to be told I’ve done it wrong…”, “I know… and after that am left with £32 quid for the week, that’s for my gas, electric and everything out of that”. The living room provides some men with an important outlet, delivering calm comfort, for sometimes sombre reflection and open engagement with others.

In my experience of observing neighbourhood library spaces in different parts of the country, computers are rarely unoccupied and while the book isles are empty the sofas and worktables are busy. While using a computer I have been asked for help with: a national insurance application, printing immigration documents and accessing a practice driving theory test. Expert knowledge is not always the paramount need in a library, social support and engagement is equally, if not more, helpful.

The library is a significant ‘third place’ undervalued and out of the frame of reference for many making the decisions to cut the service. Oldenberg (1982) describes the ‘third place’ as simply a place for people to gather, the first place being home and the second work. He notes that third places serve as “ports of entry” for visitors and newcomers to the neighbourhood, where “directions and other information can easily be obtained” This is the epitome of the library.

The anti-café and library living room reveal organisational changes of space that can transform the types of production, consumption and exchange possible in public places. Ziferblat aims to make a profit, whereas Blackpool library has shown that the benefit of anti-café style spaces is not simply as an opportunistic revenue stream. The key lies in reimagining the public library as a place of co-production, social engagement and support. As a public service, libraries cost each person in the UK 27p a week. From my observations libraries are local living, breathing centres of life, which represent value and a range of benefits that are often intangible. In this context it is difficult to justify any further cuts. We are facing future demographic shifts that will see seven million more people approach retirement age in the UK by 2039.  A major concern in relation to the ageing population is how public finances will cope. How can we link health and social care services better, or employ preventative measures for improved health?  We need more innovative thinking (and some resources) to foreground and developing libraries as dynamic, progressive and convivial spaces, which offer a counter to social isolation.

Ellis, A. (1956). The Penny universities: A history of the coffee-houses. London: Secker & Warburg.
Ellis, M. (2004). The coffee-house: A cultural history. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Green, M., & Alice Smith. (2015). London: A travel guide through time. London: Michael Joseph.
Oldenburg, Ramon, and Dennis Brissett (1982). “The third place.” Qualitative sociology 5.4: 265-284.


Ema Engel-Johnson is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester. Her present research focuses on the meal provisioning practices of solo older households. Overall her research interests are within alternative approaches to meal provision, commensal relationships, neighbourhood third spaces, and social participation.  

Image Credit: Picture taken inside Milton Keynes central library, a mural by Boyd and Evans 1984