How Public Libraries Are a Boon to Small Business

Information resources are especially valuable to entrepreneurs in tough times

August 13, 2012

Libraries from coast to coast have won accolades for being oases in the unemployment desert for millions of job seekers using their libraries’ free internet computers to sharpen their interview skills and sift through job boards. Much less recognized is that many libraries are also making important contributions to the nation’s economic recovery by assisting the job creators in small-to-medium-size businesses.

How important? “In the last 30 years, nearly all net new jobs were created by start-ups, and they will continue to play a critical role in America’s economic future,” noted the US Department of Commerce’s chief economist Mark Doms in a March 23, 2011, post to Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration blog about business startups. For their part, public libraries provided services to these small business owners and employees 2.8 million times every month, according to the OCLC report How Libraries Stack Up: 2010. One study estimated that the Free Library of Philadelphia alone provided almost $4 million in direct support to local businesses in 2010—and that did not include the exponential return to the community in new revenues generated by the 8,700 businesses that FLP aided, as well as the ripple effects of the spending of those businesses’ suppliers and employees in the local economy.

Unfortunately, libraries may be hiding their light under a bushel by failing to promote their business services on their websites. Many homepages display only a link to “job resources” or “databases” even when the library has a full business and investment reference department.

“The library has many programs that are competing” for promotional resources, explained Mark Andersen, chief of Chicago Public Library’s Business, Science, and Technology Division. Because business services are not highlighted, “a lot of people think the library is good for the kids and good for seniors. But during our [business resource] seminars, people will come up and say, ‘I never knew you had these things!’”

Business librarians step into the breach

Recognition definitely is not a problem in Carson City, Nevada, where the public library has set up a 4,000-square-foot facility in a downtown storefront. The branch anchors an 8,000-square-foot Business Resource Information Center (BRIC), which is seen as the catalyst for a major economic renewal in the state capital of 55,000, whose unemployment rate hovers, like the state’s, just below 12%. “While libraries across the country are cutting their hours or going away, our library opened a branch in the worst economy,” notes Deputy Library Director Tammy Westergard, who came from the city’s business development office to help Library Director Sara Jones reverse Carson City’s dubious designation in the January 19 online publication Wall Street Wire as the least-likely place in America to recover from the recession this year.

“We did it in a partnership with the city—with the city building, planning, licensing, and community development departments occupying the second floor,” she explains. “So it’s a seamless portal. People who want to start a business start with us because we can help them with market research, business planning classes, computers, and electronic resources such as sophisticated business-focused databases, and then they can go right upstairs.”

As the driving force behind a huge downtown revitalization project, the library will take center stage as part of a new 65,000-square-foot Knowledge + Discovery Center, with state-of-the-art digital media labs to train students in high-tech skills and a business incubation facility to encourage more entrepreneurs to build on what are currently six acres of parking lots. “It’s a miracle,” says Westergard, who admits that a serendipitous donation from the late matron of the city’s historic Nugget Casino and the sympathetic vision of the casino family foundation’s director made the exciting new development possible.

Show your stuff

While other libraries may not find the same unbridled enthusiasm as in Carson City, they may still be able to garner high-powered support by demonstrating their economic worth to local business leaders. “You have to go to the chamber [of commerce], go to Rotary, go to the Kiwanis, and write for newsletters and blogs to let the public know what you have,” recommended Nicolette Warisse Sosulski, business librarian for the Portage (Mich.) District Library and recipient of the 2011 Gale Cengage Learning Award for Excellence in Business Librarianship, administered by the Business Reference and Services Section of the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association. “You can’t just sit in your library, or nobody will come to you,” Sosulski said.

Starting a business is much more complicated than simply hanging a shingle, and libraries can help with a host of resources and programs. In addition to books and multimedia on creating and running a business, key items include sample business plans, model employee policies, and databases that can spin out community demographic info, industry trends, and sophisticated mailing lists. The Boeings and Motorolas think nothing about buying these resources for themselves, CPL’s Andersen said he learned long ago, but they make a huge difference to the entrepreneur who is struggling just to qualify for a loan.

But do not feel you have to know everything yourself, Sosulski added, who started out without any business background but has learned enough to lecture on this topic at library schools. “It’s just like any other subject. You are looking up sources, you’re investigating on the internet, you’re learning incrementally by helping patrons.” She encourages librarians to tap outside experts, too. The nonprofit SCORE association, a resource partner with the US Small Business Administration, often sends counselors to meet entrepreneurs in libraries, and city development advisors and successful local business owners can lead workshops on government licensing and regulations, legal contracts, financing, hiring employees, accounting, paying taxes, marketing, and advertising.

Equally valuable are library facilities: computers with internet access, faxes and copiers, and space for meetings and training. “It’s like we’re sitting on a gold mine,” said Kristin McDonough, director of the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry, and Business Library. “They can reserve meeting rooms so they can meet their clients. We let them use cellphones in low voices in certain sections of the library. They can network after work and at our lunchtime seminars. We don’t let people sell widgets here—but they can do a lot of business.”

As might be expected, NYPL’s NYC Small Business Resource Center is huge and offers 10–15 free workshops every week. “But it has to be reciprocal,” McDonough added. “Bartering is a big practice I’ve noticed with start-ups, and space for meetings is a premium everywhere,” she said. So consider offering groups a place to meet in exchange for a workshop on their area of expertise. For instance, McDonough’s library hosts the Green Breakfast Club, which brings environmentally conscious entrepreneurs together, and its effervescent founder, Danielle Lanyard, reciprocates. “Everywhere Lanyard goes now, she talks about the library,” McDonough said. “She can convene a meet-up on a Friday night in a big law firm of 400 20-somethings, and she talks about us and hands out our literature. That is much more effective than us putting up a big sign in the library, because she is with it, and hip and cool!”

“I think of us as being connectors,” said Andersen, who also recommends forming relationships with professional associations, universities, and lesser-known private agencies. “The library is a central location. Other agencies do workshops in their places, but a lot of people don’t normally come through their space. Having them come here helps their visibility.” And then they will send their clients to your library.

Tips for Enhancing Business Services

  • Post a pathfinder to resources on your website. Outline all the steps involved in a business start-up as well as how to use your resources. Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library is an excellent example with its business and career center site.
  • Databases and other online services are often available through state library associations or regional consortiums. If you are purchasing your own, look carefully at all your options and keep reevaluating new products. Gale Cengage, for instance, recently released its DemographicsNow: Business & People database, which it says is powerful enough to replace two or three other popular services.
  • Choose trade journals that fit your local markets, which might mean fashion design in New York but food trucks in Chicago and agriculture in Carson City.
  • Attend business functions to listen for trends and topics for your programs and to identify speakers. You may persuade even professional speakers to appear pro bono because they may wind up with a customer or two at the end of their program.
  • Record your workshop speakers for videos or podcasts on your website or on YouTube. Keep them short, or edit them into focused segments. Link to good programs on other library sites as well. The New York and Simsbury, Connecticut, libraries have very good collections.
  • Join BRASS, the Business Reference and Services Section of ALA’s Reference and User Services Association (RUSA). The BRASS website offers some wonderful information, and you can learn even more by networking with others in field.

The Basic Business Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2011) includes a chapter with predictions for the future of business information services. It foresees continued growth in “collaborative ventures between the public librarian, neighborhoods, and businesspeople.” And most prescient of all, it says “the expansion of quality business services directly into neighborhoods will be a positive force in the never-ending public library funding battle.”

BRADLEY COLLINS is an MLIS student at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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