Before her library had any business programs, Geeta Halley would often direct patrons from the reference desk to books about starting their own businesses.
“The more that they came to the desk, the more I realized, once they took the books off the shelves and left, what happens after that?” said Halley, assistant director of Round Rock (Tex.) Public Library (RRPL). “How do they grow forward and expand their businesses?”
Halley and others spoke about libraries supporting entrepreneurs at the June 24 session “Fostering Economic Opportunity and Advancement with Innovative Programming” at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago. They all participated in ALA’s Libraries Build Business (LBB) initiative, run through the Association’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office (PPAO).
“For small businesses, libraries are the front door to the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Megan Janicki, PPAO’s deputy director of strategic initiatives.
Halley organized the library’s first business plan competition, an extension of RRPL’s longstanding Biz.ability workshop program for small businesses, using LBB funding and donations from local partners—including Dell, which is headquartered in Round Rock—to offer a $10,000 grand prize.
Ideas like these, she said, have helped her connect with first-time, otherwise “unreachable” patrons. “It just changed how [RRPL] is viewed now in our community,” she said.
Jennifer Byrnes, director of the Business Insight Center at Rochester (N.Y.) Public Library (RPL) has also relied on community partnerships to expand programs for local entrepreneurs, specifically those in the cannabis industry.
Working with HempLab NYC, a cannabis business incubator, RPL began offering programs particularly for the “legacy community,” those who sold cannabis prior to legalization in their states. This is a way to even the playing field for communities most affected by mass incarceration prior to legalization, Byrnes said.
“They are masters of supply, demand, and distribution,” she said of legacy sellers. “But they are not so good at paperwork or taxes because they’re all new concepts to them.”
Part of RPL’s services include connecting entrepreneurs to free financial and legal experts and hosting a monthly industry meetup that covers everything “from seed to sale.” This April, Byrnes’ team also helped launch the New York State Library of Cannabis, an online repository of resources for those looking to enter the industry.
New York legalized recreational marijuana use in 2021 but, since it’s still federally prohibited, federally-funded support organizations can’t assist entrepreneurs the same way local organizations like libraries can in states where it’s legal, Byrnes said. “I would encourage you to work with this population because there’s no one out there that’s going to do it,” said Byrnes.
The idea of creating small business programming may be intimidating to some librarians, said Andrea Levandowski, library consultant for small business development and technology at the New Jersey State Library. She’s creating a toolkit to help connect teens to entrepreneurial opportunities through makerspaces. But libraries’ more traditional services, like storytimes or programs for older adults, are only possible when a thriving tax base can invest in institutions.
“Business owners are members of the community,” Levandowski said. “They are users of the library. They’re not the Elon Musks of the world. They are running businesses out of their homes, people trying side hustles in their spare time, doing passion projects or creative pursuits. The library is a perfect home for those people.”