Five Ways Local Libraries Can Help Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs
They are the superheroes of economic development in every community
Local libraries can enhance their services as an essential information provider for small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs, turning librarians into heroes that help grow local economies and new jobs. In the last 30 years, nearly all net new jobs have been created by small businesses. Public libraries provide service to small businesses 2.8 million times each month, according to the OCLC report How Libraries Stack Up, verifying how important libraries are to small business success. As an example, the Free Library of Philadelphia by itself was reported to have provided over $4 million in direct support to local businesses.
Today, libraries face new realities in their mission to remain the reliable, valuable, and trusted source of information that help small businesses grow. Changes in the economy, data information, and technology are producing challenges and possibilities for libraries.
Innovative librarians that take advantage of new opportunities will establish their libraries as a nexus of small business assistance and entrepreneurship.
Here are 5 effective things smart libraries can do to positively impact small businesses and local entrepreneurship:
1. Promote that you help business.
People incorrectly think that libraries are just for kids when they are actually one of the best resources anywhere for local businesses. Overcome outdated perceptions and reach out to the business community to let them know the resources you have to help them succeed. You can do this through city newsletters, a presentation to your local chamber of commerce, providing literature at your city economic development office, providing direct hyperlink access to resources on your library website, targeted advertising of business-focused social platforms like Linkedin, and through strategic partnerships. Libraries have many programs that compete for promotional resources but business services must be prioritized to become well known. “I would say that it is definitely not intuitive for people thinking of starting a business to start at the library. I think it is paramount that you develop key partnerships,” said Laura Metzler, Business Librarian, at the Cecil County Public Library, Maryland.
2. Make a difference with data.
Updated market research is defining the business winners and losers in today’s information economy. Libraries are uniquely positioned to be able to provide business intelligence through data subscriptions that small businesses and entrepreneurs can’t afford on their own. According to American Libraries magazine, data services are a key element of library small business assistance and online databases that provide community demographic information, industry trends, and marketing insights are resources that libraries provide to meet today’s business needs. Mark Andersen, chief of Chicago Public Library’s Business, Science, and Technology Division learned that, “The Boeings and Motorolas think nothing about buying these resources for themselves… but they make a huge difference to the entrepreneur who is struggling just to qualify for a loan.” For example, Pasco County, Florida’s library provides local business intelligence assistance using SizeUp LBI and other libraries can also license this high-quality small business intelligence for themselves and easily add it to their websites. Fast Company points out that “Arguably the most valuable aspect of libraries are their role in leveling the playing field.” When libraries provide small businesses with data subscriptions to this type of market research it reveals insights through the type of data that was previously only available to large corporations.
3. Make space.
Libraries can directly connect entrepreneurs with the government services they need to open their business. Carson City, Nevada’s library opened an 8,000 square foot Business Resource Information Center. “We did it in a partnership with the city — with the city building, planning, licensing, and community development departments occupying the second floor,” said Deputy Library Director Tammy Westergard. “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.” Libraries can also become physical incubators for small businesses. “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.”
4. Collaborate with business assistance experts.
Libraries are a frequent physical home to the numerous Small Business Development Centers across the USA. You can also invite other organizations such as the US Small Business Administration (SBA), SCORE, and local economic development office to provide trainings in your library meetings rooms or auditoriums. Your local businesses can also provide trainings, workshops, and “lunch and learn” sessions at your library on legal, accounting, employment, marketing, tax, e-commerce, and other small business-related topics.
5. Tailor your content to local industries.
Each community has different industries that are prominent to your area. In your region it may be agriculture, technology, manufacturing, or business services. Make sure that the trade journals and magazines you subscribe to match the businesses that are already located in your community and remember that the more specialized your information is to match the specific sub-industry segments present in your community the more relevant information and value you are providing. Online databases with business information enable your local companies to search for information directly relevant to their unique industries.
As The Atlantic City Lab points out, “Libraries meanwhile may be associated today with an outmoded product in paper books. But they also happen to have just about everything a 21st century innovator could need: Internet access, work space, reference materials, professional guidance.” Rebecca Cruz, Creative Computer Commons Manager in Pikes Peak Library District explains in Public Libraries Online, the two primary ways that innovative libraries can help small businesses are by 1. offering space to work and 2. providing research in the form of databases for market analysis, finding customers, demographic analysis, and business location evaluation.
Small businesses need information about their industries and libraries are “a great starting place, as you can find answers to questions like ‘What new technologies are impacting the microbrewery market’ or ‘What’s the growth rate of the bakery café market?’ or even, ‘How much do juice bars typically spend on advertising?’. Small business owners need answers to questions like these in order to size up the competition, analyze their likelihood of success, or even draw up (or revise) a business plan.”
Morgan Miller, Director at the Cecil County Public Library in Maryland, explains that libraries are well equipped to provide resources, research, and connections to help before an entrepreneur even has a business or marketing plan. Miller also points out that “a report from the American Library Association describes how libraries advance small business as the ‘People’s Incubator,’… ever since the Philadelphia Free Library, created by Benjamin Franklin, brought together artisans and tradesmen to develop growth for business. The concept of public libraries targeting their unique resources to advance businesses may sound like a new idea, but it is as old as our country itself”.  Miller elaborates on this concept explaining that the Small Business Information Center of the library “connects entrepreneurs with information, data and the research they need to launch and grow their business. Before people can go to the Economic Development Department or go to a bank for financing they need a business plan — where do you go? How do you do it? How do you perform a competitor analysis and develop a marketing plan?”
Libraries should be that place.
About the author: Anatalio Ubalde is Managing Director of GIS Planning, a service of the Financial Times.
 “Business Startups: Why Entrepreneurs Didn’t Start Up in 2009 and Why That’s Likely to Change,” Speech by Mark Doms, Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Commerce. March 23, 2011.
 “Who Needs Business School? The Hidden Startup Resources At Your Local Library,” by Smantha Cole. Fast Company. April 24, 2014.
 “Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators” by Emily Badger in Atlantic Cities. February 19, 2013.
 “Conducting Business in the Library,” by Rebecca Cruz in Public Libraries Online. March 28, 2013
 “Top 3 Library Services for Your Small Business,” Ahmad El-Najjar. December 15, 2016. Townsquared Resources.
 “Libraries and the Business Community: A Success Story,” by Thomas Vose. September 18, 2017.