21st Century Public Library As Business Incubator – Seriously?


As much as I encourage libraries to innovate and become something more, I am highly skeptical of this idea. This article at Atlantic Cities Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators has some interesting ideas, but it goes way out on a limb in trying to fabricate a new mission for the 21st Century Library.

Since it’s a short article, it is copied below in its entirety so there can be no accusations of taking anything out of context.

Co-working spaces are often treated today as a novelty, as a thoroughly modern solution to the changing needs of a workforce now more loyal to their laptops than any long-term employers. But the idea is actually as old as the public library.

One of the world’s first and most famous libraries, in Alexandria, Egypt, was frequently home some 2,000 years ago to the self-starters and self-employed of that era. “When you look back in history, they had philosophers and mathematicians and all sorts of folks who would get together and solve the problems of their time,” says Tracy Lea, the venture manager with Arizona State University’s economic development and community engagement arm. “We kind of look at it as the first template for the university. They had lecture halls, gathering spaces. They had co-working spaces.”

This old idea of the public library as co-working space now offers a modern answer – one among many – for how these aging institutions could become more relevant two millennia after the original Alexandria library burned to the ground. Would-be entrepreneurs everywhere are looking for business know-how and physical space to incubate their start-ups. 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.

Why not, Lea suggests, put these two ideas together? Arizona State is planning in the next few months to roll out a network of co-working business incubators inside public libraries, starting with a pilot in the downtown Civic Center Library in Scottsdale. The university is calling the plan, ambitiously, the Alexandria Network.

Participating libraries will host dedicated co-working spaces for the program, as well as both formal classes and informal mentoring from the university’s start-up resources. The librarians themselves will be trained by the university to help deliver some of the material. The network will offer everything, in short, but seed money. “As we develop this pilot and start to scale it out,” Lea adds, “we would like to be able to direct people on how to find those resources.”

Libraries also provide a perfect venue to expand the concept of start-up accelerators beyond the renovated warehouses and stylish offices of “innovation districts.” They offer a more familiar entry-point for potential entrepreneurs less likely to walk into a traditional start-up incubator (or an ASU office, for that matter). Public libraries long ago democratized access to knowledge; now they could do the same in a start-up economy.

“We refer to it as democratizing entrepreneurship,” Lea says, “so everyone really can be involved.”

Whoever dreamed up this idea is stretching the facts to fit the situation. Asserting that “… philosophers and mathematicians and all sorts of folks who would get together and solve the problems of their time” is inaccurate to say the least. They got together to share and discuss ideas and philosophy and never solved a single thing. That’s not the purpose of philosophy! Academicians solving problems is a modern invention. And, twisting the Alexandria library community into the modern concept of co-working spaces is another unfortunate distortion to find some support for the program they want to implement. Why anyone would go to such lengths to justify their actions only calls into question the efficacy of the endeavor. Why not just state; “we think this is a good idea for our communities, so we’re going to give it a try”?

There are numerous subject matter experts within the university library setting, that’s the way it is configured. There are history reference and research experts, literature, science, and of course business. But that’s not the way public library staff are organized. Anyone with a subject specialty has developed it on their own and in many cases don’t even have a venue within the public library to exercise that expertise.

Trying to make public library staff into business development subject experts is a recipe for disaster – for both the “would-be entrepreneur” and the library. Business expertise takes years of study and practice, and constant professional development to keep up with recent practices and innovations.

Unfortunately, this particular idea seems beyond the capabilities of a vast majority of public libraries. While most communities today could use as much boosting to their local economy as possible, the notion that libraries are capable of offering “professional guidance” for “a 21st century innovator” is grossly exaggerated. Either the author is horribly misinformed, or the person pushing this initiative is blatantly unfamiliar with the current librarianship professional.

If public library staff were capable of offering professional guidance to innovators and entrepreneurs, their own organization wouldn’t be in the desperate position libraries find themselves today – seeking a new mission. Public libraries offering Internet access – of course, offering co-working space – sure, offering reference materials – absolutely! But, professional business guidance – that’s delusional.

The Bayonne (NJ) Free Public Library and Cultural Center’s seminar to help growing small businesses seems much more appropriate – offering a venue to promote small business and providing access to creditable resources. “The seminar, entitled “Starting and Managing a Successful Business,” is presented by the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).”

“The librarians themselves will be trained by the university to help deliver some of the material.” In university language, deliver means teach. Most people who want to start their own business have no clue where to begin, and helping them get to the point of actually investing their own, or someone else’s money, is a huge liability. Not to mention that as soon as some disappointed, angry and bankrupt “would-be entrepreneur” decides it was the “professional guidance” they received at the library that sank their business, the library will be in for the lawsuit of its life. Libraries continue to be sued over much less.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “21st Century Public Library As Business Incubator – Seriously?

  1. Frank

    Hello Dr.Steve,

    If libraries want to become the community centers of the future then this idea fits. Can’t see how you can be sued for giving a seminar that the patron elects to sign up for, they already sign up for computer classes.
    I like the idea, nobody seems to know where the SCORE people are anyway and if they even exist, at least they would be more visible.

  2. Kay Dee

    If you can possibly attempt to set aside how poorly written this article is, then you have to simply shake your head at the “group-think” that must have gone into the absolutely ridiculous notion.
    Much like the notion of “Tax Forms-YES Tax Advice-NO”…public libraries supply access to information. This can take a hundred different forms including HOSTING seminars, reference material, databases, etc. NONE of these include becoming subject matter experts and teaching.
    Oh wait…that sounds suspiciously like the job of…oh I know…an ACADEMIC!
    Funny, seems like ASU Economic Dev Dept has figured out a way to pawn off its job onto the public library. What? Their own university librarians wouldn’t bite so they turn to the public library?
    HMPH!!! Silliness….plain and simple.

  3. As the former business librarian for the Glendale Public Library (AZ) which pioneered this type of program back in the 1990s, I have to it can work. I agree it is not the type of work that a generalist can do. I had a background in business and non-profit management going into the position to supplement my MLS. My successor had a business degree (along with the MLS) and worked in finance and operations for small business across Arizona. We came in with a distinct advantage.

    It is the type of work that public libraries should do? Most definitely, if it addresses a need or problem in the community . My experience was that the public library (in terms of its reach in the community) is better equipped to manage this than ASU. Of course, I think this just may be the nature of the Arizona or the West.

    I will be interested to see how the collaboration between Scottsdale Public and ASU evolves.

    • Thanks for that real-world experience perspective. I agree that public libraries MUST acquire strategic partnerships to provide relevant services to their community. Where possible, librarians’ special expertise is a huge asset as it is in any business. Hopefully, ASU will not ask these librarians to go beyond their level of expertise or education to provide “professional guidance” beyond the library’s collection resources.

  4. Bob Farwell

    Several years ago I discussed a modestly different version of this model with our local community development corporation. Their mandate is to attract businesses to Norwich (CT) and a specific goal is resuscitating the city center. I thought then and continue to believe that a start up business located in a public library, utilizing library resources has the potential to be a successful collaboration. Yes, most of us are generalists and are not going to provide some forms of esoteric information-or academic guidance- but we do have a wide variety of readily available resources and I would expect sponsoring agencies like our community development corporation to provide funding and support to ensure that particular needs are met. It is one possible scenario among many that public libraries might contemplate and with the proper agreements and support should embrace. (We also served as the site of a small private school, an arrangement that had potential but succumbed to the recession.)

    • Frank

      I agree, the evolution of information requires libraries to evolve as information centers for communities. Might as well, there will be fewer books on the shelves once publishers close their printing presses in favor of the cloud. Where’s Newsweek now, not on a periodical shelf, its in the cloud.

  5. I usually agree with your assessments and conclusions. However, I am most disappointed in your strong opposition to public libraries as “business incubators.” This partnership between ASU and the Scottsdale Public Library is a “pilot” program. In a nation where innovation, small business and creating opportunities is the way to succeed and achieve economic growth and wellness, this program makes excellent sense. Nowhere does it say librarians will become the experts in advising those who have ideas that could be the next “Google, Facebook, Groupon or whatever.”

    In conjuction with ASU’s business program, the library will be providing convenient access to space and hosting activities with expert professional and digital resources, opportunities for like thinkers to get together and create more than each could as individuals and who knows what other benefits might result.

    When public libraries can demonstrate how they contribute directly to economic growth and development in a city, county or state, then they will get the attention and opportunity for better funding on each of those levels. Clearly defining ourselves in other ways hasn’t succeeded.

    You should not comment on the value or perceived lack thereof related to this “pilot” project until it is implemente and evaluated in a reasonable time frame.

    • Laura,
      I think we still agree in general, just not on the specific issue of a public library being a business incubator. The opening line of the Post states: “As much as I encourage libraries to innovate and become something more, I am highly skeptical of this idea.” After critiquing their whole notion of imitating the Alexandria Library I stated: “Why not just state; “we think this is a good idea for our communities, so we’re going to give it a try”?” If it is a good idea it will stand on its own. It doesn’t need any elaborate justification.

      My main objection to the article – perhaps I should have given more leniency to the whole project, considering that reporters never get anything 100% correct – was the part of the plan where “Participating libraries will host dedicated co-working spaces for the program, as well as both formal classes and informal mentoring from the university’s start-up resources. The librarians themselves will be trained by the university to help deliver some of the material.”

      I am a trainer for many years, and a librarian for not quite as many. I know how inadequate and ineffective training can be, as do you I’m sure, especially concerning highly detailed and complex information being taught to people with no background in the subject. That is my only concern – “Trying to make public library staff into business development subject experts is a recipe for disaster – for both the “would-be entrepreneur” and the library.”

      I don’t oppose public libraries promoting or hosting “business incubator” projects – or entities like the incubator from ASU – and being an information materials resource provider for start-up, would-be business owners. It’s good for the community and definitely good for the library to be relevant to the community. A public library trying to be a business incubator is a recipe for disaster.

      • Just my two cents as a library user and not as liabarirn:Maybe I’m just too much of a pattern seeking animal. I get a little irritated when libraries start messing with Dewey. Our county library started splitting out the fiction by different categories; classics, suspense, science fiction, etc. Well if I want to find a book that fits more than one of those categories I have to try to guess how the powers that be decided to label it. Is 1984 under classic of science fiction? You can just imagine how frustrated I get in a book store. Anyway, If I get this frustrated I can only imagine how difficult it would be for some elementary school kids to find a book. Keep the AR books in with the rest.

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