Daily Archives: February 22, 2013

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.

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