New role for public libraries: small business incubators

Libraries already serve as de facto employment opportunity and training centers. Why not extend these supportive environments to startups and small businesses?

The ultimate coworking space may have already been sitting in the middle of your town or city for decades now -- the public library.

That's the view The Atlantic's Emily Badger puts forth in this proposal that provides an aging institution a new mission that makes really good use of tax dollars, while providing venues that promote startups and entrepreneurship. Libraries "have just about everything a 21st century innovator could need: Internet access, work space, reference materials, professional guidance," she observes.

For the past few years, public libraries have been seeing strong demand to serve as resource centers for unemployed or underemployed job hunters, providing career reference materials and Internet access.

In a survey of 730 library managers I helped conduct in conjunction with Library Resource Guide, we found that many see their institutions as hubs that will help address the gap between unemployment and skills shortages among employers. Seven out of ten report increasing demand for Internet access, and more than one-third say they are seeing more patrons seeking technical information/training or job search/career  development information.

By extension, if public libraries are operating as de facto employment opportunity and training centers, it's not too much of a stretch to see them providing supportive environments for startups and small businesses.

Some libraries are already re-inventing themselves as 3D printing centers or hackerspaces. In 2011, the Fayetteville Free Library of Fayetteville, NY assumed a new mission in efforts to serve its constituencies with 3D printing facilities -- the “FFL Fab Lab” is a space set aside with 3D printing technology, which seeks to encourage innovation and learning of the concept.

Badger says the idea of transforming libraries into small business workspaces will soon be put to practice by Arizona State University, which intends 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 plan is ambitious:

"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.”

(Photo credit: U.S. Bureau for Ocean Energy Management.)

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