Updated with New Case Studies
Creating an Entrepreneur-Friendly Public Library
Economic Gardening Articles and Resources
Read about economic gardening in this bibliography of current publications.
Free and Low-Cost Information Resources for Supporting Local Entrepreneurs (Revised and Expanded April 2010)
Where can you find strategic information to help small and medium-sized businesses in your community grow and become more successful? Learn about free and low-cost resources to do business research.
Supporting Entrepreneurship Blog
Best practices and research on supporting entrepreneurship
Public Libraries and Community Economic Development: Partnering for Success
Read Christine's article from the Winter 2008 issue of the Rural Research Report.
Libraries Supporting Entrepreneurship
Christine was recently interviewed by Sarah Long, Director of the North Suburban Library System (Illinois) on the benefits of public libraries supporting outside entrepreneurship.
Finding Competitive Information for Growing Companies
What information do entrepreneurs need to grow their companies, and where can you find it? Read Christine's recent article in FUMSI magazine (part of the Freepint.com community)
Comments about recent workshops:
"Excellent workshop. The mix of librarians and economic developers was helpful in making connections and in understanding each other's roles. Thanks for a great session!"
—Meme Martin, Economic Development Manager, Douglas County, Colorado
"Are you interested in exploring the role of public libraries in encouraging local business development, especially novice entrepreneurs? If so, and you are looking for someone who not only grasps the principles of 'economic gardening' but can help you to implement them, look no further. Christine is an inspiring speaker on this topic, but will leave you with more than the memory of an entertaining session--you will be equipped to act decisively to make your library a 'player' in economic development in your community."
—Dr. Keith Curry Lance, Director (retired), Library Research Service
"Christine did a wonderful job in her presentation of the 'Connecting the Dots' workshop to our Northern Colorado regional libraries and economic development partners. It provided a rare opportunity for both communities of professionals to understand the effect each have on the local economy and each other."
—Kelly Peters, (former) Economic Development Manager, City of Greeley, Colorado
"I have partnered with Christine both formally and informally since 1993. She is smart, focused, articulate, a great synthesizer of ideas, very effective as a presenter, can execute complex projects, works well with others, cares about doing the right thing, a very hard worker and, I believe, at the cutting edge in her approach to community economic development and connecting libraries and the business community. I always enjoy the opportunity to work with her, and can recommend her as a trainer, researcher and consultant."
—Pat Wagner, Co-Owner, Pattern Research
"The 'Connecting the Dots' workshop was an excellent chance to network with other professionals in the area and learn from them as well as the excellent presenter Christine Hamilton-Pennell. I firmly believe that all libraries have a place in supporting local economic development, so the workshop gave me the chance to invite senior managers along so that they also could see opportunities available for library support of and from local business. One segment of the workshop was particularly valuable to me: the profile of the typical entrepreneur—how they think, operate, approach business. That by itself allows librarians to gain the knowledge to empathize with local business owners and partner with them effectively."
—Pamm Clements, Technology Training Librarian, Fort Collins Public Library
Libraries are natural partners in local economic development efforts. To be successful, aspiring entrepreneurs need good information—about their markets, customers, industry, and competitors. Libraries have trained information providers who know how to access and use information resources to answer specific questions.
We offer training to public and university library staff to help them connect to and support economic development initiatives in their communities.
Rationale for Our Public Library Training Program
Recently, there has been a groundswell of interest among the library community in measuring the impact of the public library on the local economy. In January of 2007, the Urban Libraries Council published a report, Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development, based on a commissioned study. In the preface, the authors state:
This study finds that the return on investment in public libraries not only benefits individuals, but also strengthens community capacity to address urgent issues related to economic development. Public libraries are increasingly finding their “fit” in the formal and informal network of changing agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and community organizations working together to elevate levels of education and economic potential, making cities stronger. (p. 1)
Identifying the role of public libraries in providing small business support, the report further states that
- Researchers find that when libraries work with local and state agencies to provide business development data, workshops and research, market entry costs to prospective small businesses are reduced, existing businesses are strengthened, and new enterprises are created. (p. 3).
Other areas that are addressed in the report include the public library’s role in improving early literacy and school readiness, developing workforce capacity, and creating a vibrant sense of place in the local community.
In the past five years or so, several states and communities have undertaken studies of the return on investment (ROI) or economic impact of public libraries. The very fact that these studies exist attests to the growing awareness of those in the public library community that the existence of the public library as an institution cannot be taken for granted, and that the library needs to demonstrate its value to the community or risk becoming irrelevant, marginalized, or obsolete. Some of the recent studies on public library ROI include:
- Taxpayer Return on Investment in Florida Public Libraries (2004)
- Value for Money: Southwestern Ohio’s Return from Investment in Public Libraries (2006)
- The Economic Impact of Public Libraries on South Carolina (2005)
- Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Economic Impact Study (2006)
- The Role of Public Libraries in Local Economic Development (Kansas, 2000)
In general, these studies show an ROI of two to six times the level of public investment in the library. They address issues such as the library’s role in job creation, early literacy training, and workforce development.
There has also been a shift in the emphasis in local economic development strategies in recent years. The recruiting or “attraction” business model that has been the focus since the 1930s has become less viable as manufacturing has moved overseas and more communities are competing to recruit the same companies. Communities have started to focus on business retention and expansion (BRE) in addition to attraction, and more recently, on supporting entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy.
One of the programs developed under the entrepreneurship umbrella is economic gardening, pioneered in Littleton, Colorado, in the late 1980s. This model focuses on supporting local entrepreneurs through development of physical infrastructure, human capital, and information resources that are needed for local entrepreneurs to achieve competitive success. It is a “grow your own” model versus hunting or recruiting model, with a particular focus on high-growth businesses. Economic gardening programs have begun to spring up across the country (and internationally as well), and there is great interest in how to implement such programs at the local or regional level.
Role of Public Libraries in Economic Development
Public libraries would seem to be a natural partner for local economic gardening and other entrepreneurship efforts. They are usually centrally located in a community, offer meeting space, and provide a variety of information resources. Larger public libraries usually offer business-related databases and other business reference materials, as well as librarians trained in responding to business research requests.
Given the central role of the public library in so many communities, and its proven positive economic impact, why haven’t public libraries played a more central role in community economic development?
It is a complex issue that involves a number of factors:
- Public librarians do not typically understand economic development strategies or how the library itself is part of the economic (as opposed to the cultural) fabric of the community.
- Many public librarians do not understand the needs of the small business owner or entrepreneur, and do not have a “business” perspective. There are notable exceptions to this, of course, especially in urban areas.
- Many small and rural libraries do not have professional librarians who have training in business research or tools.
- The budgets for some public libraries are so small that they are not able to afford online databases or a viable business reference collection.
- Library staff members have not traditionally been proactive in supporting business or economic development groups. Some of this may be due to a “mindset” that people need to come to them, or that it is not part of their role to be active outside the library walls. In some cases, the library board does not support this kind of activity. As a result of this, economic development specialists rarely include public librarians when they assemble their teams.
In short, there is both a knowledge and resource gap between the role that public libraries could play in enhancing local economic development, and the role they currently play. This proposal is an attempt to bridge that gap.
Previous Public Library Training Initiatives
There was an interest in this topic about ten years ago. Pat Wagner, a library consultant who made a presentation in the mid-1990s on the economic impact of public libraries in Kentucky, remembers that the impetus did not come from the library side, but from an outside group.
Likewise, a statewide training program for public librarians took place during the same time period in Illinois. A series of seminars called “Preparing Librarians for a New Role in Economic Development” were taught across the state, and public librarians were surveyed to assess their level of involvement in community economic development activities. The impetus came from the Illinois State Library with funding from a federal Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) grant, but the program was developed and administered through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), located at Western Illinois University. Reporting on the initiative, the authors of Enhancing Economic Development Through Libraries state in their introduction,
- Local librarians in small communities often possess skills and knowledge useful in assisting community leaders to chart a course of action to improve local economic conditions. In the past, however, they have not been active in these or other civic activities. They often do not realize their potential for involvement and the opportunities available to them to work with community leaders for community betterment. Lack of familiarity with business practices and relatively little formal training in economic development activities have prevented librarians from active involvement in local economic development organizations and programs. (p. 1)
They identify several key issues that emerged as a result of the “New Role” seminars:
1. Librarians were interested and willing to assume new roles in supporting economic development when, and if, the library board allowed them to participate and raised the necessary funds to do so.
2. There is clear evidence that librarians have a serious role to play in supporting local community efforts. Their precise involvement usually depends both on the personality and interests of the librarians and on opportunities for involvement in the community.
3. Where librarians have actively supported local development efforts, both the library and the community have benefited.
4. Continued success will require that librarians receive additional training in local development practices as well as in data analysis, presentation, and marketing techniques.
5. The rapid growth of the Internet and its potential for information processing are quickly changing the role played by public libraries, especially in small communities.
Although the landscape for public libraries has changed dramatically in the last ten years, the outline and scope of that program are still relevant today. I spoke to Dr. John Gruidl, Professor of Economics at Western Illinois University and head of the Midwest Community Development Institute of IIRA, who was involved in the initial training program. He believes the model is even more relevant today with the shifting emphasis in the economic development world on supporting entrepreneurship as a key economic development strategy, and with the explosion of information available online.
Building Public Library Capacity in Local Economic Development Efforts
There is clearly an opportunity to leverage the knowledge and build the capacity of public librarians to support economic development initiatives in their local or regional areas. The public library world seems to understand the need to demonstrate the return on investment of public dollars invested in the institution. Local public librarians want their libraries to be an integral part of their community, and want the support of their local civic and community leaders. When libraries are actively involved in local community and economic development efforts, both the library and the community reap the rewards.
Three areas can assist public librarians in building their capacity to be effective players in their communities:
- The Economic Development Role of Librarians.
A conceptual framework to help them understand their role in economic development and to help them think strategically about how to connect with and support local entrepreneurship efforts.
- Business and Information Needs.
An understanding of the information needs of the business community and knowledge of the resources required to respond to those needs.
- Librarians as Proactive Players in Communities.
A marketing “mindset” that helps librarians become involved as active participants in their local business communities, or in efforts to create entrepreneurial communities.