During National Library Week ALA spotlighted public libraries’ support for entrepreneurs and small businesses in a briefing for policymakers on Capitol Hill. The event, “Libraries Build Business: Entrepreneurship and Economic Opportunity,” featured librarians from Appleton (Wisc.) Public Library and Roxbury (N.J.) Public Library in conversation with leaders from the National League of Cities and the U.S. Small Business Administration about libraries’ ideal position to advance shared goals: making entrepreneurship attainable for underserved residents, fostering local-level economic growth and providing small business owners with resources and supportive networks.
Elected leaders and congressional staff are often surprised by the vast resources that public libraries offer – computers, free internet access, printers, scanner, recording equipment, work and conference spaces. The “Libraries Build Business” discussion focused on an even more vital but often overlooked resource: public library professionals themselves. Librarians serve as navigators, not only of the library services, but community resources and services. Key takeaways from the briefing highlighted the role of library workers to advance economic growth in communities:
Libraries serve as community anchor institutions to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with tools and mentors. Library Director Radwa Ali of Roxbury Public Library observed that libraries that have built relationships with businesses and organizations in their localities are uniquely positioned to understand the needs of their communities, in addition to their individual patrons. Public libraries are best suited to discover untapped opportunities to help local businesses. Community Partnerships Supervisor Adriana McCleer of Appleton Public Library stated, “Library workers are the connectors that link people to the information, opportunity, space, or resources they need or want in a timely and accessible manner.”
Libraries help make entrepreneurship resources accessible for marginalized residents of a community. National League of Cities (NLC) Program Director Cori Rice, who oversees the City Inclusive Entrepreneurship Program, observed that inequities in access to capital, mentorship, and support networks widen racial wealth gaps and hamper the economic potential and self-sufficiency of communities. While access to capital should be a major component of any policy supporting small businesses, other services geared towards individuals previously excluded from market and skill development are essential. City governments cannot
do this unilaterally, and public librarians, acting as a trusted intermediary, provide free materials, and bring resources out of city halls to where people are located.
Libraries are valuable partners for existing small business support organizations. Successful small businesses are typically part of a larger ecosystem in their community. U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Senior Advisor Anna Lucas noted during the presentation that the reach of SBA networks, such as the Community Navigator Pilot Program, can be expanded by partnering with local libraries. While seeking out entrepreneurship resources can be a confusing process, people know exactly where to find their library.
Attended by dozens of Hill staff, local library professionals and ALA staff, the event title took its name from ALA’s Libraries Build Business
initiative. From 2020 to 2022, ALA partnered with 13 public libraries in 12 U.S. states to build library capacity for offering programs, services and resources to current and prospective small business owners. Libraries Build Business impacted over 14,000 individuals who participated in workshops, used co-working spaces and creation labs, checked out specialized equipment and utilized services such as trademark searches. The initiative served rural and urban libraries of varying sizes and budgets, providing support to groups underrepresented in the small business community.
Read our newest policy brief, One Small Business at a Time, to see how ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office is positioning the nation’s public libraries as hubs for entrepreneurship.