Library Entrepreneurship Programming: What the Public Knows

In this article, we share findings from a nationwide survey of the US public’s awareness and use of libraries’ entrepreneurship programs and services.

by Bennett AttawayJohn VoiklisRebecca Joy NorlanderShaun Field
Mar 31, 2022

Libraries across the United States provide a range of programs and services to their communities. Some of these offerings are designed to support patrons who are considering entrepreneurship and those who have already launched businesses. But when people think about the entrepreneurship resources available to them, does their local library come to mind? This is one of the questions at the heart of a national survey conducted by Knology researchers to understand the role libraries play in their local entrepreneurship ecosystem.

This survey was part of an effort to evaluate Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs, an initiative of the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) that is funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Knology was commissioned by the Kauffman Foundation to develop library case studies that illustrate how entrepreneurship programming practices are supporting library users. As part of that work, Knology deployed a national survey to explore these ideas with current and past entrepreneurs or people who hope to start their own business in the future. We asked this group what they knew about entrepreneurship resources at their local library, whether and how they used those resources, and their goals for their businesses.

Our prior qualitative case study research identified various library services that might be valuable to current or potential entrepreneurs. These included business books and reference guides, space for meetings and events, business-related databases and reference resources, and mentorship opportunities. The research also explored reasons why those services are perceived as valuable. This knowledge informed the development of our survey. In the survey, we asked about both the library resources respondents had made use of and those they would use if available, as well as reasons for using or not using the library to support their business needs. The survey was distributed in both a Spanish and English version, to hear from entrepreneurs who may have been excluded from traditional support services.

A total of 2,520 people who had started or planned to start their own business responded to our survey. Among those who had already started businesses, nearly all were small with 10 employees or fewer, and many respondents told us that they are solopreneurs.

Key Findings

Entrepreneurs turn to the library for support: Nearly half of our respondents had made use of library resources at some point for help in planning, starting, or running their business. Among those who had used the library, around half had used business-specific assistance such as databases for market research, business-related events or courses, makerspace equipment, and business advice from librarians, while around half used the library primarily for its books, affordable internet/printing, and meeting space.

Access to free or low cost resources: Entrepreneurs who had used the library were enthusiastic about the wide range of materials and resources available at low or no cost, allowing them to put their money towards business needs. The helpfulness and availability of library staff was also appreciated.

Awareness about libraries’ entrepreneurship resources is lacking: When we asked the remaining respondents why they hadn’t used the library for entrepreneurial support, 77% of that group indicated that they had not thought of looking to public libraries for business-related help or that they did not think their local library offered business-related resources. When asked what types of library resources they would use if available, over 90% of the respondents who hadn’t used libraries to support their entrepreneurship expressed interest in one or more of the options that are commonly offered at libraries.

Demographics are unlikely to predict usership: Our data suggested that there were generally no differences in how library programming was perceived or used based on race, gender identification, or age with two exceptions. We found that 72% of women had never thought of looking for business-related help/resources at a library compared to 61% of men. Also, White respondents were less likely to have used books, internet, or printing opportunities at their library, and more likely not to have used the library for business reasons than survey respondents who identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous Multi-racial, and Other. When we looked at educational level, we found a weakly positive correlation with library use and the use of business-specific resources and programs. Specifically, respondents with advanced degrees were more likely to report using library resources other than books, space, and internet access.

Putting The Data to Work

Overall, these data suggest that more people would turn to libraries for their entrepreneurial needs if they knew the resources were available or if they were offered direction toward which libraries provide business-specific resources. Some libraries — including those we selected as case studies for the evaluation (Norlander et al., 2022) — already have mechanisms to promote these resources. But there may be alternate strategies that libraries could employ to reach entrepreneurs, including people who may not be regular library users. ULC has some suggested guidelines to help libraries be intentional in their outreach to entrepreneurs.

From our broader evaluation of entrepreneurship in urban libraries, we have evidence that some institutions have built relationships with local businesses, small business associations, and other community-based organizations. Where possible, urban libraries could continue to leverage these partnerships to let patrons know about their business-related programming and services. At the same time, SBAs and community organizations can share information about entrepreneurship resources at libraries with their members. We also recommend developing targeted outreach initiatives for women entrepreneurs to encourage them to seek out libraries’ entrepreneurship resources.

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