Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs
The important role libraries play in creating and sustaining new businesses
The field of entrepreneurship is growing fast as there are more opportunities than ever before, including brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants, e-commerce (an increasingly popular option during COVID-19), and services like graphic design or day care. Entrepreneurs may end up managing a team of people at a company they create, or decide the “solopreneur” option is the right one for them. No matter the type of entrepreneur, all face some important decisions. What does the business plan look like? How will customers find out about the product(s)? What’s the market growth potential? Not to mention using social media and understanding tax codes!
Becoming an entrepreneur requires quite a bit of support. Yet traditionally entrepreneurs have been a fairly homogeneous group, with the necessary support unevenly distributed. With funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Knology researchers explored this issue by evaluating the role of libraries in filling those gaps in support, reaching a new cadre of potential entrepreneurs and enabling new business owners who may not have found the help they need elsewhere.
Through a two-year process that involved a range of research methods and approaches, we explored how entrepreneurs engage with library programs and services, the impact of doing so, and how libraries in turn fit into a broader ecosystem of business-related education and support. Want to know more about what we found? Keep reading! Each of the documents we share below sheds light on another piece of the puzzle.
We first wanted to know what the literature says about people who are looking to launch or grow a business but may be excluded from traditional support services, such as mentorship, networking, or developing various skills. Therefore, our literature review compiled some basic information across four key topic areas: Types of Entrepreneurship Programs; Opportunities for Evaluation; Support for Women Entrepreneurs; and Entrepreneurship in Low-income Communities.We first wanted to know what the literature says about people who are looking to launch or grow a business but may be excluded from traditional support services, such as mentorship, networking, or developing various skills. Therefore, our literature review compiled some basic information across four key topic areas: Types of Entrepreneurship Programs; Opportunities for Evaluation; Support for Women Entrepreneurs; and Entrepreneurship in Low-income Communities.
In collaboration with the Urban Libraries Council -– who were already working with library systems on strengthening entrepreneurship programming -– we selected four library locations to use as case studies: Austin Public Library (Texas); Baltimore County Public Library and Enoch Pratt Free Library (Maryland); King County Library System (Washington); and Saint Louis County Library (Missouri). Originally, when this project began in Fall 2019, we planned to hold an in-person design workshop with representatives of each library site. The workshop was intended to build library capacity, and provide us with an important baseline of each library system’s efforts to support entrepreneurs. When the pandemic hit, the proposed workshop (which was to occur in March 2020) was reimagined as a three-week virtual series.
The virtual workshops were documented in an illustrative report designed to support other libraries interested in learning more about program evaluation, beyond just entrepreneurship programming. Workshop participants conducted a gap analysis to determine what they already knew about their programs versus what they wanted to know. Developing both a site-specific and a collective logic model helped library staff better understand the inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes for their entrepreneurship programs and services.
Each of our original case-study sites then participated in an iterative process with researchers according to a unique evaluation plan, based on their own logic model. Some had pre-existing data, for example, past program surveys or “Book-A-Librarian” requests. In those cases, Knology offered secondary analysis. In other cases, new data collection activities were designed, each particular to the library and its population. These included surveys with library staff or patrons, focus groups with partner organizations, interviews with entrepreneurs, and more. Each library received a report with all of its own data and analysis, compiled in one place. You can see an example from our case-study evaluation of St. Louis County Library’s entrepreneurship programs.
In this project, we were especially interested in hearing from entrepreneurs themselves, and asked explicitly what difference the library had made to them in their entrepreneurial journeys. We did in-depth interviews with six entrepreneurs, speaking to each of them twice in a six-month period. We invite you to read more about these remarkable individuals and their businesses, including a social justice-focused apparel line, Kansas City BBQ sauce, and natural hair products!
Moving beyond the case-study approach, we wanted to better understand the national landscape where this work is situated. Are entrepreneurs aware of library resources, and if so, do they really use them? Who uses libraries and who doesn’t? Who would use them if more business programs were offered? To answer these questions we designed a national survey of current and potential entrepreneurs across the country. Read more about what we found in the topline report.
As the project was wrapping up we took stock; we had collected so much information and had a wealth of useful findings for different audiences. We decided that the best way to sum up this work was through an integrated white paper that brought all the research activities together. The white paper focused especially on libraries’ role in the broader ecosystem of entrepreneurial support. You’re welcome to take a look here, and we ask that you please share this important work with others who can benefit. It is our hope that this research will help library staff provide even better support to entrepreneurs, and that those starting or growing their own business will realize just how much libraries have to offer. As we’ve seen, libraries are an effective - if underutilized - place to cultivate new entrepreneurial talent across the US!
Banner photo credit: Shiromani Kant on Unsplash