The Role of Urban Libraries in Entrepreneurship: A White Paper

Making sense of a growing new phenomenon

by Rebecca Joy NorlanderJoanna Laursen BruckerShaun Field
May 16, 2022

As part of their missions, urban libraries support the learning needs of the diverse populations that come through their doors. A growing area of focus for these libraries are programs and services designed to support the entrepreneurial efforts of their patrons. Developing a better understanding of the landscape of entrepreneurship programming that urban libraries offer is critical, and it has been a major focus of Knology’s research and evaluation efforts over the past two years through a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. That work has culminated in a recently published white paper.

Using a range of methods that included a literature review, virtual workshops for logic model development, in-depth case studies, and a national survey, the research explored how communities engage with entrepreneurship programs and services at libraries. Due to their status as trusted community spaces, urban libraries can act as mediators between aspiring entrepreneurs and the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. In fact, many urban libraries have forged partnerships with local government entities, businesses, and community organizations in their area.

In this white paper, we describe our findings, in particular how access to free resources can be a boon for people from groups that have historically been underrepresented in entrepreneurship, for whom more formalized training options may be cost-prohibitive or inaccessible for other reasons. These individuals face systemic barriers to engaging in entrepreneurship and are at greater risk of losing their business once they launch them. Evidence from our evaluation indicates that urban libraries help to address this historical inequity.

Important takeaways from the research described in the white paper are:

  • Urban libraries are places for entrepreneurs to learn from mentors with business expertise.
  • Urban libraries are places for entrepreneurs to workshop business plans and opportunities.
  • Urban libraries are places for entrepreneurs to access affordable training.
  • Urban libraries are spaces for fostering and growing community partnerships that are beneficial for entrepreneurship.
  • Urban libraries provide valuable entrepreneurship support for individuals from low-income and underrepresented communities.

Understanding the impact of libraries’ existing entrepreneurship programs and services highlights their accomplishments while also pointing to opportunities for continuing support and ongoing investment. This white paper provides a foundation for more in-depth research and conversation in the library field about the best ways to help urban libraries continue this critical work in their communities.

While the entrepreneurs who were interviewed for the evaluation appreciated the infrastructure that urban libraries already provide, they also identified gaps in support. Urban libraries may provide resources to address some of these gaps themselves or in partnership with community nonprofits, local Chambers of Commerce, and Small Business Development Centers. However, these gaps also represent opportunities for additional investment to enable urban libraries to develop these capabilities and help strengthen their contributions to the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This evaluation is one step towards building a set of best practices for urban library-based business programs. In addition to documenting the ways these libraries currently support their communities, the evaluation also unearthed opportunities for growth and further support. In today’s digital world, entrepreneurs need training that helps them utilize different forms of technology and media in order to effectively promote their business and develop their market. There were also frequent requests for resources related to money management and finances. Another area for future investment is building the capacity of people who work at libraries, better equipping staff members to effectively meet the needs of entrepreneurs in the communities they serve.

Future opportunities identified in the white paper include:

Technology Training - Entrepreneurs frequently asked for more classes on how to use technology. Specifically, they wanted help with creating videos showcasing their products, classes on e-commerce, and classes focused on best practices for creating webinars.

Managing Finances - Business owners need help with developing skills related to managing money. This includes things like learning how to track their finances and filing the appropriate paperwork for tax purposes. With support from local businesses, urban libraries could build more financial programming into their offerings, including workshops that cover the fundamentals of finances, best practices for business accounting, and budgeting.

Capacity Building - Some library staff members or other library program facilitators have extensive knowledge of business resources. Their experiences made them valuable mentors to the entrepreneurs. A potential area for future investment is in capacity building and staff training that could, in turn, develop into additional workshops and classes for patrons.

Banner photo credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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