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Policymakers leverage public libraries to promote innovation

February 22, 2018
By: Jonathan Dworin

For hundreds of years, libraries have helped drive American innovation by serving as a trusted resource and providing information to a wide range of individuals. As libraries continue to implement their own initiatives in this space, policymakers across the country have recently turned to them as a way to level the playing field around workforce development and entrepreneurial support.

Research from the Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland finds that nearly 100 percent of libraries offer broadband connectivity, and more than one-third offer small business development resources (36.5 percent) and workspace for mobile workers (43.7 percent). In recent years, libraries are increasingly focusing their efforts on fledgling entrepreneurs, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Information Technology and Policy.

In The People’s Incubator: Libraries Propel Entrepreneurship,  author Charlie Wapner cites numerous examples of how public libraries are complementing public and private efforts to develop entrepreneurial capacity, including: boosting access to capital; advancing intellectual property knowledge and market research analysis; enabling prototypes; and, providing workspace to startups. While the study does not include specific policy recommendations, it concludes with a call for decision makers to include libraries in programs that support the innovation economy.

Many states are beginning to encourage these types of initiatives. One of the earliest examples is in Arizona, where the Entrepreneurial Outreach Network launched in 2013 to support aspiring entrepreneurs and small businesses. Originally called the Alexandria Co-working Network, the program is based on a partnership between libraries, economic development organizations, and Arizona State University, where library staff help emerging entrepreneurs research their business ideas, economic development partners offer access to resources, and the university works to identify and fill gaps in local entrepreneurship ecosystems. Led by the Entrepreneurship + Innovation at Arizona State initiative, a winner of the SSTI’s award for Most Promising TBED Initiative in 2013, the concept has since spread to Nevada, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

Recently, other states have explored alternative approaches. For example, Rhode Island offers funds to provide learning lounges, computer science training, makerspaces, and pilot a program to serve user needs at their libraries through the Office of Innovation’s Next Generation Library Program. The initiative seeks to enable municipal, community, and university libraries to use technology to address community problems, build partnerships, and develop digital community hubs.

Libraries as Launchpads, a new program from the combined efforts of the New Mexico State Library, Santa Fe-based accelerator Creative Startups, and the Fab Lab Hub (a fabrication and prototyping laboratory at Santa Fe Community College), targets creative entrepreneurs and guides them from concepts to fully formed businesses. The program will coordinate projects at five pilot libraries throughout the state with plans to scale to 20 libraries by 2019. The initiative consists of a four-week pre-accelerator program, access to transferrable IP, and other workshops and resources.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts is promoting the Library Innovation Studios project to develop makerspaces alongside customized services at 18 libraries in rural areas of the state. The program will leverage partnerships between the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and its extension office, and local public libraries. Library Innovation Studios makerspaces will provide access to technology and learning tools not readily accessible otherwise, with the goal of stimulating creativity and facilitating entrepreneurship.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft recently announced his plans to increase state funding for the Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program, which supports the costs of internet access, technical support, and other training services at the state’s public libraries. Ashcroft views the program as a cost-effective way to spread broadband throughout the state, according to Missouri’s News Tribune.

The James J. Hill Library in St. Paul, named after the railroad baron from Empire Builder fame, offers a different model. Founded in 1921 with the goal of open access and helping people launch businesses, the library has undergone a transformation in recent years with the intention of remaining relevant in the innovation economy. In 2016, with support from venture capital firms, foundations, local governments, community banks, chambers of commerce, technical colleges, and hundreds of individuals, the library helped launch the Hill Capital Corporation to provide mezzanine-financing options to small businesses throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas.

The neutrality of public libraries helps them support entrepreneurship and workforce development in the 21st century, according to “Lifelong Leveraging of Human Potential: The Role of Public Libraries in Lifelong Workforce Training,” a recent piece in the Georgetown Public Policy Review. In the article, author Christian Conroy introduces the idea of the “Catch 22 of Workforce Training” – that employers are hesitant to invest in employees because they fear the individual will leave with their newly acquired skills, while employees have no incentive to stay at a company that will not invest in them.

Conroy offers evidence that public libraries are less susceptible to this Catch 22, and as a result, are the ideal, neutral broker for more equitable modern workforce development efforts. “Instead of reserving retraining and lifelong learning opportunities for those who can afford coding academies, certification programs, or continuing studies degrees, libraries provide an avenue for chipping away at the high income inequality that has bedeviled American society,” he writes.

Ultimately, engaging libraries in technology-based economic development strategies is an increasing trend among policymakers, with the potential to improve equality and enhance opportunity in the innovation economy.  

Arizona, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Rhode Islandstate tbed