Public Libraries as Business Incubators

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Suppose you have an idea for a new digital services business – a business that delivers some value to others over the Internet. No matter how good your idea might be, getting such a business off the ground requires a given amount of capital. And this business might require business skills that you do not possess. You could check around with friends to see if any of them are interested in joining you in such a venture, but you could spend months finding the right friends who are interested and available.

Every business is a jigsaw puzzle that requires just the right pieces to fit together. To help those pieces fit together, the concept of the business incubator was born. The function of a business incubator is to identify promising business ideas and then assist entrepreneurs in supplying the missing pieces to their jigsaw puzzle.

Traditionally, business incubators have existed completely separate from public libraries. In the age of manufacturing, this made a lot of sense, but in the digital age – the age of information – public libraries are ideally situated to assume the role of business incubator. Why? Smart people congregate at public libraries to learn and share ideas. Public libraries are where questions are formulated and answers are found. Public libraries are set up to promote wondering. Wonder how libraries could develop greater sustainability? Well, yes, a digital services business that was incubated at a particular library could have a business plan where 20 percent of all proceeds from that business were returned to that library.

If a public library were able to spawn just one successful business, that business could bring in a revenue stream lasting the duration of its life. How long do businesses last? Some last three years, some last 30 years, some last longer. And if a public library were able to spawn several small businesses – you get the picture...

By now you might be wondering, “How do new businesses arise?” A business is a solution to a problem. New businesses form when people gain a clear understanding of some social need and see a path to meeting that social need. Some of the best business ideas arise from people trying to figure out how to meet one of their own needs. Once they devise a solution for themselves, they can see a way – a method – for bringing this solution to others. And for some people, they can just imagine the sweet taste of working for themselves. And yet not enough business ventures get off the ground because of the difficulty of assembling just the right pieces at just the right time. Business opportunities are fleeting. If you're not ready to move and act this month, the opportunity might not exist next month.

The most fertile innovation happens when people in a community have a clear idea of each other's talents and interests. Those talents and interests can often be the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Not all talents within a community are accessible for new businesses, but some of those talents are. And it behooves public library staff to start maintaining an inventory of talents within their community and to initiate discussions of emerging new roles for public libraries. Some of those discussions could take place within the library's walls. Figuring out how to have those ideas shared in the most productive way possible is the new challenge for public libraries.

Suppose your local neighborhood library spawns the next Google. Is that a good thing for that library? You tell me.

Libraries can be places that statically house ideas or places where ideas are put into action. We've seen a lot of the former. Maybe it's time to see some of the latter.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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