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R. David Lankes

Agreement Description

The Entrepreneurium: Building a Research-Based Model for Serving Small Businesses and Entrepreneurs

Assessment of Need

Syracuse University and the Free Library of Philadelphia propose to investigate the roles and opportunities for public libraries in the support of entrepreneurs. This study is a direct result of the Free Library of Philadelphia engaging the business community and seeking to better serve the entrepreneur, a key driver of economic development, an effort that has been named the “Entrepreneurium.” Rather than simply build a new center or replicate existing efforts of other libraries, the Free Library feels there is great value in developing such services from grounded research.  It also feels that such research is invaluable to the rest of the public library community.

Increasingly, public libraries are seen as stakeholders in the economic development of their communities, as was highlighted in a recent report by the Urban Libraries Council:

Public libraries build a community’s capacity for economic activity and resiliency, says a new study from the Urban Institute. [The study] adds to the body of research pointing to a shift in the role of public libraries—from a passive, recreational reading and research institution to an active economic development agent, addressing such pressing urban issues as literacy, workforce training, small business vitality and community quality of life.1

Because small and new businesses currently constitute 45.1% of the payroll2 in the country, an increased focus by libraries on the startup, in addition to the more established library role in job searching, is warranted.

Public libraries have long been involved in providing service to entrepreneurs. From print and electronic resources that are so critical to this constituent to workshops and one-on-one assistance, libraries are attempting to fill gaps in services available to entrepreneurs. Libraries are often invaluable resources to the startup, offering the Gale Virtual Reference Library, ReferenceUSA, Dun & Bradstreet’s Million Dollar Database (whose usage at the Free Library has almost doubled), and Business and Company Resource. The Free Library alone spends more than $100,000 each year on 12 databases useful to entrepreneurs and small business owners. This dollar figure doesn’t count the extensive one-to-one assistance, workshops, and reference activities that libraries are offering. The Free Library is hardly alone in its current outreach to entrepreneurs, with notable programs at the Brooklyn Public Library, the St. Paul Public Library, Middle County Public Library, and even the British Library.

However, librarians create many entrepreneurial offerings with little direct involvement in startup operations. Further, libraries may emulate existing entrepreneurship programs in the not-for-profit sector without deep consideration of the library’s role beyond the provision of resources. In essence, a great deal of money is being spent on an important activity but with little concrete research and evaluative data on which to build their programs.

If public libraries are to play an important role in entrepreneurship, thereby enhancing their communities and the libraries’ role within the community, they need evidence based guidance in creating, operating, and governing entrepreneurship centers. This research project will provide such guidance grounded in the real world, with real data, and with real resources.

National Impact and Intended Results

The overall aim of this proposed research activity is to increase and promote the ability of public libraries throughout the country to stimulate entrepreneurship in communities. The Entrepreneurium, an umbrella project concept, will do this through data, actionable plans, and shared resources. The resources and findings of this project will strengthen the public library’s role in economic development by creating mechanisms to engrain the public library in the entrepreneurship communities throughout the country.

The emphasis on entrepreneurship and the startup comes directly from the mission of public libraries to enhance their communities. Entrepreneurial activities not only form a major part of the U.S. economy, but they also are directly relevant to traditionally underrepresented populations. According to the Public Forum Institute, 600,000 to 800,000 new businesses are started in the United States each year:

These small businesses are the foundation for our employment growth. They allow their owners to work for themselves and be self-sufficient…. Firms of fewer than 20 employees generate the majority of net new jobs in the U.S. New jobs from start-ups are an immediate and significant boost to the economy. New dynamic theories of the economy suggest that the prevalence of small firms provide a constant tide of new ideas and experimentation vital to the health of the economy as a whole.


A recent article in the Journal of Leadership and Entrepreneurial Studies brought some interesting statistics together:

74 million Americans stated they plan to start a new venture within the next five years while an additional 199 million Americans plan to start a venture someday. (The Small Business Economy, 2006) Women-owned ventures increased from 5.4 million in 1997 to 7.7 million in 2006. (Center for Women’s Business Research, 2007) The non-profit Tax Foundation reports that entrepreneurs pay more than 54% of all individual income taxes. Approximately one new firm with employees is established every year for every 300 adults in the United States. As the typical new firm has at least two owners managers, one of every 150 adults participates in the founding of a new firm each year. Substantially more—one in 12—are involved in trying to launch a new firm. The net result is that the United States has a very robust level of firm creation. These numbers make it clear that entrepreneurial ventures are dominating the US economy . . . truly an entrepreneurial economy.4

Other studies show that “immigrants far outpaced native-born Americans in entrepreneurial activity last year while African Americans were the only major ethnic or racial group to experience a year-to-year increase in the rate of entrepreneurship.”5

The realities of American entrepreneurship—that it is wide scale and diverse—make it an excellent lever point for public libraries to directly impact the welfare of their communities. However, the simple act of collecting entrepreneurial materials, while valuable, is far from realizing the true potential impact of the library. What is needed is a proactive set of programs based on best practices in the governmental, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors. This project will identify these best practices. It will create a firm research foundation of best practices, programs, and resources that can be replicated at libraries around the country. It will also seek to build a lasting, if informal, network of public libraries engaging entrepreneurs.

At the end of the project, a public library shall:
• have a comprehensive inventory of the resources and services necessary
to start an entrepreneurial center/activity;
• be able to best evaluate the readiness of the library’s patrons for
the startup enterprise,
• have a ready set of empirically tested interventions to build the
entrepreneurial skills of its community, and
• have a network of other libraries interested in entrepreneurship it
can share with and learn from.

Project Design and Evaluation Plan

Participatory librarianship forms the conceptual basis for the design and evaluation of this project. Simply put, participatory librarianship, based in large part on Conversation Theory,6 recasts library and library practice using the fundamental concept that knowledge is created through conversation.7 Libraries are in the knowledge business and are, therefore, in the conversation business. Participatory librarians approach their work as facilitators of conversation. Be it in practice, policies, programs, and/or tools, participatory librarians seek to enrich, capture, store, and disseminate the conversations of their communities.

Participatory librarianship provides a set of theoretically derived principles for engaging key library constituencies in projects such as these. First, the library serves as a facilitator of conversation. Second, true engagement with the community means shared management responsibilities. Third, investment in tools for knowledge creation is preferred over the collection of artifacts from previous knowledge-creation processes. Preliminary engagement with the business community in the Philadelphia area using these participatory concepts has already identified the importance of an entrepreneurial focus (vs. a focus on general business or job skills). It has also identified a rich set of areas for investigation in terms of services and needed skills of entrepreneurs. Although there is no strict relationship between the participatory theoretical approach and a suite of methods, qualitative techniques shall be employed due to the exploratory nature of the project and to provide the richest dataset possible to allow for later discussions of model transferability into new settings. Each phase of the research, as outlined below, will employ mixed methods, including interviews, document analysis, and focus groups. The researchers will also employ a validity cycle, where emerging concepts and findings are fed back to participants (in this case, site visit organizations and a panel of entrepreneurial experts) for confirmation and additional data gathering. The end result of this naturalistic inquiry shall be specific interventions and understandings tied to higher level concepts. This three-year study will create a firm, empirical, and replicable foundation for entrepreneurship centers in public libraries. It will do so in four phases detailed in table 2.

Each of these phases seeks to employ mixed methods, but all depend on testing concepts and models in real situations with real clients. Throughout the study, the research team will draw on the expertise of a board of successful entrepreneurs and key stakeholders, including members of the banking sector. The overall goal is to create a toolkit that public libraries can use nationwide. Table 1 also forms the basis of both ongoing and summative evaluations of the project and the model. Evaluations will be conducted throughout each phase to ensure only valid outcomes are achieved and passed to the next phase. For example, in phase 1, the “skills inventory” will be validated in terms of data gathered, as well as in terms of the instrument itself (e.g., language use). Only once the inventory has been validated will it be passed on to phase 2, where the entrepreneurial profile of the community developed corresponds to the overall service population of the Free Library’s Central Library.


Disseminating the findings of this research is seen as a priority task for the research team. The importance of entrepreneurship exists not just in Philadelphia but across the nation. A primary motivation in conducting research is that it is transferable, not simply building a set of services at a single library as a demonstration project. To that end, the research team has three strategies for the dissemination of the findings of this research.

The first strategy is ensuring that the instruments and materials generated as part of the research (such as the skills inventory, literature reviews, and site visits) are produced for national consumption. The second strategy is the use of http://entrepreneurium.org, a planned participatory Web site that will allow for immediate and easy access to the materials and findings of the study. The site will also allow for profession-wide input and commenting, thus serving as the foundation for an informal network of libraries interested in entrepreneurship programs. The building of the site will utilize best practices in community web development. The third strategy is the offering of a national symposium in phase 4 of the study. This symposium will provide for immediate input and feedback in a face-to-face fashion. The symposium will take advantage of the participatory features of the Web site to allow for distance participation in the symposium as well.


As a research project, the end of the grant is the end of the effort. However, exploring the sustainability of entrepreneurship programs at public libraries is a key effort within the scope of work. Further, a number of the entrepreneurship activities identified through this research project will be incorporated into the Central Library’s current Business Department, and the Free Library’s plans to expand the Central Library and construct a new Business Department offer the potential to sustain the project’s results well into the future. The Free Library is excited to incorporate a full spectrum of services, resources, and facilities necessary to support entrepreneurs and small business owners in its new Business Department. As one of the largest urban libraries in the country, in a world-class city that attracts and supports entrepreneurs, the Library will continue to serve Philadelphia’s growing base of new business owners with the resources identified in this research project.


Public libraries have an opportunity in the area of entrepreneurship to improve their communities and their position within those communities. Entrepreneurs and public libraries share an aspirational nature. Both activities are seen as means to advance the best of a community. Public libraries serve as instruments that support the public’s ability to overcome their current limitations to succeed, be it in literacy, school, vocations, or the business world. It is vital that public libraries are equipped to court, support, and advance a vital sector of our economy, the entrepreneur. Further, libraries must be able to both justify their means of supporting the entrepreneur and evaluate their effectiveness in this support. Such a research foundation will give any interested library a compelling story to tell in the boardroom, city hall, and business community. By supporting innovation and personal initiative, public libraries not only contribute to the bottom line of their municipalities, but model themselves as a place of leadership for the community. It is now time for libraries to go beyond simply providing resources for the intrepid few and actively promote services to empower all. The research from this project will help libraries, and those libraries will in turn improve their communities.

6. Pask, G. (1976). Conversation theory: Applications in education and epistemology. New York: Elsevier.
7. More information on participatory librarianship can be found at http://www.ptbed.org