Taking Care of Business
By Will Manley
Wed, 12/14/2011 - 12:12
Entrepreneurship is a two-way street
“So, why are you doing my performance evaluation? You don’t even work here.”
Public librarians have come up with all kinds of reasons why their communities should support them. Some of these reasons are even realistic:
- Many people enjoy reading or listening to a good book;
- Free Wi-Fi and electricity are attractive perks;
- Preschoolers love story hours and puppet shows;
- Students need a place to do homework assignments;
- Public access computers are very useful for digital have-nots;
- Meeting rooms are popular because America is totally committed to committees;
- Every self-respecting city, town, village, and hamlet has a public library (i.e., peer pressure).
Unrealistic reasons include:
- Libraries are the foundation of democracy;
- Libraries are the university of the people;
- Libraries are an important catalyst for economic development.
During my 35-year career, I had high hopes for the role public libraries could play in creating a business-friendly community. As a result, I spent a lot of time developing and publicizing business collections and services.
Then I got promoted from library director to city manager, and I suddenly became responsible for luring new businesses to town. Community development is the lifeblood of any municipality, and I worked hard at it and had a number of successes—IKEA, Costco Home, the annual college football Insight Bowl, and the training camp for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball team were established in Tempe, Arizona—but in no case did the library play a part, even though I always promoted it as a community asset. What I discovered, quite frankly, was that companies were interested in any number of local resources, especially tax incentives, land prices, and the quality of the local work force. But the library never entered into the equation at all.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to appeal to our business clientele. One of the quirks I discovered from working in public libraries for so long is that we are vitally important to a certain type of business owner—those who can’t afford an office. Even in the pre-digital days I noticed that a certain kind of entrepreneur would proudly set up shop in the library.
And why not? We had everything a business owner needed: fax machine, photocopier, pay phone, and study rooms for conferences. Throw in an impressive business reference collection and a supportive reference staff and who needs an office, a secretary, and a monthly utility bill?
Over the years, I got to know a number of these resourceful businesspeople who “officed” in the library. Some were in insurance, many were in sales, and a few were consultants. Others were financial advisors, and one was even a political lobbyist. The really effective ones made it a point to get to know and befriend the library staff—even to the point of asking circ clerks to take phone messages and reference librarians to act as receptionists for their clients.
Was this kind of service excessive or even inappropriate? Before you answer that, think of all the little perks library regulars often get, including: bathroom shaving and bathing privileges, sleeping accommodations in the periodicals room, and Dumpster-diving dining opportunities.
I became so fascinated with the phenomenon of small businesspeople setting up shop in the library that at one point I even considered creating a “small business incubator” wing in the adult section. I envisioned it as consisting of a series of cubicles that entrepreneurs could rent for a nominal sum.
But the idea turned sour when I overheard our in-house political lobbyist, a man who had officed at the library for years, tell a client on the phone that he was on a campaign to eliminate welfare cheaters who “freeload” on the government.
WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.