A small business owner in Iowa or Missouri who needs help putting together a business plan can find it in states such as New York and Pennsylvania — at libraries that are dedicated to serving entrepreneurs with their traditional catalogs of books and with extensive online resources.
At the Chester County Library System Web site small business owners can find lists of books on business broken down by topics including "Starting a Small Business" and "Running a Small Business." They'll also find a long list of links to a variety of business-related sites, and they can access business databases that the library subscribes to. And, if they live near the Exton, Pa.-based system, they can attend programs for business owners and entrepreneurs.
The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh also has a big section on its Web site devoted to business, with similar resources. The site also has a section dealing solely with business plans, a topic that sends many small business owners in search of help.
Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association, said many librarians have come to recognize the need to better serve businesses, largely because they are getting more requests for help from people who own small companies.
"Libraries are tailoring a lot of what they do specifically to what's going on in their geographic areas in terms of economic development," said Burger, who's also the director of the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey.
"What we find very often is when we talk to people, they want to know not only about running (for example) a bakery, but how many bakers are in the area, how to develop a business plan, where they would go to get financing, can we put them in touch with people with similar experiences," she said.
But Burger noted that the help is available well beyond a given library's service area. The Internet means a library can serve business owners almost anywhere.
Like the Chester County system, many libraries offer users access to databases with articles, journals, directories and business forms. Typically, you need a library card to enter a given library's offerings, but many don't require you to be a local user — you can apply online for a card, which will include a barcode number that will allow you to enter the databases.
Some libraries do charge for remote users to obtain cards. The New York Public Library, which has an extensive Small Business Resource Center on its site charges $100 to users who don't live, work, pay property taxes or attend school in the state. Many of its online resources are tailored to New York business owners, dealing with issues such as taxes or employment, but many others will be of interest to company owners anywhere.
The online libraries of university and college business schools are generally restricted to use by students, faculty and alumni. Some, including Emory University's Goizueta Business School, do offer other would-be users lists of links to public sites.
There are also online libraries such as the Internet Public Library at or the Small Business Administration library. These tend to contain articles and primers that can be give helpful overviews on a variety of topics that interest small business owners, but they don't offer a comprehensive collection like the more traditional library sites.
But online resources are just one part of what libraries have to offer. Burger noted that many business owners prefer to ask a librarian directly for help.
She noted that even if a business owner found a book in a library that was hundreds or thousands of miles away, distance isn't necessarily an impediment to borrowing the book. It's possible to get an Interlibrary Loan, in which libraries will ask each other if they have a certain book available. When they find the book, it can be mailed to a borrower.
However, don't ask for a photocopy of a book _ the library is forbidden by copyright laws to do that.