Libraries Partner with Startups to Build Local Businesses

When starting a business there are several obvious resources for entrepreneurs: investors and banks for loans and capital, incubators and accelerators to bring an idea to fruition, and local business organizations that build important relationships in the business community. However, an often overlooked but critically important resource is the business intelligence information available in our public libraries.  

Since I was a child, libraries have undergone bold transformations. When we went to “yesterday’s libraries,” it was for storytime or to find books for school research projects. Today, libraries have evolved into hubs of digital information, connecting people with modern services that improve lives and boost our economy.  Today, business services are as pervasive in libraries as storytime.  Smart entrepreneurs should look to them again for a competitive advantage.   

A great example of how libraries drive business success is the recent addition of librarian “Office Hours” to the support that 1871, a premier business incubator in Chicago, provides to their member companies.  Through its extensive network of mentors, 1871 gives its starters amazing advice on all phases of scoping a product and taking it to market.  With this new access to “hidden web” resources that Chicago Public Library brings, 1871 has taken the next step in building smart, successful firms.  CPL’s professional librarians know how to help put the proprietary databases and business intelligence resources to use. 

Libraries around our region offer centers of innovation for entrepreneurs. There is no better place for an entrepreneur to go to conduct competitive research, develop a presentation, refine a new technology or test a new product with a focus group. Librarians are skilled guides to the most relevant information and are committed to the success of local businesses, making them essential partners in the push for growth and innovation.

As libraries continue to evolve, lawmakers can show their support for libraries by promoting the high-speed broadband networks that have enabled libraries to maintain their relevance to local communities as centers for information and learning.  

In short, libraries and librarians are the secret resource small businesses and startups should use to harness the full power of the Internet. 

And fortunately, America has built a world-class Internet to make this growth possible.  The U.S. is also one of only two countries to have three fully deployed broadband technologies actively competing against one another: cable, telephone and 4G LTE wireless.

Broadband expands the ability of libraries to help bridge the digital divide and bring the power of the Internet into civic life. As an example, libraries are one of the few community gathering places with robust Internet access, making them a great place to host business-related events as well as “hackathons”- events that bring individuals together to address civic issues through the development of digital tools.

High-quality broadband also allows people with broadband connections to access library resources remotely. America has some of the most advanced networks in the world — networks capable of 100 megabits per second and faster are available to 85 percent of U.S. homes.  Through these fast connections, even people who are unable to get out of the office or are in remote areas can connect with librarians to solve problems and answer questions.  

That is why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made libraries a key component of the Chicago Tech Plan, a public-private plan to promote technology-driven growth, innovation and opportunity. The city’s technology sector has already taken off. The “app economy” in Chicago – which did not exist before 2007 – now employs nearly 20,000 people.  It is why the libraries are key anchor institutions in deploying high-speed broadband buildouts across our state. 

The wide availability of high-speed broadband allows residents to take advantage of these advanced services. Across Illinois, over 82 percent of the population has access to wired broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) or greater, and in the Chicago-metro area, that figure increases to nearly 95 percent

But lawmakers should not be complacent with the U.S.’s leadership in digital readiness.  Modernizing yesterday’s communications laws to meet the needs of today’s digital age will be a key step towards providing libraries with new opportunities to educate and innovate.

Our country’s communications regulations face a watershed moment as Congress prepares to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the first time in nearly two decades. 

It is imperative that, in undertaking this revision, lawmakers keep in mind the technological progress that has allowed libraries to evolve over the past generation. A modern Communications Act should account for competition across the Internet ecosystem and not silo technologies into different, and outdated, regulatory regimes. A level playing field for Internet companies will ensure we continue, and even accelerate, the progress we have made so far.  Policies and regulations that ensure a neutral net where all internet users have the same speed of access to information are key.   

Modernizing the Communications Act has demonstrated a rare display of bipartisan support. Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s appointed Chairman of the FCC has said, “all of us have observed the growing convergence of previously separate distinct communications services and with it, inevitably, the growing obsolescence of the Communications Act’s categories.” 

By moving broadband policy forward with an eye towards future innovation, we can help even more libraries in the Chicagoland area provide the services that residents need and boost our local economy. Doing so will ensure that, 50 years from now, libraries have undergone many evolutions to still provide the relevant services of the day.