20 Feb 2014

Libraries find a new role in economic development

Mr. Monzon co-founded GIS Planning Inc., one of the fastest-growing 5,000 private companies in the United States, according to Inc Magazine. As developer of the first GIS-based website for economic development, Mr. Monzon is an entrepreneur, innovator and technology professional. With over 15 years of experience developing location-based applications and GIS based websites, he has received multiple awards in both the field of Economic Development and Geographic Information Systems. His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NBC News, and numerous GIS-related publications. Mr. Monzon has lectured about Internet GIS in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Prior to GIS Planning, Mr. Monzon worked for Vectiv, an online GIS site selection company focused on the retail industry.

Libraries taking a role in economic developmentLibraries have always been sources for information, but the digital revolution has been changing their role. It’s a lot easier to Google a research question on-the-go than to spend your day rummaging through a microfiche catalogue, and many libraries are recognizing these changes. As a result, they are redefining their value propositions and responding to their communities’ evolving needs.

Some libraries are providing innovation centers, otherwise known as hacker spaces or makerspaces, which provide access to cutting-edge technological resources and make them accessible to anyone. For example, library makerspaces in Fayetteville, NY and Fort Wayne, IN now offer access to 3D printers, a revolutionary technology currently priced too high for most consumers. Other notable examples of makerspaces within libraries include Westport, CT, Madison, WI, and Toronto, ON.

Pasco County, located in the Tampa Bay Area in Florida, is using its libraries as resources for economic development. The Pasco County Libraries are part of the Pasco Enterprise Network, a group of organizations that have made a commitment to foster economic development in the county, including staff from local Chambers of Commerce, the Pasco Economic Development Council (PEDC), higher learning institutions, and business advisory groups. The library system has been working within this network to identify ways that they can support larger economic development goals. As a result, they’ve invested in several business-related electronic resources. Recently, by request of the PEDC, they introduced SizeUp for Local Business Intelligence (SizeUP LBI), a market research and performance benchmarking tool used by entrepreneurs and existing business owners.

Paul Stonebridge, Teen & Outreach Services Manager for Pasco County Libraries, outreaches to local business groups like the rotary club and the business incubator to let business owners know about resources provided by the library. “A lot of the businesses have been thrilled with SizeUp LBI,” he says. “I’ve had several people come back and tell me that they’ve done a marketing campaign based on the strategies recommended there.”

SizeUp LBI is just one element of The Pasco County Libraries’ vision for economic development. They are seeking funding to open their own innovation center in the Land O’ Lakes branch. This will be a creative space for people to prototype, with 3D printers, AutoCAD desks, and even a small recording studio. Paul says “It’s going to be a place where someone can take an idea from paper to prototype to actual production and distribution.”

In another branch, they are looking to open a business incubator. Part of the inspiration comes from John Hagen, CEO of the PEDC, who told the county libraries that they have all the resources necessary for an entrepreneur to operate: wireless internet connections, telephones, and space. They’re going to remove books and shelving and replace them with a walled-off cubicle area where 2-3 businesses can begin business operation. According to Nancy Fredericks, a Pasco County Libraries Administrator, “We have a lot of people already who conduct business in our libraries and don’t necessarily declare that they do business because overhead is expensive.”

Libraries are being used as office space in other parts of the country as well. In California, users of Liquidspace, an online platform that lets individuals find and reserve work and meeting spaces, can already book workspaces in public libraries within Santa Cruz and Palo Alto. The physical space that libraries have is a real asset that shouldn’t be ignored during this era of transition of all things to digital. When Panera moved into Land O’ Lakes, they performed all their employee interviews in the meeting room of a Pasco County library, which indirectly helped fill about sixty jobs. “We still need space,” Nancy says. “When I was in library school, there was talk that we’re all soon going to be virtual libraries and there won’t be physical spaces anymore, but I don’t think that’s true. What I see happening is that we’re community centers where people can come and access the resources they need to do whatever they need to do. That may be for schoolwork, it may be to apply for a job or unemployment benefits, or it may be to run a business.”

The success of libraries in the future may have a lot to do with how flexible they can be in adapting to the needs of the community, but even with the changes, Nancy believes the core mission of the library remains the same. “Our traditional role has always been as a community resource for information and referral, it’s just that the technology is changing how we do that. Each library system must decide what makes sense for their community depending on what they see is the need. In our case, we saw the need is for economic development and to foster entrepreneurship.”

Paul adds, “We’re no longer a collection of books, we’re a collection of experiences and opportunities. The collection model is still there, but we’re expanding our collection far beyond physical items. Economic development is one of the key items in our collection, because if we can keep the economy strong around us, then people have a lot better quality of life.”


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