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The Librarian Entrepreneur

By Cassandra Stokes

This past spring, I was given the opportunity to join a staff group at the Austin Public Library tasked with developing programs to support entrepreneurs in the Austin area. The first thing that came to my mind was, “Me? Really?” I have a background in the humanities, and I’m a … well, a librarian. What could I offer customers looking to start a business?

I was instantly intimidated but curious and ready for a challenge. It required me to hone in on some traits that librarians and entrepreneurs have in common. First, librarians and entrepreneurs both know what they don’t know. Second, we’re not afraid of failure. Third, we understand the value of a strong peer network.

Coincidentally, I knew someone who had recently started a business, and I remembered that they struggled the most with sorting their way through the legal requirements. What kind of company should they start? An LLC, partnership or sole proprietorship? How and where do they file the documents? How much does it cost? What kind of liability is involved?

I had no knowledge of the legalese I felt I needed to even pitch the idea, but I had to overcome those insecurities.

So, that’s where I began. I started working toward creating classes that introduced customers to basic legal concepts involved in starting a small business. I knew I could not and should not try to create these classes on my own. Coincidentally, I had recently met someone from a local nonprofit that provided free legal services through legal clinics in Austin. I decided to contact them and pitch the idea of holding a series of legal seminars for small business owners.

It wasn’t easy. I had no knowledge of the legalese I felt I needed to even pitch the idea, but I had to overcome those insecurities. I ended up cold calling the organization and muddling my way through the conversation. I was so happy when they said yes. Together we initiated a four-part series based on a longer series of classes they provided regularly through their nonprofit at the public library branch where I work.

While it can be intimidating and risky, charting new paths is extremely rewarding when you succeed.

It’s been a great partnership. The four-part series recently ended. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but we both see ways it could be improved for future iterations. As of today, we are committed to evaluating what did and didn’t work, making changes as needed and — most importantly – continuing the partnership.

I can’t help but see a connection between this experience and that of entrepreneurs. While it can be intimidating and risky, charting new paths is extremely rewarding when you succeed. As librarians, we must be able to think like entrepreneurs and embrace new approaches to best serve our communities.

Cassandra Stokes is an assistant manager at the Manchaca Road Branch of the Austin Public Library. For more information, contact cassandra.stokes@austintexas.gov.