by Jennifer Gibson, Reference Manager, St. Louis County Library
Imagine this. You’re stepping through the doors into a large convention hall for a conference on entrepreneurship. Tables full of pamphlets and candy create aisles for you and other conference attendees to explore. Smiling people hover near these tables ready to talk about what they’re offering or selling to help small businesses. But you’re not an entrepreneur. You are a public librarian on a mission to convert some people into enthusiastic library users.
At St. Louis County Library, we serve nearly 900,000 people in a community that very strongly supports small and local businesses. Since the mid-2010s we have consistently been highly ranked as a great place to start a business. We offer access to information that entrepreneurs can use when exploring their business idea, creating business plans, searching for funding, choosing a location, defining and targeting their market, stretching marketing budgets, finding extensive demographics data and much more. At any stage in the life of a business, we have information waiting to help, as well as friendly, knowledgeable librarians who teach classes, lead workshops and meet one-on-one in sessions tailored to an entrepreneur’s individual needs, always for free.
However, all of our resources, services and enthusiasm have no purpose without entrepreneurs to reap the benefits. After nearly 10 years of small business services, we have learned that we must continuously promote what we do. We must embrace the entrepreneurial mindset and hustle to make our services known.
By thinking like entrepreneurs – focusing on our target market and the messages that resonate with them – we created a tool that effectively showcases our value and provides an attention-grabbing conversation starter.
To that end, it’s important to understand that we are asking people to expand their view of modern public libraries when we promote our small business services. They must let go of old perceptions and accept new possibilities. On top of that, we are asking them to invest time and effort in learning a completely new skill — using databases for research. These are big asks.
Add to this the context of these conversations. Entrepreneurs aren’t lining up at our reference desks to ask how the library can help them start their business. We meet entrepreneurs where they are in the community. We have these challenging conversations at conventions, sales meetings or other business functions where no one is expecting a librarian. We have to connect a lot of dots just to set the stage for a conversation about the library’s entrepreneur support.
So, how do you hone your “elevator pitch” to cut down on the awkwardness and length of these conversations? How do you turn an unsuspecting business owner – who doesn’t even think about the public library (except maybe as a place to get books for their kids) – into a power researcher and maybe even an advocate or champion in your community? How do you convince them to listen to what you have to say, making them more likely to schedule a one-on-one session and ultimately learn how to use the library for their business?
At St. Louis County Library, we’ve found that one answer to these questions is building a small business value calculator.
The idea for the business value calculator first occurred to me in 2018. The previous fall, during Library Card Sign-Up Month, I had learned about library value calculators used to show just how much money library cards save people. I was reminded of these value calculators when getting to know colleagues in ULC’s Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs cohort, and hearing that they shared the same struggles with quickly and concisely communicating the library’s value to businesses. The idea struck me – why not make a calculator just for the library’s small business services? Before long, our team got busy building such a calculator.
First, we listed all of the resources we offer that individuals could subscribe to on their own, like newspapers, magazines, databases and online learning platforms. Next, we listed things that entrepreneurs could create with our resources instead of paying for the same products, including direct mail marketing lists, industry reports, Plunkett reports, etc. Finally, we listed all of the services we offer, such as professional development training for company staff, seminars, workshops and one-on-one training.
After creating this list, we organized resources by subcategories (we are librarians after all) and then began researching the estimated costs for each resource. Individual subscriptions for newspapers, magazines and databases were simple to track down. For products and services like market reports and mailing lists, we researched rates charged by businesses, searched for quotes and talked to patrons who had paid for these products in the past.
We totaled up the dollar value of using everything the library offers just once in a year. And now, our conversations are totally different because we can start them with: “Hi, did you know that your business could save more than $13,000 a year by using free resources and services at St. Louis County Library?”
By thinking like entrepreneurs – focusing on our target market and the messages that resonate with them – we created a tool that effectively showcases our value and provides an attention-grabbing conversation starter. This has made our librarians more confident and effective when promoting awareness of everything we offer.
Reference Manager, St. Louis County Library
Jennifer Gibson has been with St. Louis County Library since 2016. She leads a team of reference librarians who focus on collaborative outreach efforts and innovative methods to engage the community and assess the impact of research resources and services. Jennifer is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs, especially those from marginalized and underserved populations, to increase equity and inclusion in the St. Louis business ecosystem. She is a 2011 American Library Association Spectrum Scholar and a 2011 Association of Research Libraries Initiative to Recruit a Diverse Workforce Scholar. Jennifer is an active participant in the ULC’s Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs Cohort as well as the Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses action team, one of six member-led teams spearheading ULC's Going Forward from the Pandemic Initiative.
Looking for more insights on serving entrepreneurs? Check out ULC’s resource Closing the Gap to Entrepreneurship: Tools for Libraries to discover more strategies and resources to help libraries level-up as entrepreneurial hubs, including COVID-19 responses.