Economic Gardening with Public Librarians

by Christine Hamilton-Pennell
Growing Local Economies, Inc.

The research component of an economic gardening initiative must be implemented by professionals with skills in both business research and strategic business counseling. Successful programs need to find a way to marry and coordinate these two functions. A logical place to look for partners with business research skills is in the library world. Librarians in both public and university libraries know how to search for and find information, and usually have access to one or more business databases through their own library or a larger consortium. Several libraries are involved in economic gardening initiatives in the U.S. A couple of them are profiled below.

One of the first economic gardening initiatives to seek the assistance of local libraries was in the city of Greeley, Colorado. Economic Development Manager Kelly Peters approached librarians at High Plains Library District and the University of Northern Colorado Libraries to assist with business research for clients of their Economic Gardening program. Two public reference librarians stepped up to the plate and volunteered to do research projects for the businesses. Peters found that the public librarians, even though they had limited knowledge of business research at the outset of the project, were eager to learn. Along with two business librarians from the local community college and university, they created a small learning group that began meeting regularly to discuss business research tools and techniques. They also met with the businesses they were assisting to hear first hand what the business owners needed. The librarians completed three large research projects in the first six months, including one supporting the county airport in its efforts to recruit aviation-related businesses to its industrial office space.

When Peters left the City of Greeley to become the Chief Operations Officer of the Rocky Mountain Innovation Initiative (RMI2) in Fort Collins, Colorado, she again approached business librarians at the Poudre River Library District and Colorado State University Libraries to assist with research for RMI2 clients, who comprise high impact scientific and technology start-up companies in Northern Colorado. The Initiative was formed by an alliance of Northern Colorado municipal governments, academic institutions and economic development organizations. Anne MacDonald, business reference librarian at the Poudre River Library District, assists with the business research. She reports, “I love the projects and truly think this—economic, market and industry research for local economic development efforts—should be in the job description for any public library business librarian.”

A more recent entrant into the economic gardening field is the Douglas County (Colorado) Libraries. When the Douglas County Economic Development Manager, Meme Martin, approached the Chamber of Commerce at Highlands Ranch to host a pilot economic gardening (EG) program, the library took a seat at the planning table and became part of the initiative.

Rochelle Logan, Associate Director of Research and Collections at the library, serves on the steering committee for the Economic Gardening project. She says it is a natural partnership. “One of our goals at Douglas County Libraries…is to reach out to answer the community reference question. It’s a natural fit to partner with local economic development entities such as the Highlands Ranch / Douglas County EG program” (Your Hub-Roxborough, June 25, 2008). The library was already providing classroom space in three of its locations for business start-up workshops offered by the local Small Business Development Center.

The Douglas County reference librarians received training in basic business strategy and information sources, and began promoting reference services to start-up business owners through the library. They purchased additional business database tools and began conducting more in-depth business research on behalf of the EG center clients.

“We are extremely excited about the partnership we have with the Douglas County Library System and the Chamber’s Economic Gardening program. Douglas County is very fortunate to have the Douglas County Library System as a resource. They continue to stay on the cutting edge,” reports Steve Dyer, President, Chamber of Commerce at Highlands Ranch. They are now a year into the collaboration and the librarians report having completed more than 20 successful research projects for local business owners so far in 2009.

© 2009 Christine Hamilton-Pennell

Growing Local Economies


1 Comment »

  1. What fantastic case studies! I had some sense of the role libraries play in economic development in terms of providing internet access and research assistance for job seekers and small business start-ups. But until I heard your presentation at the MAP Spring Institute I’d never thought of recruiting librarians to be partners in higher-level research projects for Economic Development. It seems like a great way to share community resources and tap into research expertise that our Commerce Center staff don’t necessarily have.

    As a follow-up to your economic gardening presentation, I’m also working with a local business research consultant to look at ways we can access better strategic information for the benefit of our local businesses. Historically, our ED office hasn’t provided much more than census data. You’ve inspired me to change that. Thanks!

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