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What is Entrepreneurial Librarianship?

“There’s no committee that says, ‘This is the type of person who can change the world – and you can’t.’ Realizing that anyone can do it is the first step. The next step is figuring out how you’re going to do it.” – Adora Svitak

If you’re thinking about librarianship, you’re probably already interested in social engagement, innovation, and knowledge creation. You know that librarians empower community voices. We champion intellectual freedom, equitable access to information, and democratic conversation. We provide access to credible sources of information, and we create networks of knowledge in our communities. Most librarians don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but there is a growing interest in entrepreneurial librarianship, a topic that connects the abstract idea of social entrepreneurship and the services librarians provide, every day.

Social entrepreneurship refers to the practice of identifying a societal problem and using entrepreneurial principles like innovation to create and implement a venture that achieves change. I believe that social entrepreneurship is very closely aligned with librarianship because of its missions and outcomes. In fact, social entrepreneurship provides an excellent model for libraries that are invested in the future. In this age of digital access, libraries are increasingly asked to justify their budgets, their services, and their very existence. People know that we no longer need access to an expensive encyclopedia to look up the capital of Myanmar; we can simply type it into Google to find our answer in “0.25 seconds.” Some would argue that advent of the internet marked the decline of libraries; they have forgotten that libraries are so much more than books and static repositories of knowledge.

Today’s librarians innovators who explore new technologies and novel ideas in the relentless pursuit of excellence; these librarians are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, librarians and entrepreneurs share certain characteristics, including creativity, persistence, and passion. While business entrepreneurs typically measure performance in profit, social entrepreneurs and librarians, also take into account a positive return to society. The Entrepreneurial Librarian, for example, “chronicles how entrepreneurial librarians are flourishing in the digital age, advocating social change, responding to patron demands, designing new services, and developing exciting fundraising programs. Applying new business models to traditional services, they eagerly embrace entrepreneurship in response to patrons’ demands, funding declines, changing resource formats, and other challenges.” Some current examples of innovation and entrepreneurship in the library include:

  • Lauren Britton of the Fayetteville Free Library, an iSchool alumna. Lauren conceived the idea of a library Makerspace, and the FFL became the first library in the country to provide public access to 3D printing technologies. Since 2010 the library’s maker programs have grown to include, the Creation Club, STEAMpunk Club, the First Lego League, Pinterest Craft Club, and more. Their new Fab Lab will be complete and open to the public this Spring, 2013. Learn more at

  • Eric Miller, President of Zepheira, and Dr. R. David Lankes, iSchool professor, created a project called Reference Extract that would use reference transactions as the basis for a credibility search engine. The goal of the project was to “demonstrate how librarians can be fundamental to making good decision on the Internet” (Miller via Dave Lankes).

Librarians can also be essential resources to entrepreneurs and start-ups, which have led some libraries, like the San Francisco Public Library, to develop small business centers. These librarians understand that knowing how to conduct effective research, including topics like trademark/copyright laws and market research, in addition to the specific domain areas of the product or service being produced is essential to a successful business venture.

  • Andrew Farah, an iSchool Information Management alumni, is co-founder of Rounded which operates out of the Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse. He had the idea of putting together a series of Vine videos of local start-up founders talking about how they have needed to research or uncover something but couldn’t and how “I wish I had a #startuplibrarian.” (This initiative is still in the works).

  • Syracuse University’s own Bird Library highlights the importance of entrepreneurship. The vision statement states that to be entrepreneurial means that Library staff members use their energy and intellect to reinvent and enhance their work to heighten services “to faculty and students and to preserve the collections. They assemble data and knowledgeable staff teams to analyze and improve services, physical spaces, and the digital environment. The entrepreneurial approach– questioning, creative, and resourceful– seeks better answers to make the Library a learning organization, one that constantly changes as it strives to be an integral component of teaching, learning, and research” (Syracuse University Library Vision).

Therefore, while some librarians may not actively think about entrepreneurship, we are linked to the concept by common characteristics and missions. Barbara Stripling, President Elect of ALA and an iSchool faculty member once said “I can’t imagine a librarian who doesn’t have PASSION.” Librarianship is about taking that passion and transforming it into action that serves the public good. As Barb so eloquently put it “we’re not just addressing needs anymore.

Libraries are helping community members achieve their dreams.” Professors and students at the iSchool are dedicated to this mission, which is why the school has created a new scholarship fund for incoming students interested in the topic of entrepreneurial librarianship, which was awarded for the first time to a member of the Fall 2013 cohort. What kinds of things do you think librarian innovators should be doing? What are your favorite examples of entrepreneurial librarianship?

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Stephanie C. Prato

is the Director of Play to Learn Services at the Fayetteville Free Library in New York. 

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