Entrepreneurship can be lonely, especially in the early days before a business is large enough to hire a team. Many entrepreneurs are turning to co-working spaces to get out of their home (or coffee shop) and to meet other entrepreneurs. But these spaces aren’t available in every city — or in rural areas, in particular — and they cost money, which is often in short supply. It can be especially hard to justify spending money on a membership if you only need to use it occasionally.
But there’s a co-working space that can be found in most communities across the country, and best of all it’s free. It’s called the public library.
When Todd Horton, CEO of employee recognition platform KangoGift, wants to meet a client outside the office, he often suggests they meet at his local library in Cambridge, Mass. His library offers plenty of places to sit and talk with a client and “it’s more pleasant than a crowded café,” he says.
He’s one of many small business owners who use the library for more than just finding books to read. Libraries can provide a variety of services that can help entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses.
Here are four ways to make sure you take full advantage of this free nationwide resource.
1. Get Free Help
Librarians are research pros and do much more than recommend books. They can help you find useful intel for your business, such as market or product research or trade shows. They may be able to show you how to access industry publications, online or offline, that would be cost-prohibitive if you subscribed directly. Many librarians enjoy a challenge and will be happy to help a local entrepreneur gather the information they need to be successful. After Hurricane Sandy, many individuals visited their libraries to file for SBA disaster assistance — just one of the many ways libraries help their communities.
2. Work Anywhere
There are roughly 16,000 public libraries across the U.S. (including branches), so when you’re traveling, a library may be a great place to work for a few hours, a day or longer. While some services such as checking out books may be limited to patrons with a library card, it’s often easy to get a guest pass to use a library computer, and WiFi access is usually freely available. (Virtually all public libraries have WiFi access.) In addition, you’ll typically find copy machines and printers available at a reasonable cost if you need them. Unlike a coffee shop or restaurant, a library is designed for those who want to get something done.
3. Set Up Your Business Properly
Your librarian can point you to helpful information about everything from creating a business plan to incorporating your business to filing taxes. (Here’s a checklist of 14 steps to make your business legit.) While it may be necessary to get professional help in some cases, you may be able to save money by doing some or all of the groundwork yourself. Some libraries offer “maker spaces” where you can use the latest technology to create brochures or other advertising items for your business — or even produce a prototype!
5. Make Valuable Contacts
Some libraries offer networking events or resources for patrons. There could be a book club that discusses business books, for example, or an event featuring an author of one. Some even offer business networking events. If there is nothing like that at your local library, you may be able to start a group or event, and the library can even help you get the word out to other visitors. In addition, some libraries offer classes in technology or other important skills.
Also Good to Know…
Of course there can be drawbacks, including limited hours at some locations. A couple of important tips to keep in mind:
If you need to make phone calls or hop on a conference call, you will want to make sure there a place to do so without disturbing others, as well as to avoid having someone eavesdrop on potentially sensitive information. You may be able to book a private study room or, if necessary, step outside.
2. How to Protect Your Business Online
Free WiFi is a big draw for many library patrons, but be careful when using public WiFi, especially if you are accessing sensitive files or conducting business transactions online. For example, while reviewing your business finances and monitoring your business credit are important activities for a small business owner, you want to make sure you are on a secure and private internet connection when you do so. Consider installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) you can use in situations like these. It’s important to protect your business from identity theft, just as you protect your personal information.
Have you used your library to help grow your business? Share your story in the comments below.
This article was originally written on March 6, 2018 and updated on January 31, 2021.