New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

For Lack of a Better Word

By Robert Drake

On a continuum of industry, libraries and venture capital fall pretty far apart, but middle ground – and good ideas – can be found in the strangest of places.  

Funding is sadly not an analogue, but within venture capital, it is well understood that for every good idea there are innumerable barriers to entry which prevent those ideas from taking shape.   

To solve this problem, so-called Accelerator/Incubator Programs are used. These organizations offer a variety of services like technology support, office space, and management training to nascent companies in order to accelerate or incubate their success.  Said differently, these entities provide an ecosystem of support and connections that allows stakeholder ideas to better manifest and progress.

There is often, and quite reasonably, a hesitancy in borrowing terminology, or worse process, from an aggressively competitive industry and applying it toward a more egalitarian environment.  Indeed, that jargonistic tug-of-war will never be resolved – see: patron versus customer versus user versus cardholder – but the conceptual approach behind a given phrase is often universal.  Accelerator Group is well-laden with capitalistic underpinnings, and Incubator Program is decidedly ambiguous, however the objective behind both represents the best of what libraries have been and offers a rich vocabulary for what they may become.

Consider, for example, digital eBooks.  
Most commonly, eBooks might be understood in terms of content and access.  In my own estimation, however, the content itself is not the service…not really.  True there is some content curation, but the real service offered here is marketing and technology support.  Libraries have identified benefits that can be offered to their stakeholders – the ability to access content while traveling or on lightweight devices with sizable fonts – and, having identified a solution to these needs, now serve to connect this solution with those who will benefit in the same way a classic incubator program might connect a budding inventor with a patent lawyer.  

Similarly, every Nook/Kindle/iPad question received by a library is an opportunity to provide technology support to their population in the same way an accelerator IT department provides server space or email accounts.  An evaluation of the eBook service would therefore take into account not the content itself – not solely anyway – but rather the degree to which digital eBooks have positioned the library as a solution provider and the extent to which their populations understand this availability and opportunity for assistance.

As intriguing as that may (or may not) be, the similarities between libraries and accelerator programs are even more salient when discussing the future.  Every library that has offered a ‘How to build a website’ class or offered training on Constant Contact/Mailchimp, or trained a club on using has worked directly to bring viability to the ideas found within their community.  A library that runs joint events with the local chamber of commerce, advertises their subscription to small businesses, shares its calendar with community groups, or any other activity that connects their population with trusted tools and expertise has done the same.  

At some level this can be considered a thoroughly economic activity (I’m personally convinced a National Day of Excel Training would add 5% to the GDP), but libraries are well-placed to position themselves not just as potential incubators of business success but as a sort of cultural incubator program.  Any and all projects, ideas, or initiatives that develop amongst their populations – whether that be faculty, students, community groups, local businesses, the public at large, or even other libraries  –  can be considered an opportunity for partnership, engagement, and support.   The challenge is often how to begin to that conversation.  

Venture capital and accelerator funds offer a parallel – and potential vocabulary – to do so.   
Sadly, the future of my Library Shark Tank pitch remains opaque.  Happily the ever-developing role libraries have in offering incubator services remains as optimistic as ever.  

Robert Drake is the Assistant Director for Technology Operations at the Nassau Library System.  He likes long walks up mountains, shorter walks down them, and everything National Parks.  The views, opinions, and positions here expressed are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of NLS, Robert Drake himself, or probably anyone...