Why Startups Need Libraries (and Librarians)

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  • The Serials Librarian, 67:3137, 2014Published with license by Taylor & FrancisISSN: 0361-526X print/1541-1095 onlineDOI: 10.1080/0361526X.2014.915610

    Why Startups Need Libraries (and Librarians)

    LAUREN RESTIVOPratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, New York, New York, USA

    Academic libraries must play a direct role in supporting the nextgeneration of entrepreneurs to get their start. The primary wayto do this is through the development of library space to supportinnovation. Additionally, entrepreneurial library and informationscience (LIS) students should look for work beyond the library. Theknowledge and skills that they acquire in the classroom are exactlythose that startup companies need and want in new hires. If aca-demic libraries embrace the need to break from the old and trysomething new, they can become hubs of innovation on increas-ingly entrepreneurial college campuses. And if entrepreneurialLIS students embrace the learning objectives of their programs,they can become the ideal new hire for any number of emerginginnovative startup companies.

    KEYWORDS startup, startup company, entrepreneurship, innova-tion, academic library


    Last November, the United States celebrated National Entrepreneurs Day,1

    which began in 2010 when the Obama administration first proclaimedNovember as National Entrepreneur Month. Paired a few months later withthe 2011 launch of the Startup America initiative,2 National Entrepreneur Dayrecognized, for the first time, the American entrepreneurial spirit as a part ofpublic discourse. In his 2013 proclamation,3 Obama noted, Our Nation isstrongest when we broaden entrepreneurial opportunity, when more of uscan test our ideas in the global marketplace, and when the best innovations

    Lauren RestivoAddress correspondence to Lauren Restivo, Pratt Institute School of Information and

    Library Science, 144 W. 14th Street, Floor 6, New York, NY 10011, USA. E-mail: laurenrestivo@gmail.com



  • 32 L. Restivo

    can rise to the top; continuing that the role of universities is to cultivatehubs of innovation so that these opportunities, ideas, and innovations mightflourish. In doing so, Obama not only acknowledged the need for universi-ties to lay the groundwork for future innovators and entrepreneurs, but alsoimplicitly called on the individuals who maintain the operation of these uni-versities, library and information science scholars included, to consider theirrole in an increasingly entrepreneurial environment on the college campus.


    While universities have broadly been warming to the idea of becominghubs of innovation, this opportunity has not yet begun to take shape inmany critical sectors of the university, including libraries. This is both amisfortune and a call to action, and was most clearly evidenced in Octoberof this year when the Commerce Department issued a 100-page reporttitled, The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University,4 in which the wordlibrary was not once mentioned. This is alarming as the report notesboth that, Over the last two decades, the majority of job creation in theUnited States has occurred in young, startup companies, and, Over thelast decade, universities have been the largest sector to receive federalresearch and development (R&D) grantsreceiving nearly $36 billion fromfederal agencies in FY2009. So not only are startup companies the primarysource of job creation in the U.S. economy, but universities are also theprimary sector that the government invests in to encourage the research andinnovation from which startups are born.

    The body of the report considers quite extensively the best practicesof the most successful universities in using federal funding to become bothinnovative and entrepreneurial, ranging from promoting student innovationwith degree programs; patent clinics; internships; business competitions; andinnovative residence halls to supporting faculty research with entrepreneursin residence and including entrepreneurial activity in the promotion andtenure requirements. Even more ambitious is the successful practice ofactively expanding the role of University Technology Transfer Offices, facili-tating university collaboration with industry, and engaging with regional andlocal economic development plans. One might find it intuitive that librarieswould be involved with many, if not all, of these best practices; and whilethey might be indirectly, it is significant that the report does not once mentionthem specifically.

    In the face of such exclusion, academic libraries must now call onthemselves to play a direct role in supporting the next generation ofentrepreneurs to get their start. And academic librarians must be bothcognizant of the needs of budding entrepreneurs and to have themselvesthe mindset of a startup culture. The primary way in which a library

  • Why Startups Need Libraries (and Librarians) 33

    can support entrepreneurship is the development of its space to supportinnovation. And as a model, they can look to private spaces that are quicklybecoming the hubs of innovation that the president encouraged universitycampuses to develop.

    One such example is Techpad,5 located across the street from theVirginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. Techpad is a 6,000-square-footco-working space for creative thinkers, designers, and developers, all work-ing for student-founded startup companies using the space to conduct theirbusiness. The concept of co-working space encourages constant communi-cation with individual students, other startups, and Techpad advisors, formerand current business leaders who guide student and company development.In their 3-minute introduction video,6 every one of the Techpad participantsinterviewed cites collaboration as what makes Techpad both a good environ-ment in which to work and a successful launchpad for startup companies.And perhaps most poignantly, one student even offers that Techpad pullsin students who otherwise would have been unaware of entrepreneurialopportunities located right across the street from their college campus.

    Everything that Techpad does, libraries can do in a university-supported,campus setting. And Brian Mathews, the Associate Dean of Learningand Outreach at the Virginia Tech Libraries, has already begun to con-sider the implications of this in his research. In his white paper, ThinkLike a Startup,7 Mathews composes a manifesto of sorts for encouragingentrepreneurial spirit in academic libraries. His advice ranges from philo-sophical to strategic, but embraces throughout the idea of breaking free fromthe old to try the new. A few key takeaways from Mathews paper include:

    1. Not aiming to simply expand services, but solve problems. Mathewsbelieves that the library is a platform, not a place, and that libraries mustchallenge themselves to invent new solutions to current problems.

    2. Performing less assessment and focusing more on R&D. This returns touniversities receiving the largest amount of funding from the federal gov-ernment for R&D. Libraries, as a part of universities, can benefit from thisif their focus is on research and development.

    3. Trying many solutions, maintaining the ones that work, and giving up onthe ones that do not.

    4. Providing space for usable, feasible, and valuable ideas to incubate, fail,and evolve.

    5. Remembering that innovation happens in the public space, and is a messyand disruptive process.

    6. Staking a claim in other parts of scholarly enterprise.7. And finally, embracing the knowledge that entrepreneurialism is not going

    away. Libraries must learn to incorporate it into their models while strivingto change the profession in doing so.

  • 34 L. Restivo

    If libraries want to become a key player in the growing innovative andentrepreneurial university, they need to be willing to embrace these take-aways and become spaces that support the next generation of entrepreneurs.


    But perhaps entrepreneurial library and information science students wantto find work beyond the university library. This is not only a possibility, butalso an attainable reality. The knowledge and skills that library and informa-tion science students acquire in the classroom are exactly those that startupcompanies need and want in new hires.

    In a 2011 article in defense of a PhD in the humanities,8 DamonHorowitz concludes, You go into the humanities to pursue your intellec-tual passion; and it just so happens, as a by-product, that you emerge asa desired commodity for industry. Although specifically referring to the ITsector, on a broader level Horowitz, the in-house philosopher at Google, isexamining what it takes to be a desired commodity in a startup economy. Heeven acknowledges this himself when he references his involvement with astartup called Aardvark, a search engine that defined a query as, an invita-tion to a human engagement. Horowitz argues that this focus on the humanis what made Aardvark a successful startup; and that it was his educationaldevelopment that allowed the idea to be born at all.

    While Horowitz is writing to technologists whom he would like to con-vert to humanists through humanity PhD programs, his argument could beequally, if not better, made for pursuing a degree in library and informationscience. When it comes to employability in IT startups, Horowitz believesthat it is a human-centered approach that makes one exceptional. And this isat the very core of the library and information science degree. Take for exam-ple, the final portfolio of graduates of the Pratt Institute School of Informationand Library Science.9 Of five core learning objectives that a student mustdemonstrate having achieved throughout the program, one is a user-centeredfocus in which they apply concepts related to use and users of informationand user needs and perspectives. This is precisely what Horowitz desiresnew hires in the startup world demonstrate, and illustrates that librarians, ascontent creators with a user-centered focus, are not only what the startupworld needs, but also what it wants.

    In addition to user-centered focus, the four remaining learning objec-tives of a Pratt Institute information and library science student arecarrying-out and applying research; demonstrating excellent communicationskills and creating and conveying content; using information technology anddigital tools effectively; and performing within the framework of professionalpractice. Together, these five learning objectives create the ideal new hire forstartup companies.

  • Why Startups Need Libraries (and Librarians) 35

    Demographically speaking, who works at startups is quite diverse.In 2012, UP Global, a nonprofit that works with and researches startup com-panies, released an infographic10 featuring startup company profiles and newhires. Regarding expanding and location, more than 75% of the startups sur-veyed were looking to hire in the next 12 months and were looking to doso locally. But more importantly, the positions that they listed as both mostdifficult and most needed to fill were positions that library and informationscience graduates easily fit.

    The idea that library and information science students could continueon after graduation to work for a startup company is further supported bya 2011 blog post11 on the Syracuse School of Information Studies website.In her post, Mia Breitkopf, a student at the time, explored non-library jobsfor library and information science students. Many of the jobs she listed,including project manager, analytics manager, information resource special-ist, and technology coordinator, happened to be positions listed by startupcompanies.

    Even today, one need not look any farther than a few startup compa-nies websites and hiring pages to see how the skills that an informationand library science student develops in the classroom are those that startupswant. The tech startup, bitly,12 is currently looking to hire a business devel-opment representative who is, resourceful and metrics driven, an expert atbuilding knowledge-based product value from limited information, and iseager to learn. Refinery29, a fashion and style website, has a listing for amarketing coordinator13 whose day-to-day responsibilities include, analyz-ing performance of partner and influencer initiatives; working closely withthe social media team to ideate on growing social channels; experiment-ing with new and alternative ways to leverage social media activities; andmonitoring trends, strategies and best practices in the market. And onlineretailer, Birchbox, is searching for a brand campaign analyst14 to, gatherdata sets from various sources and identify data trends to include in cam-paigns, and serve as data expert for brand partners to inform new campaigndesigns.

    Returning to the Pratt Institute library and information student, itbecomes clear that he or she will have the skill set necessary to fulfill anyof these roles upon completion of his or her degree, through fulfillmentof the schools established learning objectives of research, communica-tion, user-centered focus, technology, and library and information sciencepractice.


    The future, as indicated by present trends, shows that the startup companyis the way in which the economy is building itself back. And startups need

  • 36 L. Restivo

    libraries and librarians. The question now is how libraries and librarianswill answer this call, and in doing so, demonstrate that they need startupsas much as startups need them. If academic libraries embrace the need tobreak from the old and try something new, they can become the centralhub of innovation at increasingly entrepreneurial college campuses. And ifentrepreneurial library and information science students embrace the learn-ing objectives of their programs, they can become the ideal new hire for anynumber of emerging innovative startup companies. In this sense, the futureof library and information science is an innovative one.


    1. National Entrepreneurs Day, 2013, http://entrepreneursday.org/ (accessedNovember 14, 2013).

    2. United States, Small Business Administration, Startup America, 2013, http://www.sba.gov/about-sba/sba_initiatives/startup_america# (accessed November14, 2013).

    3. United States, The White House, Presidential ProclamationNational Entre-preneurship Month, 2013 (Washington, DC: Office of the Press Secretary, 2013),http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/10/31/presidential-proclamation-national-entrepreneurship-month-2013 (accessed November 14, 2013).

    4. United States, Department of Commerce, The Innovative and EntrepreneurialUniversity: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus(Washington, DC: Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship EconomicDevelopment Administration, 2013), http://www.eda.gov/pdf/The_Innovative_and_Entrepreneurial_University_Report.pdf (accessed November 14, 2013).

    5. Techpad, 2013, http://www.techpad.org/ (accessed November 1...