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CAREER ADVICE

How entrepreneurship librarians help campus accelerators grow

Helping start-ups from the library.

By CAREY TOANE | March 6, 2017

While academic librarians have supported campus start-ups and entrepreneurs since before the dot-com boom, the title “entrepreneurship librarian” is a relatively new one. When I started in that role at University of Toronto Library (UTL), St. George Campus, I was given a lot of freedom to define the role as I saw fit. I started by reaching out to the growing network of campus-linked accelerators formalized under the campus entrepreneurship office.

My approach is based on my experience as a business librarian and a former marketing journalist. What start-ups want most from the library is market research, regardless of their technology or subject area of expertise, and it’s my job to help them find it. This is done through supporting new venture-creation courses as well as through open resources and workshops on a range of topics, including campus orientation for start-ups, market sizing, primary research tools and strategies.

I also have the pleasure of working with librarians who are engaged with the entrepreneurship ecosystem, including UTL librarian Christina Kim, who is cross-appointed to the market intelligence team at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District. As senior manager, Christina and her team of information specialists and industry analysts deliver research and information services, publish articles and reports, conduct outreach and instruction, organize events, and work on digital projects to support start-ups. MaRS and UTL have distinct but complementary collections and approaches. UTL supports course-based researchers while MaRS offers research services to startups across the province, as well as to specific Canadian digital media network hubs across the country.

It wasn’t long before other entrepreneurship librarians at Canadian colleges and universities started reaching out. Rachel Figueiredo was the engineering librarian at University of Waterloo before “entrepreneurship” was added to her portfolio. Now serving U of Waterloo’s growing list of campus accelerators, entrepreneurship programs and student groups with an interest in starting a venture, Rachel’s first challenge was determining how to reach such a broad community to make them aware of the library’s services. Luckily, U of Waterloo’s entrepreneurs have proven to be a captive audience, ready and willing to accept help wherever they can get it.

After our first phone meeting, it was clear that Rachel and I shared a lot of similar responsibilities, questions and challenges about serving this community – and we weren’t alone. Over the next few months, a group of librarians from across the country formed organically, through informal networks and at conferences. Everyone had the same questions about licensing (Who has access to databases and for what purpose?), outreach (How do we reach this interdisciplinary and incredibly busy group of users?), and professional development (Where can I learn about what my colleagues are doing in this space?). Rather than maintain a series of separate conversations, we decided to meet as a group.

The first National Entrepreneurship Librarians conference call took place in March 2016, and the group has grown since then to approximately a dozen members from colleges and universities across Canada. Of course, not all of us are officially entrepreneurship librarians and we come from a variety of backgrounds. We share information about online resources and successful instruction sessions, pose questions to the group, and collaborate on small projects such as a national list of pitch competitions for postsecondary students. In what can sometimes be challenging and solitary work, the opportunity to meet with others who are similarly engaged is always inspiring.

One idea was a virtual conference to allow for a deeper look at some of the projects we’d developed, and the Academic Libraries Supporting Entrepreneurs Symposium was born. (Editor’s note: the symposium was scheduled for March 2, after University Affairs went to press.) Taking place entirely online, this free, inaugural meeting comprises two keynote speakers, as well as a round of lightning talks and a virtual discussion on a diverse range of topics, including outreach, programming, instruction, collections and original research. As event organizers, our goal is to provide a forum for professional development for a growing group of academic librarians from a variety of backgrounds and job descriptions engaged in entrepreneurship support. The symposium promises to be a breeding ground of inspiration for this community.

A version of this article first appeared in the Ontario Library Association publication, Open Shelf.

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