Let's Transform Our Libraries Into New Incubators of Business

Fellow, RIETI

One of the biggest news items last year was the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Koichi Tanaka, a researcher at Shimadzu Corp. Tanaka's receipt of the prize has brought both hope and courage to the Japanese people. At the same time, it has also shed light on the closed nature of Japan, a country that attaches a great deal of importance to grand names and titles while failing to properly value truly brilliant study or innovative ideas.

Bringing out the Potential Ability of "Unknown" People is Necessary to Revitalize Society

The same kind of tendency is observed in policies for nurturing new business that have been implemented as a response to our prolonged state of economic stagnation. Collaboration between business, the academy, and government, as well as university-initiated venture businesses, graduate schools for working people, and plans to create "incubation centers" equipped with leading-edge information technology are all surely important measures. At the same time, however, it is necessary to address the needs of people who are not covered by such measures. These are people who are unknown to the public: those who entered the business world without attending or graduating from universities, those without impressive titles but who nevertheless have a strong will to create something of significance, those who have not led fabulous careers but who offer excellent expertise accumulated over the course of many years, full-time housewives, or even those seen as "dropouts."

At a time when the proportion of new businesses keeps on falling and the business closure rate continues to rise, it is of growing importance for Japan to bring out and foster the hidden potential of such people. Diverse ideas cannot emerge if we focus only on those at the top. Rather, only broad-based contributions will lead to the development of new, never-before-seen businesses and revive not only the economy but Japanese society as a whole.

In recognition of this situation, RIETI, in cooperation with the Business Support Library Promotion Association (for which the author serves as vice chairman), organized a policy symposium last fall entitled "Business Support Libraries Getting into Motion" (click here for a report on the symposium; Japanese only). Business and public libraries may appear to be an unusual combination. As the informatization of economic activities proceeds in industrialized countries, however, a growing number of public libraries have developed into information support centers, to be used as "service stations" to assist business startups and to provide support to small and midsize enterprises, as well as to small-office-home-office operators. Besides printed materials, various services and events - ranging from otherwise costly commercial databases, consulting by professional librarians, and network-creating events to seminars and consulting services for business startups - are being offered basically free of charge.

Public libraries in the United States, which are known for their especially developed services, have been providing support in starting up businesses and finding jobs for many years, helping to launch a number of new businesses [Ref. "Shinki Bijinesu o Mebukaseru Bei-Kokyo-Toshokan (U.S. Public Libraries as Incubators for Burgeoning Businesses);" Japanese only]. Also, in many other countries, the importance of the public library's function as a business support center is increasingly being recognized. The British Library (famous as the place where Karl Marx authored "Capital") offers well-established business information services, storing science, technology, and business collections along with a full range of practical materials. Meanwhile, a newly opened public library in Shanghai has introduced a business support service as one of its functions. The European Parliament, in its resolution, points to the need to provide information-related support to small and midsize enterprises given the progress of informatization. There is a growing recognition that efficient information-gathering is vital to the success of startup businesses as well as of small and midsize enterprises. Against such a backdrop, library policies are becoming more and more linked to economic strategies.

Library Symposium Introduced Various Cases and Activities concerning Use of Libraries for Business-Related Purposes

The symposium was organized to provide an opportunity for library officials and businesspeople, who have previously only rarely interacted, to get together, deepen the discussion on the new roles of libraries, and learn from each other concerning the development of business support services. Although the symposium was held during a three-day holiday, some 400 people - not only library officials and businesspeople but also local government officials, members of nonprofit organizations (NPOs), students, and members of the media- gathered at Hitotsubashi Memorial Hall in Tokyo. During the symposium, presenters reported on case examples of progressive initiatives in various areas while entrepreneurs expressed their expectations relating to the future roles of libraries.

Among all of these presentations, that of Midori Sato, who turned from a full-time housewife into vice president of "Her Story," an award-winning Internet-based company, was especially suggestive. Hoping to bring out the hidden power of housewives, Sato and her partner founded the company in 1990. Today, it is Japan's No. 1 female networking company, boasting some 70,000 members across the country. Sato said that a book she found in a library gave her the initial cue in determining the type of business she wanted to start. Sato, who fully utilized a library to gather information when starting up her business, also used materials and resources available there. She truly represents someone who has realized a dream with the help of a library. Even today, though her business is already on the right track, Sato says that she continues to use the library.

Sato's was not the only success story. A man in his forties said he was about to open his own "izakaya," a Japanese-style eating and drinking establishment, realizing a long-held dream. The main concept of his izakaya is to let people know more about the charms of various regions through tasting of locally-brewed Japanese sake from each region. "This is going to be totally different from the mediocre izakaya restaurants you find elsewhere," he said, glowing with enthusiasm for his mission. Like Sato, he also took full advantage of library resources. He referred to cookbooks for menu ideas and recipes, while looking up the types and features of locally-brewed sake as well as the climate of regions in which each kind of sake is brewed. Not only that, he said, the library provided him with virtually all other necessary information, ranging from information about the location of his restaurant to tips on marketing and promotion as well as on the design of leaflets. "It is unfortunate that many people are not aware of the true value of a library--it is so useful," he said.

Libraries Should Offer Professional Navigational Functions

There is a strongly held perception in Japan that a library is a place where people borrow books for free or students preparing for entrance exams can secure a quiet space to study. By nature, however, libraries are more than this, serving as information and research centers for citizens. Whatever action a person intends to take, the first step is to gather and analyze information. In this context it is noteworthy that library standards in selecting books are noticeably different from those of bookstores. Libraries offer a comprehensive stock of information in diverse media formats, and librarians provide professional information-navigation services. Most importantly, libraries are open on Saturdays and Sundays, and anyone can drop by freely.

Considering such features, libraries may be able to excavate a new layer of potential entrepreneurs - those who may not be particularly interested in business at the moment - by constantly providing information and/or organizing relevant free seminars. If budgets are tight, libraries could simply collect and distribute various leaflets that would serve as valuable sources of information; they may also be able to attract a more diverse range of visitors by asking officials of various organizations to offer consultation services at libraries. And if they can afford to do so, libraries could introduce databases to enhance convenience of use. Of course, a library does not need to try to provide all information by itself. What is important is to be able to offer a professional "navigational function," to tell users where to go to obtain the particular information they need.

Libraries Should Provide Services that Match Long-Term Needs

Details about the symposium (Japanese) are listed on the RIETI website. However, based on a variety of feedback, including responses to questionnaires distributed on-site and e-mails received from participants afterwards, I would say that the symposium was able to add momentum to the ongoing move to transform public libraries into business support centers. Quite a few people said that although they were initially unsure as to how business and libraries are linked, they have come to understand through the symposium why and how such linkage is important. And enthusiasm seems to be continuing, as I have been kept happily busy with numerous advice-seeking calls from those hoping to provide business support services in various locations in Japan.

As I listen to their concrete ideas, however, I find quite a few problematic points. For one thing, some promoters, having no clear missions or visions of their own, seem to resort to the facile idea that all that is required is a fine building (designed by a famous architect) equipped with cutting-edge information technologies; this tendency is particularly conspicuous in cases in which a newly built facility plans to adopt a business support function. Second, virtually no basic research has been conducted on the unique features of the communities that the various libraries are to serve and on the particular informational needs of the people within such communities. Third, many such people are preoccupied with shortsighted ideas and lack a long-term perspective that would enable them to think in terms of sustainable services.

It is clear from previous surveys that the most critical factor in providing business support services is not the facility but the quality of staff who actually provide the support. As reported at the symposium, the presence of staff who have ideas, enthusiasm, and leadership compensates for shortcomings in terms of budget and facilities. Of course, efforts by libraries alone are not enough. Support of the relevant governmental organizations and business communities is indispensable. It is also important to maintain close contact between libraries and the parties concerned - local governments, chambers of commerce and industry, promotional bodies for regional development, startup support organizations, NPOs, and the business community - and to define their respective roles and complementary relations. Most importantly, it is necessary to inform people efficiently of the services they can receive at their local libraries.

Libraries Are Vital in Bringing out Individual Potential and Ideas

Bill Gates of Microsoft Corp. is said to have made good use of a Seattle library in starting up his business. Back then, he was just an ordinary person who had dropped out of university. Likewise, among a number of ordinary people who made full use of the resources of the world-renowned New York Public Library are the founders of Xerox Corp., Pan American World Airways, Polaroid Corp., and Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

In light of the perspective described above, there seems to be a fairly good chemistry between libraries and business. And chances are that many potential entrepreneurs are out there across Japan, although they may still be hidden. Given the reality of today's Japan, which is suffocating under lingering stagnation and unable to present a vision for new businesses, it is all the more important to redefine libraries as new "incubation centers" to bring out, to the fullest extent, the various ideas and hidden abilities of individuals and, by doing so, to revitalize the economy.

January 7, 2003

January 7, 2003