From the January 1999 issue of Startups

Here's the problem: You have got 24 hours to decide whether to use Joe's Discount Goods or Joanne's Value Products as your new supplier, or your customers won't get their shipments on time. You're in a quandary, wishing you could find just one nugget of information to tip the scales. Well, take a brief trip down memory lane. Remember that report you did in the sixth grade on marsupials? Now recall your sigh of relief when the librarian led you from the reference desk, across the silent carpet, past high school kids working on calculus and love letters, to that perfect book--the only book you used for the report.

It's time to rediscover your public library. Not much has changed since the sixth grade, and yet some aspects of the library are completely modern. From computer databases and free Internet access to hard-to-find business books and government documents, the public library may well become your research haven.

Recently, I visited our local business-friendly library, California's Newport Beach Public Library, and received a grand tour of the premises from information-services manager Susie Hubbs. Here's a rundown of some of the free things you can find at your local library. Note that most of it's in the reference section, so bring change for copies and a disk to download information from computerized databases.

Starting Line

The first section I visited was reference, which offers everything from demographics (Sourcebook of ZIP Code Demographics from Caci Marketing Systems Group, Rand McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide,or The Lifestyle Market Analyst from Standard Rate and Data Service) to industry trends (McGraw-Hill's U.S. Industry and Trade Outlook or Standard and Poor's Industry Surveys). Other topics include import-export, information on other businesses, legal and marketing, to name just a few. (See "Book Smarts" for more specific titles.) When you visit the business reference section, be sure to nose around. In the Newport Beach Public Library, large-volume sets like the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers are placed on tables for easier use, and many high-security items and loose-leaf books are behind the reference-desk counter.

Adjacent to this reference section, I found the business periodicals. Most public libraries have The Wall Street Journal--both current issues and past years--in their collection or on microfilm, as well as major newspapers like TheNew York Times or Los Angeles Times, depending on your area. Also look for local business publications to check out local industries and companies.

Electric Avenue

The next stop on my tour was the computer databases. This is probably the easiest place to gather information because you can print straight from the computer (for a fee), download information to a disk and even e-mail information to your office's PC if the databases are Internet-based. If you're looking for either general information on an industry or specific information on a company, InfoTrac SearchBank, an online reference system, is probably your best bet. Click on General Business File to search under topic, SIC code or a specific business name. It calls up articles (full-text as well as summary abstracts) from its index of more than 900 publications, company profiles and links to other relevant topics. The company profiles include business descriptions, sales and stock ticker (if available), officers, investment reports, links to online articles on the company, and profiles of the its subsidiaries.

You can also use the National Newspaper Index and General Reference Center on SearchBank to look up articles in newspapers and magazines. If only an abstract pops up, ask the librarian whether they carry the publication in their collection or on microfilm.

Looking for basic information on your competition, possible business partners or sales leads? Try the American Business Disc database, which carries more than 10 million listings you can search by category (like a telephone directory), location, sales volume, employee count or the name of the company. The listings show the companies' contact information, executives and, for public companies, their sales.

Another source of information on publicly-traded companies is Moody's Company Data, a database that includes highlights of each company's history, income information, subsidiaries and any properties the company owns. If your library doesn't have this database, check the reference stacks for Moody's books.

The Scenic Route

When you visit your local library, don't neglect the regular stacks. Also, ask what kinds of government publications they carry and whether their electronic card catalogs or databases are available online so you can search the stacks from your home office.

On your first visit to the library to do business research, the stacks of books and myriad places to look for information may seem a little daunting, but before long, your expertise at traversing the ins and outs of research will be renowned. The one thing to remember above all else? Return those library books on time so you won't have to add overdue fees to your list of business expenses.-

By The Numbers

Eat your heart out, Dewey. Here's the lowdown on where to look for business topics:

658.022: General small business
658.041: Home office
332: Finance
346.794: Legal
382: Import-export
338.7: International business
343.730: Taxes
658.8, 659.1: Marketing

Know The Code

Many business publications classify their listings according to Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, but these are quickly being replaced by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes. Both will make research faster and more efficient. Check out these Web sites for more information on both.

*http://www.theodora.com/sic_index.html : look up SIC codes

*http://www.census.gov/epcd/naics/naicscod.txt : look up NAICS codes

*http://www.census.gov/epcd/www/naicstab.htm : convert SIC to NAICS codes

Book Smarts

*Thomas Food Industry Register (Thomas Publishing Co.): lists manufacturers in the food industry

*Moody's Bank & Finance Manual (Moody's Investors Service): information on banks and financial institutions

*Ward's Business Directory of U.S. Private and Public Companies (Gale Research Co.): companies ranked alphabetically and by geographic area with information on sales, executives and number of employees

*Chain Store Guide series (Business Guides Inc.): guides on chain restaurant operators, food service distributors, discount and general-merchandise stores, department stores, and mail order firms

*Market Profile Analysis (Financial Services Group of Donnelley Marketing): demographics by ZIP code for population, banks and companies

*Pratt's Guide to Venture Capital Sources (Venture Economics Inc.)

*Standard Rate and Data Service publications: guides to advertising media including consumer magazines, business publications, direct marketing, newspapers, radio and TV

Contact Sources

Newport Beach Public Library, (949) 717-3800 ext. 2, nbplref@city.newport-beach.ca.us