Check It Out

All the information you need to start your business is the library.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the June 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

When you're getting ready to start a new business, you have dozens of questions that need answers. How do you define your market, identify your competition and determine growth potential in your industry? What about targeting new customers and getting start-up capital? The answers to these and hundreds of other questions are right around the corner . . . at your public library.

If the last time you visited a library was with your sixth-grade class field trip, now's the time to get reacquainted. Where else can you get so much valuable information--most of it free? With many libraries now offering access to databases and the Internet, a world of information is just a few keystrokes away.

In fact, the average library has so much data, it can be overwhelming. Where do you look first? Follow along with Jane Smith, a start-up entrepreneur visiting her local library to research a new business idea. Smith wants to market a line of handmade greeting cards featuring pets in playful, humorous settings. She believes there's a niche for her Wagging Tales cards, but before she proceeds, she needs more information.

Chapter One

Smith visits the general reference section to ask the librarian how to get started. "The best place to start is the online catalog. We call ours `Eureka,' " the librarian says. "It replaces the old-fashioned paper card catalog and tells you what books and pamphlets are available on the greeting card industry."

Using Eureka, Smith finds several books with good industry statistics. At the librarian's suggestion, she also checks the Business Periodical Index, a separate online computer system, to search for magazine and newspaper articles on successful greeting card companies and consumer tastes in greeting cards.

With this foundation, Smith heads to the business reference section. She needs more specific information. "What should I do next?" she asks.

"Why don't you begin with The Small Business Sourcebook: The Entrepreneur's Resource?" suggests the reference librarian. "It's a compilation of 17,000 sources, including books, articles, statistics and other data on various industries. There's also information on starting a business."

The Sourcebook (Gale Research) is a perfect start. Smith finds several magazine articles on greeting card entrepreneurs, plus names of trade shows and conventions. She also notes a helpful periodical called Greeting Card Market that covers industry trends and marketing techniques.

To find associations representing greeting card businesses, Smith peruses the Encyclopedia of Associations (Gale Research), a three-volume reference book listing nearly 30,000 associations. She finds a listing for the Greeting Card Association, including an address and phone number, services, publications, conventions and contacts.


"Where can I get information about my competition?" Smith asks. The librarian shows her the Million Dollar Directory (Duns Marketing Service), which lists public and private companies, including type of company, address, sales, number of employees and names of directors and officers. Smith finds several small potential competitors. Checking another directory, Hoover's Handbook of American Companies (The Reference Press Inc.), Smith gathers similar information about one of her biggest future competitors, Hallmark Cards Inc.

Cast Of Characters

Next, Smith needs to build a profile of her customers. While she believes anyone who likes animals is a potential customer, she wants to be more specific. If she decides to market her cards throughout Southern California, how do buyers there differ from buyers in, say, Madison, Wisconsin?

Because there's no single source for this information, the librarian suggests Smith try several resources. First she checks Editor & Publisher's Market Guide (Editor & Publisher Co.), an annual guide forecasting economic activity and retail sales in every newspaper market in the United States and Canada. Smith also looks at the Sourcebook of ZIP Code Demographics (Caci Marketing Systems), which has statistics on disposable income across the country.

Who's Buying?

The Lifestyle Market Analyst, published by Standard Rate & Data Service (SRDS), proves to be a gold mine, with information about demographics and lifestyle activities for cities throughout the country. The book gives Smith information she didn't expect: dozens of consumer magazines and sources of direct-mail lists, categorized by lifestyle. If Smith ever uses direct mail to market her cards, she knows where to find lists targeted to animal lovers.

Smith is curious about the cost of advertising in magazines and newspapers around the country. The librarian suggests she look at the series of books SRDS publishes. "Each book is updated annually," the librarian explains, "and covers a different medium: television, radio, business publications, consumer magazines and direct marketing."

Easy Reading

Smith feels confident her greeting card business is a good idea, but she still needs more information on how to start, so she combs the reference stacks. There, she finds books on everything from writing a business plan to government loans.

"Is there any other information available on starting a small business?" Smith asks the librarian.

"This library is a depository for SBA documents," says the librarian, leading Smith to the government reference section. "That means we've got dozens of SBA pamphlets on start-up topics."

Also in the government section, Smith finds information on patents, trademarks and copyrights, and how to protect her business name. Later, when she wants to research legal issues in greater detail, she'll visit the local law school library or county courthouse. (Check use privileges at your law school library; access is sometimes restricted to students.)

Do It Yourself

Smith made her search easier by working with a reference librarian, who pointed out resources and showed her how to find information herself. To get the most from your librarian, take three important steps:

1.Start with a clear idea of the information you're seeking. Asking for "any information on Japan" is too general. Do you want "import data for household gifts and accessories" or "help from the government for entrepreneurs wanting to do business in Japan"? The more specific your request, the better.

2.Get oriented. Find out where the library's business, government and general reference materials are. Some library tours include interactive instruction on using library databases and searching the Web.

3.Learn basic research techniques. Ask if handouts are available on how to use the library's online catalog. Request a tutoring session (usually free). Learn how to conduct specialized searches of the library's databases and use Internet search engines more efficiently.

In no time, you'll be thinking like a researcher and gathering information on your own. Once you've become familiar with the resources available at your public library, you'll turn to this resource again and again as your business grows.

Get It Online

Most libraries offer free modem dial-in access to their electronic card catalogs, so you can find out what's on the library's shelves without ever leaving your home or office. You can download magazine and newspaper articles on topics you're researching and, in most cases, you can download information from the library's online databases. Check with your library or visit its Web page for information on its specific online programs.

Internet Public Library, run by the University of Michigan's School of Information, has a listing of 3,000 useful Web sites on business and other topics; Web pages for trade and business associations; and a catalog of online newspapers and magazines focusing on business, economics and entrepreneurship. Staff librarians respond to queries for free. Visit or call (313) 764-7321.

Fast Facts

At the library, you can access dozens of commercial online databases for the full text of important business documents. Here's a sampling:

  • American Business Disc. Valuable information on thousands of U.S. businesses, including address, phone number, sales, number of employees, contact names and more.
  • Commerce Business Daily ( Full text of announcements issued by the Department of Commerce on contracts, procurements, requests for products, research and service needs of U.S. government agencies.
  • National Trade Data Bank. Collection of databases produced by the U.S. government on domestic commerce and international trade.
  • If you have access to a university or law school library, check out Lexis/Nexis ( This exhaustive online database is divided into two parts. Lexis covers U.S. and state legislation, court cases, bills and legal issues. Nexis provides articles from business newspapers, magazines and periodicals, and company annual reports.

For Future Reference

Among the most useful reference books you'll find at your public library:

  • Business Information Desk Reference: Where to Find Answers to Business Questions (Macmillan). Tells where to find information on almost any business topic, from finding funds to starting a business.
  • Encyclopedia of Business Information Sources (Gale Research). Bibliography with 24,000 citations on 1,100 subjects, listing directories, encyclopedias, yearbooks, online databases, trade groups and professional societies.
  • Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcasting Media (Gale Research). Lists newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations by geographic area.
  • Industry Surveys (Standard & Poor's). Publications covering 69 major domestic industries with prospects for future activity.
  • Thomas Register of American Manufacturers (Thomas Register). Comprehensive guide listing thousands of product manufacturers.
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