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Small Business

Libraries Are Building Business Buzz

Trying to change with the times, libraries seek to convert themselves into business hubs.

The hottest place for business may soon be your local library. Really. Many cities plan to redesign, relocate and redefine their public libraries -- with business clients, large and small, in mind.

Many are taking a cue from Seattle, which opened the first multipurpose, business-centric public library in the U.S. as part of an effort to attract businesses to its struggling downtown.

It worked, thanks to a $200-million investment in 2003 to build an architecturally sweeping multipurpose library with local businesses as the beneficiaries. With banks on board, the city was able to meet most of its goals and will recoup the original investment by 2012. After that, Seattle will use the revenue from its new library as an annual budget resource.

The large, bright and appealing Seattle library houses conference rooms, multimedia labs, performance stages, workshops for business start-ups, art galleries, coffeehouses and more. It also hooks businesses up with digital artists and computer and Web-savvy IT staff for hire by the hour.

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Seattle is not alone. Salt Lake City has made its city library a welcoming multimedia business center. And Philadelphia plans to do the same with its historic public library. Cleveland is planning to revamp a city library to appeal to local businesses and start-up entrepreneurs. So are St. Louis, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Boston, Cleveland and Chicago are mulling similar efforts, and several smaller cities -- Greensboro, N.C., Roanoke, Va., and Springfield, Mass., for example -- are considering library overhauls. Besides taking suggestions from local businesses, benefactors, architects and city advocates, the libraries are studying overseas success stories.

Libraries in Vancouver, Canada; Turin, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; Melbourne, Australia, and a half dozen other cities have transformed their aging libraries into center-city attractions for local businesses. City mayors figure that their treasured but often unvisited great libraries should become centers of commerce, not just places for dusty books.

For many American cities, future libraries will house nonlibrary offices, too, such as small business loan centers, local bank branches, medical clinics, supervised child care areas, Social Security or tax offices or a convenient post office. And they’ll be strategically located in shopping areas or next to theaters and local business centers. Big cities, in particular, see libraries as key to urban revitalization and even as revenue raisers from rental fees.

Creative, sweeping architectural designs will be favored, as was the case in Seattle. The common mission is to turn the libraries into business hubs while retaining their nature and historical importance. There will be quiet reading rooms and no-talking zones similar to those in traditional libraries, but social interaction and business activity will be emphasized more often.