Could Howard County libraries help grow Howard County’s economy?

Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend the Evening in the Stacks fundraiser at the Miller Branch of the Howard County Library System. However that won’t stop me from doing a library-themed blog post to mark the occasion:

Recently the Howard County Times published an article highlighting the HiTech program at the Savage Branch. To quote from the library’s web site, HiTech is a “new digital media lab for teens centering on science, technology, engineering and math”. It’s part and parcel of the library’s expanding role as an educational resource for Howard County residents.

But what happens when all those teens graduate from the HiTech program and go out into the world of work? Could the Howard County Library System play a role not just in educating young people, but in helping those young people and others put their education to work as entrepreneurs? The Atlantic Cities, a companion site to the Atlantic Monthly’s online presence, recently published an article explaining “Why libraries should be the next great startup incubators”:

Would-be entrepreneurs everywhere are looking for business know-how and physical space to incubate their start-ups. Libraries meanwhile may be associated today with an outmoded product in paper books. But they also happen to have just about everything a 21st century innovator could need: Internet access, work space, reference materials, professional guidance.

Why not … put these two ideas together?

The article goes on to discuss a program in which Arizona State University will partner with the local library system to provide “dedicated co-working spaces … as well as both formal classes and informal mentoring from the university’s start-up resources … everything, in short, but seed money”. In essence it’s a step up from the current common practice of people hanging around the library to work on their laptops and access reference material, while not substituting for a full-fledged incubator program that provides startup funding.

Would something like this work in Howard County? For some time now I’ve been interested in the idea of co-working spaces in Howard County—in fact, it’s what first got me involved in the hoCo blog scene, via commenting on Jessie Newburn’s blog and then doing a guest post on the topic. I’m still skeptical on the idea, for reasons stated in the post. However I think it’s worth taking another look at, and along those lines here’s an idea I’ll throw out there:

With the redevelopment of downtown Columbia and the implementation of the new Inner Arbor plan, one key element will be replacing the Central Branch of the Howard County library system with a new facility along the lines of the new Miller Branch. Why not make a key element of that new facility a co-working space cum business resource center along the lines described in the Atlantic Cities article? In fact, let’s think even bigger: Why not take the current Innovation Catalyst (iCat) program (run by the Howard County Economic Development Authority’s Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship), move it from its current (rather obscure) location off Route 108, and make it a part of an expanded Central Branch as well? The iCat facility and associated coworking space could be to the new Central Branch what the Howard County Historical Center is to the Miller Branch: something that adds value to the library and can leverage the library’s resources.

Now I can see real problems with fitting all this stuff in: The Howard County Historical Center is only 3,000 square feet out of the 63,000 square feet at Miller Branch, while the current iCat office is 25,000 square feet. (By comparison the current Central Branch is just under 50,000 square feet.) But I still like the idea of expanding the idea of the library from a place to learn things to also be a place to do things, and have it do its part to help drive economic growth in Howard County. Now that the Inner Arbor plan is starting down the road to being realized, let’s think about what else can be done to add life and vibrancy to the new downtown.