The Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County provides numerous resources for businesses.
In this edition’s Business Strategies Experts Q&A, Edward Koltonski, appointed business and investment librarian in February, explains what resources are available and how he works with would-be entrepreneurs and existing businesses to help them achieve lasting success.
What is the Business and Information Center?
Edward Koltonski: The Business and Information Center, also called the BIC for short, in one form or another, has been assisting startups, existing businesses and individuals seeking to get information on finance since 1924.
At its heart, the mission hasn’t changed much, even though the way librarians fulfill that mission certainly has.
Fundamentally, we seek to provide instruction, education and access to the best available information to help our customers start and grow their business, understand the economy and learn how to invest their money in their own future.
What do you do as the librarian in charge of the BIC?
Koltonski: In many ways, my role is not dissimilar to any other librarian in that my main responsibilities include developing, expanding and providing access to business-related materials. That said, while many of my daily tasks grow out of my training as a librarian, I also find myself filling a number of unique roles based on the needs of the library’s users. I guess you could say that my real job is to wear many different hats in the pursuit of getting customers what they need to get where they need to be.
Could you talk more about those different hats?
Koltonski: First, it’s important to note that a business plan is not something that you whip together over a long weekend. It requires a lot of work and research to make it a great starting point for your business.
That being the case, it’s not uncommon for somebody to schedule a Book-a-Librarian session with me and show up tired, anxious and annoyed about the whole process.
When that happens, one of the first things I try to accomplish is to help them cope with those feelings so they can get back to doing their best work.
For me, this usually involves discovering what is causing their frustration, finding them resources that can help and telling a few un-funny jokes to lighten their mood. A lot of the time, I find that it’s not any one aspect of the process that’s causing the issue, it’s just burnout. With such a monumental task ahead of them, people sometimes decide to work on the plan every minute of the day.
I try to get them to see the big picture: that this process takes time and you need to allow yourself to have a life, spend time with the people you care about and give yourself a break. To fall back on an overly used simile: Writing a business plan is more like a marathon than a sprint.
There is also a “translating” aspect that’s important in my work. Like a lot of subjects, business has its own vocabulary and that can be hard to figure out when you’re getting started.
For example, people often use the terms “marketing” and “advertising” interchangeably. While they are linked, they really mean separate things.
To help a library patron better explain themselves, I start by translating the way the everyday person thinks about this topic into the way that a business professional thinks about it.
That typically involves a combination of approaches, such as directing them to a business-specific reference book or website, then discussing the three main aspects: marketing, advertising and brand.
In some ways this is just a vocabulary lesson, but I believe that translating is a better way to think of the process. I want them to understand the relationship, not memorize it.
You’ve mentioned “Book-a-Librarian.” What is that?
Koltonski: Book-a-Librarian is a service provided by all the librarians of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County where users can get a free, one-hour, one-on-one appointment with a librarian for help in almost any area.
I have personally met with users to help with issues ranging from figuring out a piece of software to formatting a document. However, as is the case with all the library’s subject specialists, most of my sessions are about my specialty in business and investment.
There is no limit on the service and I’ve met with some users several times as new questions or concerns have arisen. Through the program, I can meet with patrons at the main library, where the BIC is located, or at our branch libraries.
While the BIC offers several programs every month, I’ve found that people enjoy the one-on-one opportunity that the Book-a-Librarian service offers. Of course, I enjoy it when people come to our larger programs but it’s my job to meet the users in a way that best serves them.
How can a business librarian help me better than I can help myself?
Koltonski: First, finding information and connecting with the right community resource. You not only need to find the right sources for business information, but you have to make sure those sources are high quality, and that’s what we, as librarians, do. We are fortunate to have so many great community agencies working to help people start and succeed in business. Connecting people with those agencies gives me the luxury of focusing on providing research help and access to resources without trying to be a one-stop for all things business. It’s exciting to be part of a vital and growing network of community partners.
Who are some of these community partners you work with?
Koltonski: We have a long list of partners we work with to varying degrees. We work closely with Score Youngstown and the Youngstown Business Incubator. Many others such as the Mahoning Valley is for Entrepreneurs collaboration and the Ohio Small Business Development Center are doing great work.
When I first started here, I looked at these great organizations, many of whom the library has had a relationship with for quite a while, and asked myself where I could fit in the equation. That’s when I decided that the best role for me, and for the BIC, was to not compete with them. Instead, I’d walk into an introductory meeting and say, “Hi, I think you are doing a great job. What can I do to help you?”
What is something that has surprised you about the business environment since you started?
Koltonski: People in this area are more willing to strike out on their own and make their own economies, and the community seems more willing to support those that do. Sure there are a lot of big box stores and national franchises, but I have noticed that people here will go out of their way to patronize a local business. I believe this is indicative of the former Steel Belt area. People were trying to mobilize local business in the ’80s, but the shock of Black Monday and the steel mills closing was too much. It’s been a long road and we’ve come a long way. Businesses keep making progress. It seems like a special time here and I’m glad to be a part of it.
What are some new things going on at the BIC and the library?
Koltonski: We recently added access to the learning platforms Lynda.com and Universal Class where you can learn things that run the gamut from Reiki to Excel. There are many classes available on those sites that are great for the business community. Some of these also provide continuing education credits.
The library recently added access to The Gale Small Business Builder. Typically when you are working on your business plan or your finances, you would use a template, essentially a pre-formatted Word or Excel file. That is a fine way to do things, but it makes it tough if you have a computer at home without Microsoft Office. Small Business Builder lets you do a number of these things within your browser.
In December we are piloting an investment class to show users how they can start growing a financial portfolio with a lot less money than it used to take. There will be more information coming about that in a few months.
What is one thing that you think people should know about The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County?
Koltonski: The business resources here are really exceptional for a public library system and you don’t have to be a resident of Mahoning County to use them. You can stop into the main library or one of our branches, or visit us online at LibraryVisit.org and have access to a growing number of resources to help your startup or established business thrive.
Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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