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I spent four days last week taking time off from being a librarian. Instead, I spent my time using public library resources, which is something relatively uncommon for me. Let me explain-

I’ve stated more than once on this blog that, while I completely support the mission of all libraries and believe strongly that every community in every sense of the word can and should benefit from library services and resources, I have not been a regular library user–kind of like the “super supporters” identified in the 2008 Gates-funded, OCLC study From Awareness to Funding: A Study of Library Support in America. That changed this past week.

The picture I’ve chosen to headline this post illustrates the way in which I used the library. In fact, I was delighted to find a picture of my mouse at Morguefile.com. However, that is not my hand (who, of a certain age, doesn’t remember that episode of Seinfeld?).

My husband (and by proxy, me) owns a small business. I’ve written about it before, and it is still going strong, although it is getting more and more difficult to stay viable in this still recovering economy and with new and more stringent and restrictive rules and regulations always on the horizon. In short, sometimes it’s hard to make a profit and pay your bills.

We decided to take the business to the next level by way of a concerted marketing effort. Up until now, like many small businesses, ours has relied heavily on referrals and word-of-mouth advertising and that has been sufficient to a point. It’s time to take a new direction.

Enter the public library. We are fortunate to have on staff at the Library System of Lancaster County an Economic Development Manager and Consultant–Rhonda Kleinman. Her budget helps support business databases that are available to any Lancaster County library card holder. Rhonda was kind enough to spend some time introducing me to two of them–ReferenceUSA and Hoover’s.

Both are comprehensive business intelligence tools. And although ReferenceUSA actually offers more usable features to library users (I’ll explain what I mean as I go on), I’m going to focus on Hoover’s because that is the database that gave me exactly what I needed for this particular research project. I intend to give ReferenceUSA another try next time. There will definitely be a next time.

Hoover’s is a goldmine of information about over 95 million companies, organizations, and other entities. What I needed was this: a targeted list of the names of athletic directors for every school district within a 100 mile radius. And that’s exactly what I got.

Using the library-subscribed version of Hoover’s, I was able to create such a list by selecting the industry SIC code and excluding the sub-code for universities and colleges (we only wanted secondary schools) and then designating the geographic radius. I ended up with 457 contacts, which included multiple names (in some cases) for the same school districts.

The problem with Hoover’s (and the benefit to using Reference USA) is that the download feature is disabled for at least some “merchant customers” like the library. When you create a list in Reference USA, you can download that list, along with the contact information, directly into an Excel spreadsheet, which is then ready for use in mail merge, etc. In this particular instance, I was not able to get the same detailed list using ReferenceUSA, so even though I had the exact information I needed from Hoover’s, I was left with a dilemma.

I could not save my search (that feature is disabled, too), and I could not buy my list via Hoover’s Ondemand (a feature that is available on the Hoover’s Web site without authorized access; however, the searching capability for this feature is not as robust, and I could not generate the same list that I did using the library’s subscription). As a result, I was forced to manually copy and paste the information I gathered into a spreadsheet, which was very time-consuming. While you can go into each listed entry and get complete contact information, I was having trouble with the session timing out, so I ended up saving each page of my search to my desktop as a Web page. I was  a bit worried that when I opened them up days later, the lists would be gone; however, my search results remained intact.

Since this was all new to me, I was a bit leery of simply trusting, without verification, the information that populated my list. We wanted to send our direct mailings to specific individuals, and I was afraid that the names I had been given were perhaps outdated or inaccurate. The librarian in me decided to use the list to verify the information by going to each school district’s Web site. And what I have found so far (I’ve not yet completed this process, but I’m about 3/4 finished) is this: All but a handful of the names on that list are completely accurate and current. Next time I will know that I can trust the list I generate without verifying the information. (Personal note: many school district Web sites are as bad or worse than public library Web sites. Must have something to do with lack of education funds all around. And I speak from experience)

During the process, I talked to two Hoover’s customer service representatives. As I mentioned, I was trying to buy my list, which I couldn’t do, so then I tried to get a free trial, which didn’t work out either. If I had been able to buy my list for direct mail purposes, it would have cost me $.24/contact or around $110. The reps also told me that subscriptions to Hoover’s start at $3,000 per year. The business could have afforded to buy the list. The business could not afford to pay for such a costly subscription, and I doubt that many small businesses could afford such a luxury. Either way, the public library saved us money. I was able to access the same industry-standard tool that bigger businesses pay for out of their own budgets, and I was able to get the same information.

Last week, I also registered for the Simple Steps for Growing Your Business workshop series offered by SCORE Lancaster. This is a 6-part series–6, 3-hour sessions–offered at a cost of $120/participant. That’s 18 hours at about $7/hour. The same day, I noticed an advertisement on LinkedIN for an all-day business seminar to be held at a local hotel for around $600/participant. That’s around 7 hours at about $87/hour! Granted, the all-day seminar included breakfast and lunch. The SCORE workshops are still a better value.

Most SCORE services are free, including personal business mentoring. It is staffed by volunteers, including our Economic Development Manager, Rhonda. Technically, SCORE is not a library service, but the library is my connection to it.

As a taxpayer, small business owner, and citizen of Lancaster County, I received good value for my money from library resources without ever having entered a library building. I worked from home and let the library come to me. I am a satisfied library customer.

Back to cataloging tomorrow. And off to my first SCORE workshop on Tuesday with plans to continue working on my marketing list next weekend.

Working to give good value for taxpayer money and getting that same value in return.