Shutterstock

An old idea reinvented for the 21st century.

Co-working spaces are often treated today as a novelty, as a thoroughly modern solution to the changing needs of a workforce now more loyal to their laptops than any long-term employers. But the idea is actually as old as the public library.

One of the world’s first and most famous libraries, in Alexandria, Egypt, was frequently home some 2,000 years ago to the self-starters and self-employed of that era. “When you look back in history, they had philosophers and mathematicians and all sorts of folks who would get together and solve the problems of their time,” says Tracy Lea, the venture manager with Arizona State University’s economic development and community engagement arm. “We kind of look at it as the first template for the university. They had lecture halls, gathering spaces. They had co-working spaces.”

This old idea of the public library as co-working space now offers a modern answer – one among many – for how these aging institutions could become more relevant two millennia after the original Alexandria library burned to the ground. 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, Lea suggests, put these two ideas together? Arizona State is planning in the next few months to roll out a network of co-working business incubators inside public libraries, starting with a pilot in the downtown Civic Center Library in Scottsdale. The university is calling the plan, ambitiously, the Alexandria Network.

Participating libraries will host dedicated co-working spaces for the program, as well as both formal classes and informal mentoring from the university’s start-up resources. The librarians themselves will be trained by the university to help deliver some of the material. The network will offer everything, in short, but seed money. “As we develop this pilot and start to scale it out,” Lea adds, “we would like to be able to direct people on how to find those resources.”

Libraries also provide a perfect venue to expand the concept of start-up accelerators beyond the renovated warehouses and stylish offices of “innovation districts.” They offer a more familiar entry-point for potential entrepreneurs less likely to walk into a traditional start-up incubator (or an ASU office, for that matter). Public libraries long ago democratized access to knowledge; now they could do the same in a start-up economy.

“We refer to it as democratizing entrepreneurship,” Lea says, “so everyone really can be involved.”

Top image: gagliardifoto/Shutterstock

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: a WeWork office
    Equity

    Amid Layoffs, WeWork’s Other Workers Are Making a Stand

    The co-working giant is letting 2,400 employees go and outsourcing 1,000 cleaning and facilities jobs as part of a company-wide belt-tightening.

  2. photo: Chris Burden's "Urban Light," installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features several of L.A.'s historic streetlight styles.
    Design

    The Future of the Streetlight Might Be in the Past

    A new competition from the L.A. mayor’s office invites designers to reimagine the rich history of civic illumination and create next-generation streetlights.

  3. photo: A Starship Technologies commercial delivery robot navigates a sidewalk.
    POV

    My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

    A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

  4. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  5. Transportation

    What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

    Several years into a ten-year “Vision Zero” target, some cities that took on a radical safety challenge are seeing traffic fatalities go up.

×