Librarian Jay Lyman, in bookier times.
Librarian Jay Lyman, in bookier times. Courtesy of Jay Lyman

“As a 125-year-old institution, we may be the oldest economic development institution in town,” librarian Jay Lyman says with no shortage of pride in his voice.

Lyman helps run the SPL’s Library to Business program, which is basically like a business advisor program available to local entrepreneurs, for free. The service includes classes, legal advice, market research, and now in the age of coronavirus, help navigating stimulus funds and loans. It’s been formally in place since 2014, but it’s taken on new urgency in the last few months.

“All of that work was positioning us where when COVID happened,” Lyman says. “It was like, ‘Oh that’s what that was for. We’ve been preparing all this time so we can be ready for this.’”

Whatever information a small business might need, the Library to Business program is there to help — formerly in person, now remotely. They have classes in online marketing; data on how to invest in touch-free technology; and recently they added a legal clinic in which patrons can sign up for free 30-minute sessions with an attorney to ask questions. And this isn’t a Lionel Hutz situation! The lawyers are volunteers who work for companies like Amazon and Microsoft in their day jobs.

“Every one of the folks who comes and meets with me, I’m super proud of,” Lyman says. “They’re all people who are on an exciting journey of entrepreneurship.”

Among those he’s proud to have helped is Logan Niles of Pot Pie Factory. A former private chef, Niles founded a local baking company in 2016, and Lyman helped her find information about how to hire employees for the business.

Of course, quarantine has made everyone’s work much more complicated, but as soon as the library buildings closed on March 13, SPL scrambled to transition their classes and services online. (SPL is planning a phased reopening sometime later this year, provided it's safe to do so.)

“Our small businesses need us now more than ever before,” Lyman says. “It’s hard for us, because some of the services that the community expects from libraries we can’t do during quarantine.”

Patrons’ information needs have changed during coronavirus as well. At first, the librarians were fielding a lot of questions about government relief programs, because they were so confusing: “It was like a Monty Python skit,” Lyman says.

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Now, as closures drag on, legal issues around employment and contracts are rising in urgency, as well as requiring businesses to pivot to have more of an online presence.

And of course, there’s no telling how the next few months will shake out for local small businesses, especially as infections continue to rise. But in times of uncertainty, Lyman and his colleagues are ready to lend a hand.

“We can help them,” he says, “whatever their question might be.”