Could the Free Library replace your office? - Technical.ly Philly

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Aug. 12, 2019 10:15 am

Could the Free Library replace your office?

If you're in the "I have an idea but now what?" stage of entrepreneurship, the Business Resource and Innovation Center at the Parkway Central branch makes for a great first stop. Just don't expect free coffee.
The view of the Parkway Central branch’s Business Resource and Innovation Center from above.

The view of the Parkway Central branch's Business Resource and Innovation Center from above.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Correction: The following changes have been made: Headshots are offered at the BRIC two days per month; the center is only located on the ground floor; some language has been added clarifying that entrepreneurs of any stage may use the space; and meeting rooms may be used for private calls. (8/12/19, 12:06 p.m.)

Editor’s note: If you’re a remote worker or full-time freelancer, what are your options for getting out of the house and getting your stuff done in alternative, inspiring and free or low-cost spaces? How productive could you actually be in a mall, a public library or a bar?

At the end of July, Technical.ly Philly reporter Paige Gross, intern Michaela Althouse and I (editor Julie Zeglen) each took to a nontraditional coworking space in the Philly area in honor of Team Dynamics Month. This is the second part of a three-part series; read the first part here.


It’s pretty easy to find. Just left of the main entrance, down the stairs, sign in at the front desk and voilà. You’ve returned to the OG coworking space: the library.

But the bright and shiny ground-floor Business Resource and Innovation Center (BRIC) at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central branch is not your traditional library setting.

I select a tangerine couch that I can stretch out on from a range of orange and blue seating. The space feels relaxed, but unlike the usual library vibes, also a little rule-bendy thanks to a sign that says, “This is not a quiet space.” It’s pretty quiet at the moment, just after 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, so I assume that will come into play later.

Startupy books. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

The center opened in early 2016 as a resource hub for nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs but just moved into its own newly renovated space this past April.

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There’s a display on the wall with the history of patents, all the latest biz and nonprofit mags ready at hand, and you can schedule a private consultation with a librarian to learn how to start a business. The bookshelves hold indexes of local businesses and texts on acquiring grants. It’s a learning-centered atmosphere that you can miss in other workspaces. Desktop computers are free to use, as is everything else. You can even get your headshot taken.

People love the library — some so much that they write blogs about it. I love the library, too, which is why I jumped at the chance to hang out in one all day.

I spend my morning sending out emails and finishing up a draft, and fellow library occupiers who trickle in as the morning goes on. It gets a little louder as the space fills up, and I face a horrifying moment of needing to do a phone interview on speaker so I can record it. I hope everyone else in the space enjoyed learning about what Fulbright scholar Matt Lee has been up to.

While there’s a private conference room to book for meetings, it’s mostly for multiple groups and conference calls. I overhear someone else asking about a room for private phone calls and feel a little less alone in my struggle. (“Individuals and groups are invited to take private phone calls in the meeting rooms once per day for up to an hour,” BRIC Supervisor Gillian Robbins clarified in an email. “Groups of two or more meeting in the rooms may use the rooms once a day for up to two hours.”)

I have a hankering for food and a cup of coffee around noon and head over to Whole Foods to spend youdon’twanttoknowhowmuch on soup and tofu (if you want a bonus weird coworking space, this grocery store has free Wi-Fi, a few outlets and a pub). I head back to the branch and find two very adorable small children reading to one another. A couple comes in around 3 p.m. and read in chairs next to each other; unconfirmed if they were business or pleasure texts.

Coworking in the BRIC. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Throughout the day, people stop at the desk and ask questions about the space. Most are new, but there are some who wave at the librarians like they come every day.

The center feels like it could be the first place you go when you’re at the “I have an idea but now what?” stage, and there are ample offerings to find what you need; it’s even a designated patent and resource center of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

BRIC Librarian Rebekah Ray said the resource access sets it apart from other coworking spaces.

“The real deal,” she said, “is that it’s not free — [someone has] already paid for it. On your behalf, people spent a lot of money on these things that you should be using because they’re already paid for.”

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Pros:

  • **IT’S FREE** which is great for students or people working on their business part-time.
  • It has oodles of resources if you’re a startup or small business newb — and even if you’re not, and are looking for help at any stage of the entrepreneurship journey. There’s always a librarian ready to answer questions plus access to all kinds of databases.
  • iT’s A LiBrAry. What could be more inspirational than that?

Cons: 

  • There’s not much free space to make a private phone call.
  • There’s generally no food allowed — covered drinks are OK — so it’s hard to be there 9 to 5 without needing to eat lunch outside or at a restaurant. (P.S. “Groups using the meeting rooms can bring in light fare,” Robbins said, “but they are responsible for cleaning up after.”)
  • Similarly, there’s no coffee in the building, so going to grab one means taking time away from work and also $$$ (but again the space is free, so your money can be saved for java).

Overall rating: 3.5/5

It’s an incredible space to get help to build or grow your business, but consider it a starter pack of workspaces. If you’re trying to go full-time, definitely find somewhere with coffee and a lunchroom.

People working in the BRIC. (Photo by Julie Zeglen)

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