Editor's note: Since 1964, business-management counselors at nonprofit organization Score have given free advice to small-business clients spanning every industry. They currently serve nearly 400,000 entrepreneurs nationwide each year -- check in every week for their prudent advice.

Last week, Score counselor Charles Sobel told us how a strong business plan, not begging, will help you get that first loan. Now let's take a look at the key component of that strong business plan: good old-fashioned research.

The trouble is, many entrepreneurs have no idea where to begin or what resources are out there. Too many rely on the Internet, while the really valuable information comes for a hefty fee or is still available only in print form in often obscure industry journals.

Enter the time-tested resource that's been hailed ever since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks: the library.

All Under One Roof

The New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) isn't a magical oracle that bestows immediate business success, although its director Kristin McDonough feels the facility is still an undiscovered treasure for too many aspiring entrepreneurs.

While commuting from New Jersey to New York for work, Emily McHugh called SIBL her home away from home. When she turned her Columbia MBA thesis into laptop-case vendor Casauri, she used the Thomas Register at SIBL to find her first manufacturer. "There was no other place to go," she says.

After his premium cigar business failed, Sean Sabol registered for almost every one of SIBL's classes and seminars. Sabol is now president and CEO of Detail Devils, a successful manufacturer of motorcycle detailing kits, as well as an unpaid SIBL promoter 24/7.

"They never just answered my initial questions, but kept trying to find out more about what I was trying to do at every stage of my search," says Pamela Grace, owner of BioSoftmosis, Inc., of the librarians at SIBL who taught her the key differences between industry and market research, and then exposed her to the incredible print and online resources available there.

Research libraries like SIBL are particularly advantageous in that they bring a world of resources to one central location. Marketing reports for textiles and sports are in the same building as trade magazines that even business schools don't collect.

In addition, SIBL provides instant access to Score NYC counselors, contacts for over 300 organizations that assist small businesses, information from the U.S. Government, the U.N. and the E.U., and the ability to dock your laptop into the wired Internet connection to access SIBL's databases.

It's a one-stop research wonderland for those willing to walk through the doors -- or even just visit online, if you're far from Manhattan.

The Good Stuff Is Free

Many of SIBL's most devoted users come from organizations like Score, who send their clients in to find data an entrepreneur couldn't get for free anywhere else.

SIBL spends about $500,000 a year on subscriptions to electronic resources, says McDonough. "The really valuable information isn't free," she says. "We feel it's necessary to level the playing field for small businesses."

At SIBL, any person can walk in off the street and have complimentary access to what could normally cost hundreds of dollars, such as:
  • Reference USA: This product is fantastic for small businesses looking to do marketing, find clients, distributors, suppliers or create their own mailing lists. Through this tool you can search 14 million U.S. companies and in five to ten minutes download a list of about 100 companies to your USB drive, all for free. Stay longer and you can get a list in the hundreds of thousands; the only limit is your time. Elsewhere you would end up paying about $1-$3 per list item.
  • MarketReseach.com: This database produces market research reports worth thousands of dollars, says McDonough. Sectors run the gamut from children to Hispanics to the food industry.
  • Investment and finance information: Databases like Investext give financial reports by stockbrokers. Many independent financial advisors that use SIBL databases like Value Line ( VALU) and Morningstar ( MORN) say they couldn't do their jobs without the free access.
  • Seminars and hands-on classes: SIBL gives 110 afterwork seminars a year on topics like "Starting a Self-Promotion Newsletter" and active training classes where you can learn, in just over an hour, how to create a distributor list and leave with a list of companies ready to go.

Outside New York City

SIBL is one of a kind when it comes to research libraries.

"We provide information at a level that really is much more than many other libraries do," says Madeleine Cohen, assistant director for SIBL electronic services. "Our mission is to help businesses in New York expand."

Although some of its resources are available online, you do have to make a trip in person for more comprehensive services. While you don't need a New York City library card to walk in the door, anyone can obtain a borrower's card, which gives remote access to 85 online databases for $100 per year.

For those around the country who can't make it to SIBL, the American Library Association launched a campaign called Small Business @ Your Library last year to raise awareness that local libraries can be a great resource for small business, says Cohen. Increasingly, communities nationwide are focusing on customizing their libraries to help entrepreneurs.

While not as comprehensive as SIBL's, many smaller libraries do provide access to databases like Reference USA.

And though libraries remain hidden gems for small businesses, says McDonough, the word about places like SIBL is getting out there. Last year SIBL's visitors downloaded over 5 million records from Reference USA, one of about 200 different databases available at SIBL. "The amount of information people get here free is pretty amazing," says McDonough.

SIBL is located at 188 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. Email or call (212) 592-7000 for more information.

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