Credit: Michael Shake • Source: ThinkStock

Small business owners from all over the world email me for advice or help with their business questions. I've received email from almost every continent on earth. By far, the most often asked question is, "Where do I find information about...?"

So, I start my email, detailing the most common sources over and over again and it slows down the number of email I can answer.

Please don't misunderstand -- I love to hear from everyone out there. But what I really needed was a blog that contained all that information which I could add into the email. Sort of a, "Read This First " then, "Here's what I suggest you do next."

Information Basics

Let's begin by exploring some information basics. Before you begin searching for information you must write down exactly what you are looking for. In addition to that, write down everything you know about the subject so far. What additional areas do you need information about?

Most people don't have a problem with this part of the exercise. However, the next question is, where do I go to find that information?

This is the part most people write me about. You know the information is out there...but where?

I know from the emails I get that a lot of business owners write because they have become totally frustrated by not being able to find the information quickly. They've searched the Internet, asked friends and family and finally given up in disgust.

Use The Information Expert You Are Already Paying!

You're an expert on your business so, if you need information, why not contact an information expert. I know exactly what you're going to say, "Tom, experts don't work for free!" "I can't afford something like that."

Yes, you can, and you already are. You are paying an information expert right now and you don't even know it. Who is your information expert — your local librarian. There is either a library in your town or one within reasonable driving distance of your business.

Your tax dollars support most libraries in most cities. In fact, most are operated by the city like the sewer and water departments. If you are fortunate enough to have a College or University in our town you may have two.

They are by far the best and quickest way to get the information you need...If you know how they work.

Finding Information The Easy Way

What's the easy way to find information? Let someone else find it for you. Most people don't realize that the principal function of a librarian is to help people find the books and information they are looking for. Contact them and arrange to time for a tour of their small business information section.

Once you are familiar with the section, you can call them with a list of the information you are looking for and they'll find it for you — if it's within their walls. Don't demand one-minute-service. The information requested may take some time to locate. Give them the time they need.

Now, in the case of business information, sometimes your information may be a little complicated. The librarian may have trouble understanding exactly what you are looking for because they’re not an expert in your particular business.

If you think that might be the case, you should go to the library and have someone give you some personal service. It's a good idea to ask them what time would be best to come by. Be considerate of their time -- make an appointment.

Knowing What To Look For

You can help the librarian locate your information if you are familiar with some of the more common references.

Here are a few that will answer a lot of business questions. If you are looking for a company to manufacturer something for you, try:

If you are looking for surveys and statistics about your industry, try:

RMA Annual Statement Studies
NAICS (North American Industry Classification System)

Perhaps You Need Business Start-up Materials:

Business Plans Handbook - Will assist you in designing and writing a business plan

Small Business Source Book - This book lists a profile for hundreds of businesses. Including start-up costs, expenses, positives and negatives of the business and much more.

Small Business Profiles - Similar to the Small Business Source Book

Almost every business I've ever seen has some kind of association, newsletter or magazine. Look for:

Encyclopedia of Associations Online Ask for the hard cover version at your library. It’s not a book you can check out. It lists various associations large to small for almost every type of business or industry. Contact these associations for more specialized business help and industry specific information.

Trade Shows Worldwide - A annual listing of trade shows in your area and around the world. Online trade-show info is available at: www.tsnn.com

For Local Demographics, Try:

Census information - the librarian will show you how to access online.

MelissaData.com is a great place to find all kinds of local demographics. See their Free Lookups.

Rand-McNally Commercial Atlas & Marketing Guide. A giant book weighs in at over 8 pounds. Contains information for each county in the United States. Details the amounts people spend, by zip code, on clothing, appliances, recreation, and household goods. Also, income, kids, ethnic background and a lot more. A great book to see where the money is being spent. You can also find this information online at the US Census Bureau site.

Small business help sights of interest you can go to right now:

  • Access government supplied business information online at the Small Business Administration website:
  • S.C.O.R.E - Service Corps of Retired Executives - Over 1,000 business experts available for FREE online consulting.
  • SBDC - Listing of Small Business Development Centers by state - Free business plan and start-up help paid for with your tax dollars.
  • You'll find census information at: www.census.gov
  • Also look at Home Town Locator for census data on your home town.
  • To see what articles have been written on specific businesses or topics go to: www.about.com.
  • For additional business links on this website, try: The 100 Best Small Business Links.
  • www.refdesk.com - Everything else you could possibly want is here. If its not, you don't need it.

Some Final Thoughts

The best advice I can give you is to go to the library and take the suggested tour of the business section. If you have an interest in any of the books mentioned above, and they are unavailable, the library can find the nearest location.

Or in some cases, depending on which book it is, they may be able to transfer it to your location on a loan basis between the libraries.

Since these are reference books, you won't be able to take them out of the library, so take lots of notepaper or your laptop or tablet.

The more familiar you are with the business section of your library, the more successful your business will be.

As I have pointed out countless times: If you read or study something about your industry just 20 minutes a day, in one year you will know more than 75% of the people in that industry. Happy reading!