Small Businesses and Libraries- A Perfect Partnership

Libraries are a perfect partner for small businesses, as the network is already in place in both urban and rural locations, providing free access to the physical and intellectual resources required for local economic well-being.

According to a 2018 World Bank Survey, the UK is one of the best places in the world to start a business, with over a thousand new businesses being launched every day. Yet for all of this economic opportunity, more than a third of these enterprises will close their doors for good within three years.

Small businesses, in particular, are vulnerable to both the unpredictability of the global marketplace and the decline of the high street, which is why the British Library has made helping entrepreneurs and early-stage businesses one of its top strategic priorities. 

Indeed, libraries are a perfect partner for small businesses, as the network is already in place in both urban and rural locations, providing free access to the physical and intellectual resources required for local economic well-being. Not only do libraries capitalise upon existing assets to foster innovation and growth, but as community spaces whose services are open to all they are great potential drivers for social mobility, providing vital business opportunities to women, minorities and other underrepresented demographics.

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Recognising the positive role libraries could play in fostering new economic growth in English cities, towns and villages and contributing to the revitalisation of the high street, the British Library started its Library Business & IP (Intellectual Property) Centre in 2006.  It transformed two of the reading rooms on the first floor of its St Pancras HQ into a space where anyone can access a wealth of free-to-use print and electronic business resources— including market reports, company data, annual reports, business directories and a database of over 60 million patents— as well as the guidance and expertise of Reference Specialists at the Enquiry Desk and informational programmes featuring prominent members of the local business community. The Business & IP Centre is also a networking hub providing a neutral and non-commercial venue where entrepreneurs, mentors and industry experts can connect with one another. 

The British Library expanded on this successful model with support from the Government’s Intellectual Property Office to create a Business & IP Centre National Network which has established Business & IP Centres in libraries throughout the UK, including Birmingham, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Devon, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Nottingham and Sheffield. From 2016 to 2018 the Business & IP Centre Network helped in the creation of over 12,888 businesses (47% of these in the Northern Powerhouse), adding 7,843 net additional Full Time Equivalent jobs to the national economy and £239m in net additional sales growth. During this three year period the new additional Gross Value Added for Business & IP Centre supported businesses was estimated to be £78m, delivering a staggering £6.95 return for every £1 invested. 

The Business & IP Centre Network supports a diverse range of entrepreneurs as well. 55 per cent of users who started a business after using the Network were women, 31 per cent were from a black and Asian minority ethnic background and 17 per cent had a disability. This compares very favorably to the national averages, where according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 22 per cent of all businesses in the UK are currently owned by women and only five per cent are owned by individuals of black and Asian minority ethnic origin. The Business & IP Centre Network also helps foster social mobility by serving the most deprived communities – 22 per cent of Network users came from the top 20 per cent of the most deprived areas in the UK. 

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This extraordinary synergy is due in no small part to the unique positioning of libraries, both in terms of their physical location and their public perception. As most libraries are situated on or near city, town or village centres, they are a great asset for imperiled high streets across the country. For little or no additional cost, libraries provide access to prime locations for entrepreneurs and local businesses in the form of meeting and networking spaces. 

Libraries are usually conveniently located to take advantage of transportation networks, which vastly expands their engagement beyond the high street and into the surrounding regions. At the same time libraries are able to capitalise on their reputation within the community as welcoming and inclusive spaces – this helps to foster small business activity among traditionally underrepresented groups by offering trustworthy resources that build confidence, understanding and support in what can be a harsh and unforgiving climate for women, black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs.

While the British Library’s Business & IP Centre National Network is the largest and most ambitious partnership between small businesses and libraries, it is by no means the only such collaboration in the UK. For example in 2016 Gloucestershire Libraries joined with the Growth Hub in Gloucestershire, with its 31 libraries offering a range of services for local businesses in the form of print and electronic resources, trained staff assistance and makerspaces which serve as “innovation labs” to stimulate future skills as the engine for economic prosperity. Gloucestershire Libraries have been a fantastic partner for the Growth Hub Network and vice versa, demonstrating the importance, relevance and ongoing practical utility of libraries in a time of great technological change and economic uncertainty. As communities increasingly look to make the most efficient use of existing resources, libraries stand at the ready, transforming their traditional roles as repositories of information into active, innovative and engaged partners in small business entrepreneurship.

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