Libraries are acting as innovation hubs for entrepreneurship.
The economic impact of COVID-19 will be felt for many years to come.
In August, the UK fell into recession for the first time in 11 years and the second quarter of the year saw the largest quarterly fall in employment since the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008.
In these challenging times, councils across the country are working to support their local economies, to mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic and to grow a local, flexible, resilient workforce.
With their offer of access to computers, job clubs, CV writing support, skills training and targeted support for start-ups through Business and Intellectual Property Centres (BIPCs), libraries have an important role to play.
These services are invaluable to many who would otherwise find it difficult to access the job market. According to recent statistics, more than five million adults in the UK do not use the internet, while 12 per cent of those aged between 11 and 18 years have no internet access at home from a computer or tablet.
Nearly a quarter of disabled adults are internet non-users. Meanwhile, occupations requiring digital skills account for 82 per cent of online job vacancies.
Libraries have been taking on this challenge for many years. They offer 26 million hours of supported internet access each year across 40,000 PCs. An estimated 99.3 per cent of libraries provide free Wi-Fi.
There is evidence that these services are proving even more important in the wake of the pandemic. Data for the weeks immediately after lockdown showed that, in one library, nearly a third of those who used the PCs did so for job-seeking.
Libraries can also act as innovation hubs for entrepreneurship and economic growth. BIPCs in libraries provide physical spaces where people can access support in protecting and commercialising a business idea.
The service includes free access to UK and global market intelligence, intellectual property advice, one-to-one support, mentoring and inspirational networking events.
These centres have been extraordinarily successful. Between 2016 and 2019, they have supported the creation of 12,288 businesses – 47 per cent of which were in the North – and helped businesses create an estimated 7,843 new full-time equivalent jobs.
Of the users who went on to start a new business, 55 per cent were women (compared with 22 per cent of business owners nationally), 31 per cent were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, and 17 per cent had a disability.
BIPCs generate £6.95 for every £1 of public money spent, which is why we are calling for government investment to roll them out to library services across the country.
The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly libraries are able to respond to a crisis. They swiftly shifted to digital channels, investing in e-books in response to a 600 per cent increase in demand, providing community events and education online, and reaching out to vulnerable customers.
However, for many people – including students who faced difficulties learning at home, people particularly at risk from isolation, and for all those struggling to recover from the effects of lockdown – the library building itself remains vitally important.
As councils tighten their belts in the aftermath of the pandemic, we must all recognise the important role libraries can play in recovery and the levelling up agenda. Libraries Week (5-10 October) gives us an opportunity to explore and celebrate this contribution.