Business Support in Public Libraries

 Jonathan Cowley, Haringey Libraries

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Public libraries are free, neutral shared spaces – inclusive and open to all. They are vital for sharing information and gaining knowledge – and can be ideal spaces for providing business advice and training.

The British Library’s Business and IP (Intellectual Property) Centre was launched in London in 2006 and has since been used by more than 350,000 people, helping to create 2,775 businesses. The success of the Centre has highlighted the valuable role libraries can play as free and accessible venues to consult business resources, attend workshops, receive business advice and network with other entrepreneurs. To build on this success, the Enterprising Libraries programme was established – a partnership between Arts Council England, the British Library and the Department for Communities and Local Government. The programme funded a number of projects where libraries used their role as community hubs to enhance local economic growth and improve social mobility.

The initial stage of the project involved the establishment of a network of Business and IP Centres in six core cities across England – Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield. The second stage of the project involved a grant programme for ten public library authorities, aiming to spread business and IP expertise into wider communities. These authorities were supported by the British Library and the network of six Business and IP Centres across England.

After two weeks of frantic work preparing a proposal document, Haringey Libraries submitted a bid in the summer of 2013. Our bid focused on Wood Green Library in north London – one of the top 20 busiest public libraries in the country, welcoming over 50,000 visitors a month. We were fortunate to already have a space in the library devoted to business support – The Business Lounge. This had opened in 2006, funded by a European Regional Development Fund grant. We already offered business advice sessions, networking space and dedicated business PCs. Our bid aimed to enhance the service offer, using the additional funding to provide:

  • A regular programme of free business workshops, with particular areas of focus including women in business, social media, creative industries and business marketing
  • Improved technology including a projector screen for presentations and a SMART board for business workshops
  • Improved publicity and the development of a “Business: The Basics” guide for start-up businesses
  • An extensive programme of business events for Black History Month in October 2014
  • Refurbishment of the Business Lounge including new seating
  • An up-to-date collection of practical business books
  • An enhanced business advice service, offering additional sessions
  • Regular networking events
  • Strong local partnerships with business support services and a closer relationship with the British Library

Ten projects were awarded an equal share of the £450,000 fund, and we were thrilled to discover that Haringey Libraries had been successful. Each project supported business in a variety of imaginative ways – for example the project Devon Libraries involved the first “Fab Lab” (fablabdevon.org) to open in a UK public library – a low-cost digital workshop equipped with laser cutters, 3D printers and scanners, where “just about anybody can make just about anything”. The bid from Cultural Community Solutions involved the creation of the London Business Portal website (www.londonbusinessportal.com) which brings the business resources of Ealing, Harrow and Hounslow library authorities together in one place.

Putting our proposal into practice was a challenging and rewarding process. The staff at the British Library were extremely supportive throughout. One of the most rewarding aspects of the programme was to be able to meet with representatives of the other projects – this not only provided inspiration and ideas, but also reassurance that every project faced similar challenges. The British Library Business and IP Centre are experts at delivering relevant, excellent quality business support, and at measuring the impact of that support. We were provided with modified versions of their customer feedback forms, which could then be returned for analysis. The results of this feedback were invaluable in order to highlight to stakeholders the positive impact our sessions were having on the local business community.

One of the core aims of the Enterprising Libraries project was to promote social inclusion and participation of diverse and disadvantaged groups. We aimed to help ethnic minorities and women (groups traditionally under-represented in business) to branch out into entrepreneurship. The results of the analysis of our feedback forms showed:

  • The beneficiaries were almost three quarters female (74%)
  • 71% of attendees described themselves as Black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) compared with 40% in the general London population

The most popular industry sectors attending Haringey Library events were creative/media (25%) followed by education (18%). Feedback on the quality of our events was extremely positive:

  • 94% of workshop attendees returned positive ratings
  • 68% on average returned a “very satisfied” rating

Our most satisfying result was the near universal recommendation of the service to others – 99% of attendees stated they would recommend the workshops and clinics to others, the highest rating of all Enterprising Libraries projects. Feedback received included:

  • “Extremely tailored to my needs – very clear – comprehensive content – thanks!”
  • “It was fantastic to have an expert give her moral support as well as sound business advice.”
  • “I enjoyed the session as it was relevant and exactly what I was looking for.”

Our programme of events for Black History Month was a particular highlight, with packed audiences attending our series of inspirational talks by entrepreneurs such as shoe designer Marc Hare and ethical beauty innovator Clare Eluka. We also found there was a “snowball effect” – as more people attended our events, more people volunteered to hold their own workshops covering subjects such as accounting and marketing.

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The next stage of the process is to analyse the economic impact of the Enterprising Libraries programme, a project currently being undertaken by consultants Adroit Economics. At Haringey we have created a sustainable model which can continue to offer valuable business advice and training beyond the formal end of the project. Public libraries bring communities together and provide free space for information and knowledge exchange. The success of this project has also demonstrated their important role as drivers of business growth.

 

Refer 31 (2) Summer 2015

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