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Why Britain’s economy can’t afford to lose the public library

Nick Poole reiterates the importance access to books and information, making the economic case for the UK's libraries
Libraries are often referred to as “the last safety net”. Image credit: Thamesmead Library / Flickr

We all know the emotional power of a public library – those palaces of learning and ideas on high streets and village greens across the nation. But did you know that their impact goes far beyond reading and access to council services? They also have a powerful role in driving inclusive local economic growth and making a powerful contribution to our national economy.

According to Arts Council England, the economic ‘return on investment’ of local library services breaks down into two broad categories – direct and indirect.

Developers in the UK and elsewhere have cited the ‘halo effect’ of library usage for surrounding retailers, bars and restaurants – essentially, any business that relies on passing footfall benefits from having a library nearby. In some cases, the creation of a modern, attractive library venue has resulted in increases of up to 10 per cent in revenues for local business. There is even emerging anecdotal evidence of the positive impact of libraries on local property values.

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In addition to the positive impact on local footfall and spending, libraries are increasingly providing direct support to the business community in their area. Since 2016, the British Library has established 14 ‘Business & IP Centres’ in city centre libraries across the UK (with more in the pipeline), with fantastic results. These BIPC Libraries have supported the creation of 12,288 businesses and 7,843 jobs – a ‘gross value added’ (GVA) of £78m, representing a return-on-investment ratio of 4:1.

Books were borrowed from public libraries more than 166 million times in 2019-20, with significant increases in e-lending too

Libraries also have a surprisingly powerful impact on people’s perceptions of where they live, as noted in a 2014 study into the economic impact of libraries: “Libraries can be anchor tenants in mixed-use physical developments and regeneration initiatives, potentially boosting the footfall, buzz, image and profile of a neighbourhood or area.”

While the direct impact of the library on local economic activity is tremendous, their indirect or ‘social return on investment’ (SROI) is greater still. A study conducted between 2019 and 2021 by Suffolk Libraries Service has provided compelling evidence of an ‘SROI’ of £8.04 for every £1 local taxpayers invest in the service.

Think of it as an engine powering inclusive local and national economic growth, today and far into the future.

According to the study, the top outcomes were literacy skills for children, improved wellbeing for parents, improved mental health, social networks and happiness.

These broader economic impact studies don’t factor in the immense savings for readers from being able to borrow books rather than buy them. Books were borrowed from public libraries more than 166 million times in 2019-20, with significant increases in e-lending too. Some estimates put the economic value at £750m-£1bn annually.

Perhaps even more significantly, a quality local library service has a wider ‘social and economic echo’ that can transform the long-term prosperity of the area. In Birmingham, for example, where several major employers have established headquarters in the past decade, several have cited the value of the city’s libraries in supporting a literate and skilled workforce for their long-term future.

This goes too for other service providers. The NHS, for example, has confirmed that local libraries are able to deliver significant cost savings and improved healthcare outcomes by helping people live happier, healthier lives. Local educational funders and schools say public libraries act as a vital ‘third space’ between the home and the classroom, where children can learn and develop skills. We know that in areas with strong library provision, academic attainment and employability are strengthened.

Looking ahead, the UK is fast becoming a ‘knowledge economy’. According to 2019 data, an estimated 39 per cent of all UK businesses were classed as ‘knowledge-intensive’, generating a net return in excess of £95bn for the economy.

The thing knowledge-intensive businesses need above all else is skilled, creative and literate people – exactly the kind of digital and research skills that come with library use. In this sense, public libraries are helping not only to support today’s economy, they are also paving the way for the advanced-skills economy of the future.

So the next time you are passing your library, with its books and busy programme of activities, don’t just think of it as a friendly, welcoming space. Think of it as an engine powering inclusive local and national economic growth, today and far into the future.

CILIP is the UK’s Library and Information Association @NickPoole1