Alec Shelbrooke: World-class resource that could help upgrade skills

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In a globalised world, knowledge-intensive business services will form the bedrock of our economy. However, businesses and jobs associated with this sector – in fields ranging from engineering and research and development to data services and accountancy – are far from evenly distributed across the UK.

The figures tell a stark story. In London, such knowledge-intensive firms make up 30 per cent of all businesses, while in the North of England they only account for 20 per cent of the business base. Similarly, while 24.3 per cent of jobs in the capital are associated with the knowledge-intensive sector, the equivalent figure is only 12.7 per cent for jobs in the North.

Only by investing in the knowledge and skills infrastructure of the region will we be able to narrow this gap and enable the North to achieve its true potential. In parallel with recent investments in transport infrastructure, such as the electrification of the transPennine rail line, we need to take a serious look at how knowledge can be made increasingly networked and available, to the benefit of the researchers, start-ups and entrepreneurs that are vital to the growth and rebalancing of the regional economy.

In our immediate area we’re fortunate to have an amazing resource in the shape of the British Library at Boston Spa. For more than 50 years it has been a critical part of the national research infrastructure, collecting every book, magazine, newspaper and periodical published in the UK and, through its document supply services, it underpins the inter-library lending network. The site’s role as the UK Research Reserve has saved universities £37m in the past five years alone.

In the past decade, the Boston Spa site’s function has shifted from document supply to become the Library’s main storage facility, with £50m investment in two world-class storage buildings that were delivered on time and under budget. Seventy per cent of the UK national library’s 800km of collection storage is now located in Yorkshire.

More than seven million items are in the hi-tech, low-oxygen Additional Storage Building, and earlier this year the National Newspaper Building was officially opened at Boston Spa, providing a permanent home for more than 300 years’ worth of local, regional and national newspaper titles – one of the world’s greatest collections, adding up to 60 million issues held on some 33km of high-density shelving.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the British Library at Boston Spa is the recent transformation to reader access to its collections, with a refurbished on-site Reading Room and newspaper collections, microfilm and millions of digitised newspaper pages available free to researchers. This August, the Library extended access in Yorkshire to include the millions of books and serial titles that it receives through legal deposit, and which could previously only be consulted in the main reading rooms at St Pancras. Researchers in Boston Spa can now view around 85 per cent of the research materials regularly requested in London – the Library has transformed a local amenity into a world-class resource.

This shift in the centre of gravity of the Library’s activities makes it of vital importance not just to the local area, but to the entire region. Because the site is just five minutes off the A1 at Wetherby, it’s easily accessible from York, Leeds and Bradford, and within 90 minutes of Sheffield, Newcastle and even Manchester.

The site itself is a reflection of the Library’s origins: Boston Spa was selected in the 1960s as it was the geographical centre of the UK and loaned items could reach any university in the country within 24 hours by post. Now this location becomes significant again as the Government attempts its own shift in the centre of economic gravity, away from the south east and more towards the UK’s regions – and particularly the north.

The Library is currently considering how it might expand the Boston Spa site further, to provide long-term storage services to partner institutions across the public sector. Further investment in the site could have a huge impact in Yorkshire.

As the Library’s digital collections grow – including more than two billion pages of archived UK domain websites – Boston Spa will hold a critical mass of research resources, accessible to individuals, businesses and higher education institutions in the North. With the physical facilities to allow people to meet, work collaboratively and innovate, the site would deliver substantial benefits to the region’s research infrastructure and economy.

The Library is already one of the region’s biggest employers in the knowledge-intensive sector, having under its roof specialists including web archivists, digitisation managers and digital preservation experts. This reservoir of talent is something that other institutions and businesses in the region could benefit from: by acting as a regional hub for digital skills and research, the Library could help drive knowledge transfer among its users, staff and partner institutions, boosting the skills profile for the North.

With the right support, it could plug the region into a wider network of knowledge, skills and innovation that will help fuel the Northern Powerhouse for years to come.