The Bottom Line: Libraries Boost the Economy!

August 7, 2007 at 9:07 am 4 comments

I love it when I come across articles that quantitatively prove the value of public libraries, and it seems like I have read several lately. The one I just finished reading is too good not to share!

Study: Libraries offer big returns.

In specific, it is facts such as the one quoted below that we all need to be able to call upon when our budgets are challenged:

The bottom-line conclusion: Pennsylvania public libraries provide a “return on investment” of $5.50 for every $1 of taxpayer funding.

If every state had a study where we could prove our worth in such a manner to the voting public it would be a wonderful world.


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  • 1. Seth Stephens  |  August 13, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    I am apprehensive about using “return on investment” (ROI) to demonstrate the value of libraries. ROI furthers the misunderstanding of the purpose of libraries and particularly public libraries.

    Libraries exist to collect, organize and share knowledge. The sharing of knowledge distinguishes libraries from all other institutions. This is especially true in public libraries where knowledge is shared freely and with all – no questions asked.

    It is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the value of helping a student find a book, answering a reference question, or setting up an e-mail account. With careful accounting we can determine the cost of library functions. But we cannot use the same techniques to determine the benefits of the library.

    The benefit the library provides to the individual may not be apparent to either the librarian or the individual. There may be a delay, in days, months or even years, in recognizing the value received from the library. And in cases where there is not an identifiable benefit does that become a debit that subtracts from a library’s assets?

    ROI creates the expectation that library’s can generate economic growth. In certain cases of coincidence libraries may have contributed to the growth of an economy. However a library in isolation cannot inspire economic growth. At its best a library is good steward of its resources – making sure that it is constantly striving to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

    The true value of the library lies in its humanity. Measures of economic growth, cannot measure the benefits of sharing knowledge. The greatest demonstration of the value of the libraries is a persistent and steadfast belief in the value of sharing knowledge.

  • 2. Pburg Free  |  August 21, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Actually, it’s already here!
    –Check out the toolkit that libraries can choose from to make their case–to funders, city council, library users, etc. at Then YOU make the call. Sure it’s possible to quantify, once you go through the procedure and decide what you want to say, and to what audience. Prime your Board.

  • 3. Janie L. Hermann  |  August 23, 2007 at 10:57 am

    Seth: I understand your apprehension about using the term ROI in relation to public libraries and, in fact, agree with you on most of your points. But the reality is that library systems are being closed and for some members of town councils or other government committees it seems that this type of bottom line analysis will be useful. When it comes to libraries being faced with possible closure we need every tool at our disposal. ROI is a far from perfect way to describe the value of libraries, but to some it might be the only way to get our point across.

    In particular, I agree that in an ideal world every single person would be in agreement with you on the following:

    “The true value of the library lies in its humanity. Measures of economic growth, cannot measure the benefits of sharing knowledge.”

    Pburg: Thanks for sharing the link.

  • 4. Seth Stephens  |  August 30, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Hi Janie-
    I hope that I understand the essence of your comment correctly. Are you suggesting that the profession needs to be less idealistic when demonstrating its value to stakeholders?

    At times I wonder if I am being too idealistic in my understanding of the value of libraries. But let me explain how I came to this place in my thoughts.

    From the beginnings of my library career, I have wondered if certain public library services merit a mandatory appropriation of public funds. I am embarrassed by that admission, but I also must be truthful to my thoughts.

    I have often wondered if there is value in publicly supported collections of videos and books that are intended for entertainment. Don’t misunderstand that last sentence – I believe that entertainment has an intrinsic value. I am less certain that the value of entertainment merits a mandatory tax to support it.

    I have similar doubts when it appears that most people use the library’s computers for e-mail. I do not doubt the value of e-mail, I doubt the value of the library using tax dollars to enable people to send and receive e-mail. Let me qualify that last statement I am not certain that the use of e-mail for recreational purposes merits the use of public funds. While I cannot be certain, I suspect that few libraries would provide free postage stamps, envelopes, writing paper, and pens for recreational purposes. Most libraries charge fees for photocopies regardless of the nature of the use of the copy. Yet librarians don’t seem to question the value of supporting recreational e-mail with public funds?

    This summer I read some library history and found that there is a historical precedent for such concerns. One of the wide ranging debates 100 years ago was the value of public libraries providing collections of fiction.

    A question that has puzzled me is how fiction fits into the fulfilling information needs creating value paradigm. I can clearly see the value of publicly providing health or consumer information. It is harder for me to apply the same rationale to fiction.

    The publicly supported provision of information is an obvious value. However, many of the services of public libraries have a value that is less apparent and tangible. The value of information can be quantified and observed. The value of reading fiction, watching movies or experiencing art is an empirical exercise. We value fiction or movies or art because of the feelings and thoughts they emote.

    If a public library service can’t demonstrate its value in a way that is immediately perceived by the community and the individual, is it a service that merits the support of public tax dollars?

    Despite my doubts, I believe that those public library services whose value is largely empirical are worth the imposition of mandated public funding. Even though it cannot be clearly observed and measured I believe that the exchange of ideas and sharing of knowledge improves the life of the individual and the community.

    I fear that in a world where public library worth is measured only by what is observable and measurable that many of the functions of the library would be deemed unworthy of public support.

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