Public libraries are a “worthwhile investment”
The rapid development of the digital economy has led some to believe that public libraries could go the dinosaur’s way. After all, why bother going to your local library when you can just find what you need with the click of a mouse?
Yet in the digital age, the evidence is compelling that libraries remain vital community institutions, especially as public trust in institutions remains low and the bonds between people weaken and recede.
Senior Economic Contributor Chris Farrell spoke with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio about how public libraries continue to enrich the communities and neighborhoods they serve. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: I mean, a lot of people who listen don’t even know what a card catalog is. But some do –
Chris Farrell: Or the Dewey decimal system?
Brancaccio: Yeah, I love the Dewey decimal system. It was the coding system where you can find the books if you understand the code. But libraries have evolved to respond to this new world.
Farrell: It’s true, they essentially reinvented and reinvented themselves. You know, look, libraries still fulfill this traditional mission of providing books and a study space for users. But libraries also help people find work, start a business, take college preparation courses, apply for government benefits, learn English as a second language. And by the way, when you go to a library you see that they are just full of computers and have internet connections for people to use. And, by the way, a lot of these people may not have high tech equipment at home.
Brancaccio: Yes. Today, 100 or 150 years ago, libraries were the Internet, the place where knowledge that was previously held by custodians resided. Andrew Carnegie, the big payer of public libraries, believed that libraries were the best tool for the masses to uplift, and that is social change. What do you think now? Are libraries still a force for social change?
Farrell: Yeah, David, I really think they are instruments of social change a century later. You know, several years ago I was in Columbia, South Carolina, and talking to the head of the Public Library Workforce Development Initiative. And she said, you know, helping older workers understand their encore career, that was part of her mission. And later I went to the downtown Phoenix library and was impressed with its university deposit. You know, this is a free full service access center to help you with everything from getting a GED [high school equivalency diploma] to a university degree. And you can multiply these examples because there are over 15,000 library branches in the United States and local governments spend over $ 12 billion a year on their libraries. And it’s safe to say it’s a worthwhile investment.
Brancaccio: Well, do we know that? Is it a good return on investment?
Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study – this one caught my eye – [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and University of Miami. And they calculate a healthy return on investment by certain measures. Thus, among their findings, the capital investment of libraries increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s review of articles by 21%, and the total number of library visits by 21%. Okay, okay, that’s interesting, but the increase in library use translates into better test scores for kids in neighboring school districts.
Brancaccio: So there are also some interesting advantages, which are almost difficult to quantify?
Farrell: That’s right. And it’s, you know, really what strikes me is that we live in a time where there is a lack of trust in so many institutions and, you know, the feeling that we have a connection with each other. the others, I mean, is the burst. Well, public libraries are always trustworthy, community institutions and most importantly, public libraries are open to everyone. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class and net worth.
Brancaccio: Yeah, but then the pandemic comes along, and it’s tough on libraries. People were not allowed to enter some of them, budgets were cut. And you know, it’s not that so many libraries were overfunded even before the pandemic hit.
Farrell: And that’s why I think ROI, especially as you mentioned, ROI on intangibles, is so important. So much more needs to be done to maintain the buildings, modernize the bathrooms, increase the number of hours of operation, and there is a wonderful book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People”. And you know, in this book he convincingly argues that libraries, the people who work there and the people who visit them are essential to our democracy and our community. So support your local library.