Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries
The Arts Council has just published an evidence review which looks at the economic contribution of public libraries. The report aims to be an ‘important first step’ in understanding the direct economic contribution that public libraries can make, as well as the indirect contribution generated by social and educational benefits for individuals and communities.
The report summarises the available evidence from a variety of international sources, and examines the methodologies which might be applied to what is clearly a complex issue. It does not try to establish a single monetary value for libraries, but instead looks at different ways of assessing economic contribution, for example ‘place-based’ economic development:
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 … where specialist services are provided, they can also support local economic development through business advice and support for individuals, micro businesses and SMEs.
The report also looks at the wider educational and social impact of libraries across five key areas: Children and young people’s education and personal development; Adult education, skills and employability; Health and wellbeing; Community support and cohesion; and Digital inclusion.
The report notes that there are limitations and weaknesses in the existing literature on this topic, including a lack of longitudinal studies and surveys and studies with large sample sizes, and the difficulty of establishing causality between library usage and outcomes. At the same time, the report points out that
Evidence is already sufficient to conclude that public libraries provide positive outcomes for people and communities in many areas – far exceeding the traditional perception of libraries as just places from which to borrow books. What the available evidence shows is that public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities. This is the real economic contribution that public libraries make to the UK. The fact that these processes are long term, that the financial benefits arise downstream from libraries’ activities, that libraries make only a contribution to what are multi-dimensional, complex processes of human and social development, suggests that attempting to derive a realistic and accurate overall monetary valuation for this is akin to the search for the holy grail. What it does show is that measuring libraries’ short term economic impact provides only a very thin, diminished account of their true value.
The Arts Council says that in the next 12 months it will be investigating further areas of impact and asking how libraries contribute to healthy lives and what that represents financially, working with partners such as the Society of Chief Librarians, the British Library and the Local Government Association.
You can download the full report here.