By Daria Bossman, Assistant State LibrarianThe basic premise of a report based on research conducted by the Urban Libraries Council is that a perceivable change is taking place in the 21st Century within public libraries. Support and funding for this study was provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates and the Geraldine R. Dodge foundations. The study notes the shift in the role public libraries play within their communities - from a passive place for quiet recreational reading and research to an active agent for local economic development. This 26 page report focused on four main ways public libraries in any size community can broaden their impact on and contributions to their local economic development conditions. These four areas are 1) early literacy/school readiness, 2) workforce development, 3) small business support and 4) physical development. This study is entitled, Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development. The report concluded that public “libraries are helping to raise levels of literacy, digital dexterity and entrepreneurial activity in communities…rather than succumbing to obsolescence with the advent of new information technologies, the basic business of public libraries is being recast.” (26)
Libraries have long been recognized as one of the most important community institutions for adult and child literacy development. However, new information emerging in the child development arena is uncovering a strong connection between early literacy investments and improved school outcomes later on. Few community services, perhaps apart from the local medical facility and local police, enjoy the type of public support that is given to public libraries. In a recent national public opinion poll conducted by the American Library Association, over 90 percent of all respondents said, “They believe libraries are places of opportunity for education, self-help and offer free access to all.” (4) Given the current economic situation, libraries have felt the constraints of increased demand along with rising costs and limited or constricted funding. Librarians and library boards have increasingly felt the need to justify their existence in light of other community realities such as increased personal ownership of computers and the increased content available on the Internet.
A number of economic research tools are now being used to measure the public value of libraries, including the cost-benefit impacts and return on investment (known as ROE) that public libraries generate. These studies consistently identify positive economic impacts made by libraries at the national, state and local levels. (5) For instance, public libraries now have a host of new opportunities to become more actively engaged in local workforce development initiatives and networks. Job information resources and specialized workforce programs in local libraries have the potential to reach a much wider group of job seekers than federal or state “one-step centers.” Public libraries have reputations as trusted, quality community information sources, high use volume and widespread geographical distribution within a given state. For these reasons, public libraries in even the smallest of communities should be one-stop centers for business and community development as well as the more traditional services of reading and educational literacy.
Chapters two and three of the report examine two key strategies for building the human capital of area residents - early literacy interventions for children and support services for job seekers. Chapter four identifies examples of some of the new business supports available through visionary local library systems. Finally, chapter five highlights ways in which communities are pursuing public library placement and construction as a way to create vibrant public spaces, all the while greatly expanding and broadening the definition of mixed development in communities. A myriad of other examples “further underscore the variety of ways in which public libraries are making” our cities and towns stronger. (6)
Public libraries, which enjoy high usage rates and high favorability nationwide, are becoming increasingly engaged in local workforce support service networks. By providing opportunities to consolidate job information resources, broadening literacy efforts, and conducting targeted outreach to immigrants, minorities and the technology “have nots,” the public library is providing valuable support to build local workforce strength and resiliency. These efforts will insure our local public libraries their vibrancy and continued local support for years to come.
Urban Libraries Council, “Making Cities Stronger: Public Library contributions to Local Economic Development.”
Originally published at http://library.sd.gov/forlibrarians/enewsletter/2010/jan/2010-01f.asp