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The Tell: How do you quantify the value of a public library? Here’s what one report finds

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Libraries are a bedrock of local life in America.

But there has been little study of the quantifiable impacts libraries, and spending on them, have on communities and residents. A recently published working paper addresses that, with some unsurprising findings for everyone who grew up with a love of reading, thanks to the local library.

“Our results highlight the importance of public libraries to children, even in an era with widespread access to the internet and smartphones,” write the authors, Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, and Peter Nencka, of Montana State University, the Chicago Fed, and Miami University.

Libraries are entrenched in American life, the authors note. Local governments spend over 12 billion dollars annually funding the operation of roughly 9,261 library systems with 15,427 branches. More than 50% of Americans visit public libraries each year and over 2 billion items are checked out annually.

In addition, libraries provide instruction on everything from literacy to computer usage, job searching, and tax preparation. “They serve as one of the few non-commercial indoor spaces available to the public,” the authors note, and are particularly important for child development. In 2018, children checked out more than 750 million library items and attended events more than 80 million times.

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There’s been little analysis of the impact of municipal spending on libraries, the authors say, in large part because it is hard to extricate the impact of the library from other components of the community, like school systems, for example.

To isolate spending and its effects, the authors investigate the aftermath of big increases in capital spending on “major renovations” and new buildings.

“We find that capital investment sharply increases library visits (by 21%), children’s checkouts of items (by 21%), and children’s attendance at library events (by 18%),” according to the report.

“These increases in usage persist for at least 10 years after capital investment. Capital investment also increases library book holdings, employees, spending on salaries, and operating expenditures. In other words, library capital investment increases both the quality and usage of libraries,” the authors wrote.

After such spending “shocks,” children’s reading test scores improved. “In particular, we observe persistent improvement in reading test scores in the years after library capital spending,” the study finds. Scores increased by 0.02 standard deviations on average in the seven years—though math test scores don’t get the same boost.

The effects demonstrated by the research isn’t unique to particular grade levels or socioeconomic status, the researchers write, although they add that the effects may be somewhat less for Black and Asian students than for white ones.  

Perhaps most telling, they write, “We find that effects are largest in smaller districts and in districts that spent the least per-student on school capital improvements over our sample period. Together, these results suggests that the effects of libraries are larger when libraries are more salient in the local community and that libraries may play a compensatory role when communities are investing small amounts in school infrastructure.”

See: This chart shows why we need ‘infrastructure week’ so badly

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