Public Libraries: A Smart Investment for All Seasons
Across the UK, many public libraries are struggling to remain open. With nearly 800 libraries having closed since 2010 - due to national austerity measures and a decline in spending at the local level - this a national crisis. But it is also a locale by local tragedy.
Yet time after time studies have shown that both in England and elsewhere in the world investing in public libraries has always been a smart move. In a December interview with the BBC, Boris Johnson stated that in a financial situation where one in five town councils must implement “drastic spending controls” to avoid bankruptcy, investment in libraries— while a laudable goal— can only happen after getting the nation on the path of economic recovery. Contrary to conventional belief, libraries are not merely a luxury for more affluent times but an important engine of prosperity, bringing a host of economic and social benefits to their communities at a rate of return which far exceeds the initial investment.
According to a 2019 report, Public Libraries: The Case for Support, published by The Big Issue and CILIP, libraries in England offer an amazing value of £13 per capita return on local tax investments. In addition, the presence of an appropriately funded, professionally-run public library creates a “halo” effect for local businesses and learning providers, offering an additional estimated return of between £5 and £7 for the local economy for every £1 spent. These economic benefits are ecumenical in nature, being shared across all demographics due to the phenomenal reach of public libraries. Libraries have been identified as an “anchor institution” for High Street and other urban economic development initiatives, not only providing information services and other valuable resources (such as meeting rooms, coworking space, and professional networking opportunities) to small business owners and local entrepreneurs but enhancing the overall liveability of places, which helps foster additional economic growth.
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Investment in libraries generates a myriad of other benefits as well. Public libraries support an informal and formal infrastructure for learning outside the classroom, supplementing the role of local schools. Research by the New York Comprehensive Centre suggests that libraries have a positive impact on early childhood learning opportunities. Public libraries play a key role in the development of early literacy, offering programmes which help provide exposure to pre-reading skills such as print motivation, phonological awareness, vocabulary, narrative skills, and letter knowledge. Although reading for pleasure has been associated with improved educational outcomes and better overall wellness, a 2017 study by the National Literacy Trust indicates that reading for pleasure is in a state of deep decline— especially among English youth, with only ⅓ of teenage boys in the UK reporting that they enjoy reading. By investing in libraries, communities help combat this alarming trend by fostering early literacy skills and building a nation of readers long before children even go to school.
Libraries also foster informational and digital literacies. With a 2016 OECD report indicating that there are more than 9 million working-age adults in England with low literacy and numeracy skills. Not only can this negatively impact future productivity and employability, but low literacy skills can erode citizenship by limiting peoples’ ability to understand and participate in government. Nowadays one can find various library STEM or Makerspace activities that promote scientific literacy and numeracy, as well as programmes which develop digital literacy and technology skills. By offering communities opportunities for lifelong learning, supporting underrepresented communities, and creating an environment that is friendly to adult learners, public libraries provide an invaluable tool for social mobility and help ensure that England’s adult population will have the skills they need to participate in the modern workforce.
In addition to reaping measurable economic and educational benefits, communities which invest in their libraries realise a host of health, wellbeing, and social benefits as well. Public libraries serve as hubs for health information, health literacy, and community support. By partnering with health providers to help people manage their own health, libraries help lessen the burden on the NHS and empowering people to practise self-care and self-management of long-term conditions to prevent illness and promote better health and wellbeing. Libraries can also combat loneliness and reduce social isolation with programmes that offer opportunities for socialisation and foster a sense of community— not an inconsequential thing in light of the fact that the government estimates at least 9 million people in the UK experience being lonely on a regular basis and a staggering 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or family member in over a month!
Last but certainly not least, investment in libraries is a popular decision among taxpayers in England. Fully 75% of the population saying that libraries are important for their community. Librarians being amongst the top 5 trusted professionals in the UK. Celebrated English authors such as acclaimed storyteller Neil Gaiman and political cartoonist and beloved children’s book writer Chris Riddell have recently championed the cause of libraries. “If you do not value libraries,” they tell us, “you are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.” Public libraries help create literate and informed citizens and connect us to our history, shared values, and culture. For these reasons alone investing in libraries would be a wise decision for any community— once you include all of the other tangible ways in which public libraries provide a return on taxpayers’ hard-earned money, however. The case is clear: libraries are a sound investment in both good economic times and bad.