Libraries and Economic Development


This week we look at municipal libraries. Libraries are a relatively small budget item for most cities, but they are a visible service. More importantly, their role in economic and community development is growing. Local leaders can lever their library systems to deal with economic inequality and strengthen their tax base. Libraries’ historic missions will continue, but new opportunities are emerging in literacy, workforce and business development.

Scope and Scale of Libraries in the U.S.

There are over 9,000 public libraries in the U.S. and almost 550 in Texas. These counts and the following library statistics are from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Nationally, library revenue exceeded $11 billion with total operating expenses of almost $10 billion in fiscal year 2013. Library collections have decreased slightly in the last decade, with audio-visual and e-book holdings increasing. U.S. public libraries provide 278,000 public access internet computers. Texans visit their library three times annually, on average. These libraries also make a major contribution to economic development in the state

The IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin documented Texas public library impact for 2011. Overall, Texas public libraries generate $4.42 for every dollar invested in libraries. The total economic impact of Texas public libraries was $2.4 billion. Like any economic impact study, this impact includes funding for day-to-day operations of libraries. More important, however, libraries are well positioned to lever their budgets in targeted ways for community and economic development. 

Moving the Dial on Community and Economic Development

Local leaders are usually well aware of public support for libraries. In many communities, libraries have one of the most vocal advocacy groups at budget time. If libraries are going to continue to prosper, however, and maximize their contribution to economic development, new priorities are needed. Libraries’ well-known benefits will still be in demand: children’s programming, easy access to books and periodicals and quiet places to study or talk. Beyond these, libraries need to reposition and promote new community and economic development roles. Among city services, they have a unique ability to do this. At a time when many minority communities are skeptical of government, libraries maintain their trust among residents. People are not afraid of being taken advantage of at their local library. Library facilities provide venues for meetings, programming and more interactive engagement. Proactive engagement is the key. Downtown libraries, in particular, are pioneering ways to engage their diverse populations which range from hipsters to the homeless.

With a proactive, community engagement policy, libraries can have a bigger impact with little net new spending. In fact libraries can become a lead municipal function to slow the growing income inequality gap. We will highlight three areas where libraries can multiply their impact with little new funding. What is needed is a reorientation of goals and resources. They can support workforce development, small business development and basic literacy.

Libraries can support workforce development by preparing people to make better use of existing workforce programs. Most workforce training programs for modern economy jobs assume a lot from the applicants. Libraries can help people be better prepared to succeed in rigorous vocational programs by providing a foundation of basic skills. These skills include soft skills such as time management, communication and collaboration. Basic computer skills are also required by almost any workforce program. Libraries can reposition existing training programs and bring in nonprofit partners to deliver these basic skills in the communities that need them most.

Libraries can support local business development efforts. This goes beyond stocking business and startup books. Libraries can increase access to business benchmarking and demographic databases. These databases permit budding entrepreneurs to complete marketing and business plans. Many libraries are setting aside spaces for small businesses with specially trained staff, dedicated resources, workshops and coworking spaces. A prominent example is the Dallas Public Library which partnered with the city’s Economic Development Office to create the Dallas Business Resource and Information Network. With this program, over 100 community partners with training and funding resources can reach small businesses through the library system.

Finally, libraries can enhance their long-standing basic literacy role. Historically their programming has ranged from summer reading to GED preparation and testing. A major opportunity is improving the economic opportunities of immigrants through immigrant literacy. Research by Dallas Federal Reserve Economist Pia Orrenius noted that the biggest predictor of the poverty gap for Hispanics was their inability to speak English. Supporting ELS and other literacy programs can help close that gap.

Libraries are often easy targets during budget cuts. Local leaders who want to help their communities weather difficult economic times should consider instead how their libraries can become levers to multiply public spending into economic opportunity and a stronger tax base.

What’s Next

Next week, we will take a look at the latest data on consumer spending and the implications for local sales tax revenue. In the meantime, let us know how we can help you make more confident economic and fiscal choices for your community.

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