Public Libraries and Economic Development

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the value of a commons goes unrecognized unless it can be expressed through market economics. So, for example, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey have been assessed to provide “ecosystem services” worth $1,476 an acre while freshwater wetlands provide $11,568 worth of eco-services per acre. Such valuations may or may not help protect the commons in question; certainly the practice of monetizing the commons is much-debated, on both philosophical and empirical grounds. But I worry that market valuations — even if justified for tactical reasons — can shift the terms of debate in troubling ways. The presumption becomes that all you really need to do to solve a problem is perform a rigorous cost/benefit analysis.

I was reminded of this debate recently when I encountered a new report, “Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development,” released by the Urban Libraries Council (a tip of the hat to Ted Howard for alerting me to this report). It’s hard to fault libraries for trying to demonstrate that they are important to the economic well-being of a city. They must fight for their budgets like any other city department, and moreover, libraries do have demonstrable economic benefits for a community.

At the same time, I worry that libraries will become even more vulnerable if economic criteria become the default measure for judging their worth. The role of libraries in providing equal access to information, promoting literacy and fostering community engagement may be seen as expendable. If economic return on investment becomes the new standard for municipal spending, why then, perhaps a city might wish to build a new sports arena instead, or perhaps new roads for a casino — either of which might provide better yields.

To be fair, the economic vs. social benefit of libraries is not necessarily an either/or proposition; it can be a both/and argument. But I worry about re-casting libraries as mere economic inputs and failing to honor their intrinsic value as commons institutions. Libraries should exist not just to help the economy grow, but to serve civic and community functions that Barnes & Noble will never serve.

Having said that, let?s look at some of the economic benefits that libraries do provide. The report notes:

Within the U.S. there are over 9,000 public libraries providing services in over 16,000 branch facilities and through the Web. Nearly every one of these locally funded organizations offers collections and programs that support early literacy, workforce readiness and small businesses. As such, they are an important and dynamic part of the community’s learning infrastructure which supports local economic development.

The report goes on to describe how libraries provide “early literacy services” to many families and caregivers, which helps children become more capable and motivated students. Libraries also help citizens and employees learn how to use computers and the Internet, which has obvious benefits to local employers. The databases, books and periodicals that libraries provide can help small businesses develop themselves more efficiently. And because public libraries are such trusted and valued community institutions, their physical facilities can help improve the safety and quality of life in neighborhoods.

It’s fantastic that the value of the commons in stimulating market activity is being recognized. No quarrel there. Let’s just make sure that we also give a full-throated defense of libraries as civic and community institutions. Value is too rich and important an issue to leave to economists alone.