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American libraries – latest developments

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Article Sections

  1. Is it possible to measure the value of a library?
  2. The physical library
  3. The virtual library
  4. References

By Margaret Adolphus

Is it possible to measure the value of a library?

The Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP), one of the world's largest libraries, believes that you can. It commissioned a study of the library's economic impact on the town's citizens from the Fels Institute of Government at Penn State. The research was based on a survey of patrons and librarians at all branches, as well as data from the Census and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (see Fels Research & Consulting, 2010).

The study came up with some remarkable findings. The library, it seemed, played a crucial, and measurable, role in the following areas:

  • Literacy, with 10,788 people attributing their ability to read, and 14,024 their ability to teach others to read, to the library.
  • Workforce development, through career-development books, job-finding online activities, and job-readiness programmes; furthermore, 979 people found jobs directly as a result of the library's resources.
  • Business development, with books, online activities and programmes; furthermore, 8 per cent of those surveyed said they could not have started, grown or improved their business without the help of the library, with the result that an estimated 8,630 businesses benefited.
  • Increasing the value of homes: homes within a quarter of a mile of the library were worth on average $9,630 more.

A public good

Americans in general value their libraries, seeing them as a public good worth paying for.

And that has to be because libraries are doing something right. As in the case of the FLP, they are much more than a book and media storehouse – they are centres of lifelong learning and culture.

They can also provide free access to resources, including Internet-enabled computers – the latter being particularly relevant to the 60 per cent of rural Americans without broadband.

Above all, they try and provide what people really want, as opposed to what they think they want.

For example, when Seattle Public Library was being built in 2004, the original intention was to provide cutting-edge technology.

It was quickly realized, however, that what people really wanted was more computers, so 150 were installed which people could access any time of the day or night. The more technically savvy had their needs catered for in the form of podcasts, blogs and databases.


Advocacy is a key feature of American libraries. The American Library Association (ALA) is a strong lobbying body and evangelizes about libraries at every level, from the federal government to the ordinary citizen.

ALA president Molly Raphael believes, however, that the most important advocacy comes not from a body in Chicago, or, indeed, from the library itself. It's the user, and the community that the library serves, that counts.

"If I as a library leader talk about what libraries do, then there is always, because I work there, a perceived self-interest.

"But when you have people who advocate from the community, then you have a very different perception because these people don't have anything to gain or lose other than the library."

Thus the ALA will provide support and propose strategies, but the push must come from the users.

This means that the library has to look closely at its community, and see how it can best provide the service it needs.

"If they do that well, then people who live in the communities will care about the libraries and fight when they get proposed budget cuts."

It is easy to see how major public libraries such as Seattle or FLP listen to and serve their communities; but the same principle applies to academic and school libraries.

"If you have a faculty member saying, don't cut the library, it's too important for what I'm teaching, and for the students' learning, then that's far more powerful than if a librarian says the same thing."

When the University of California at Berkeley threatened to cut the weekend opening of the anthropology library, a 24 hour sit-in by students caused the authorities to think again.

So, for academic libraries it's the faculty and students who are the core community; for school libraries, parents can be added to the mix as they care very much about their children's education.


Libraries, at least public libraries, are helped by the flexibility of the funding system. How libraries are funded is based on state law, so will differ from state to state.

Many states allow libraries to form a library district where they actually go direct to the voters and ask them to tax themselves to pay for the library.

This happened in Hood River County, in the state of Oregon – when the county lost its funding, the voters agreed to create a library district to fund the library in the future. The library has just reopened after a year's closure while the new funding stream was being sorted out.