By Ann Zydek
Recently I read “The Returns to Public Library Investment,” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago working paper 2021-06, by Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, and Peter Nencka. In it the effects of public libraries on communities and children was analyzed. They focused on how one time, extraordinary library capital expenditures, like a building construction project, impacted local library resources, patron usage and student achievement.
Their results regarding library resources and patron usage mirror what I saw happen at the Warsaw Community Public Library after the last library building project was completed in 1998. Library usage jumped remarkably for over 10 years. For example, in 1998: circulation totaled 409,118 (22% over 1997) with 432 programs offered. In 2008, circulation totaled 549,245 with 694 programs offered.
The authors pulled data from the 2018 Institute of Museum and Library Services Public Library Survey in which local governments spent over $12 billion funding 15,427 libraries and more than 50% of Americans visited public libraries checked out over two billion items. Their paper notes public libraries offered public use spaces, varied instructional programs, and computer usage. They shared that child development was important as youth checked out over 750 million library items and attended library events more than 80 million times.
Some highlights from their paper include the critical role neighborhoods play in child development including academic performance, long-term educational attainment, and labor market outcomes. They explored which local policies and institutions create beneficial neighborhoods and observed smaller-scale public investments in local amenities, like libraries, can positively affect children’s academic performance at a lower absolute cost than typically more expensive school capital spending.
They concluded public libraries are important to communities and children, even in an era with widespread access to the Internet. Their research indicates that capital library investments cause patrons to use the library more. As more residents visit the library, the stock of library materials and staff growth increases, and more children attend library events. They report nationally library capital investment has positive, persistent effects on the quality and usage of libraries for about 10 years — increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkouts by 21%, and total library visits by 21%.
Also, library capital investments cause students to perform better on standardized tests in nearby schools for at least seven years: a $1,000 or greater per-student capital investment in local public libraries increases reading test scores by 0.02 standard deviations.