How Valuable Are Libraries? Here are the Numbers

An astounding return on investment.

If you are reading this, you probably already know that libraries add value to our country. But recent studies from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the California State Library provide concrete data about the importance of libraries, some of which may surprise you. (And then make you happier than ever to support libraries.)

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A Staggering Return on Investment

The Texas report states that for every $1 invested in Texas public libraries, the community sees a return of $4.64 in access to resources, programming, services, and technology. To look at the bigger picture, Texas libraries provide more than $2.6 billion (yes, billion) in benefits with a budget of $566 million (yes, million).

A California report details similar success, with $3–$6 being the most common return per $1. This report provides some additional financial benefits. The National Council for Adult Learning estimates that low literacy leads to an annual cost of $225 billion in a nonproductive workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue because of unemployment. Libraries increase literacy levels through programming and services and offer job-seeking help and education.

Literacy is Key

Low literacy is also tied to $232 billion in healthcare costs. People who have trouble reading will have difficulty learning to manage their health or find healthcare and health insurance. More than half of the nation's libraries help people find health insurance, and 42% of library internet searches are looking for health information.

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Community Boost

Libraries provide for the communities in other ways. The California report notes that businesses such as restaurants and retailers close to library branches report around 23% more spending from library visitors, which is called the "halo spending effect." But other positive financial factors include library workers earning a living, vendors providing resources, and when a library is remodeled or a new branch built, that generates a considerable amount of funds for the community through employment and materials.

The Value of a Question

Of course, not everything has a price tag. The Texas report put a value on reference services since that's usually a heavily used part of a library's resources. Presumably, people who ask for help from librarians have tried to find information themselves but couldn't. Using Texas' methodology, they estimate that one library's reference hours amounted to 1,138,865 hours of searches in 2015. If those hours are multiplied by the average salary and benefits of a reference librarian, that means the value of the reference services for that year was more than $27 million.

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Help When You Need it Most

California libraries also provide exceptional services for their communities. For example, when there's a natural disaster, people who qualify for aid usually have to apply for it online — hard to do if their electricity and home internet aren't working. Librarians have spent countless hours helping people apply for much-needed aid. Excessive heat is a common and dangerous situation, especially in the southern half of the state, and libraries there provide a place for those without air conditioning to take shelter, breathe higher-quality air, and drink water, helping to prevent deaths.

The studies from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the California State Library have much more to say about the value of libraries. Consider this a snapshot rather than a comprehensive overview, and know that good things are happening in libraries everywhere.