Public Libraries Make People’s Lives Better
Despite the obvious missions of public libraries, the unmeasured and often unmentioned return-on-investment with regards to them is the affect they have on the quality-of-life of the population they serve. Individual and group happiness are only recently becoming viewed as valid economic indicators, though positive psychology, the study of happiness and the causes of positive life experiences, has been a growing movement within psychological research for over a decade (see the Positive Psychology Center’s list of readings). With all the news about depression and stress rates in the United States soaring, it makes sense that a counterbalance is offered. To that, and into the general fracas I am throwing my unscientific opinion that public libraries have an important role to play in both the physical and mental health of communities.
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But what is quality-of-life and how is it determined? Scientists most often study this using written accounts — analysis of interviews or personal journals. Another way are special mobile apps that buzz at intervals and ask subjects about how they’re feeling at that moment. That data, whether subjects rate their happiness on some scale, or says a few words about it is then combined with many others and research moves forward.
For me, however, well-being is more a general state of being than how I feel at any given moment. When we think about our personal happiness, we remember how we felt when we woke up this morning, whether the drive to work was satisfactory, our feelings at work, a fight with the spouse, maybe — all of these elements come together to color our myriad moods. Basically, I believe that as long as we get enough sleep, are well-fed, and have something we feel is useful to do, happiness is just around the corner. It is that extra boost, the time we must fill when we aren’t eating, sleeping, or working where the library fits.
The aspirational rhetoric that has so long defined public libraries as havens of knowledge and self-improvement is not a bad place to point when it comes to how libraries improve quality-of-life. Through this basic level of access to “knowledge” people can make themselves more useful to a society, which is to say, each other. And being useful, or having a sense of purpose, tends to result in happiness.
Going further into how libraries improve quality-of-life, we can look at the prevalence of genre fiction in circulation records. If we simply go by what gets the most check-outs, it is easy to see that many people love filling their time by living vicariously through the heroes in romance novels, detective thrillers, and inspirational fiction (think Richard Paul Evans, or Debbie Macomber).
Finally, the exploration of identity, whether that is through genealogical research, or exploration of place, is a large part of what local public libraries allow. Through subscriptions to genealogical databases, collections of how-to books, and archives or records and ephemera, libraries preserve the heritage that teaches us who we are. It is no other organization in the world but the public library that brings about these contributions to people’s happiness in quite the same unfettered and obvious way.
To hammer these ideas home, let’s look at how other people’s happiness affects our everyday lives. Imagine that 42-year old lawyer, Jeff, is having a bad morning. His clients are late, the case load is high, and nothing else is going right either. Lunch is boring and the afternoon is no better. After work, however, Jeff remembers that earlier he had skimmed an email from his library. A book that he had ordered a few weeks ago had arrived and was waiting for him.
Dropping by his local branch, Jeff finds the book and is about to leave when he hears strains of beautiful music coming from the library’s meeting room. Wandering in, he takes a seat in the back of the room and listens. Now, I implore you to answer me this: How can the harried Jeff remain agitated in the face of what he hears, which is a free concert of relaxing and melancholy dirges delivered by a local string quartet?
As his breathing evens out and the stresses of the day subside, it occurs to Jeff that he hasn’t brought his wife flowers in way too long. So, he thinks, after the concert I’ll get some. It’s going to be a lovely evening at home, and Jeff looks forward to just-before-bed when he can relax with his long-awaited novel. As the quartet concludes, Jeff joins the rest of the audience in giving them a well-deserved standing ovation. Now all those people are going out into the world, their souls light, not raging at evening traffic, or on some pointless political tirade, but happy to have experienced a heartfelt library concert.