We all know that libraries are a good thing, right? But how much of a good thing? For the first time we can express the value of libraries in monetary terms. A new report – Libraries for living, and for living better – suggests that England’s public libraries generate £3.4 billion a year of value. The report’s authors estimated that a branch library typically provides £1 million in value annually. Extrapolating the findings to all of England’s 3,000 libraries gave them a national total of £3.4 billion. This equates to at least six times their cost. The report is a welcome reminder – at a time when both local and central government grapple with unprecedented financial pressures – that libraries are not an unaffordable and dispensable luxury. As well as being places of “living literacy” and an investment in the future, libraries play a crucial role as a frontline public service, perhaps now more than ever.
The landmark analysis was carried out by economists from the University of East Anglia (UEA) for Libraries Connected East, the eastern regional network of the charity Libraries Connected. Their aim was to estimate the economic value of libraries in the region.
The UEA team developed a new valuation tool that ascribes a monetary value to various library activities based on their equivalent commercial rates, the savings they create for taxpayers and their projected financial impact on individuals. For example, literacy programmes were valued at £279 per participant. The researchers say that they expect the tool to be useful to library professionals, enabling them to make meaningful estimates of the benefits of library services and programmes.
The research focused on three service areas: digital inclusion, children’s literacy, and health and wellbeing. Their methodology included extensive library visits, user interviews and statistical analysis.
They found, for example, that a men’s mental health project in Norfolk generated value of £60,000 per participant and a ‘knit and natter’ group in Clacton generated more than £30,000 of value by reducing the impact of loneliness on healthcare, productivity and wellbeing.
The report also reminds us that libraries “are places of living literacy, raising children’s literacy levels and with potential to return a value of up to £60,000 throughout each child’s lifetime”. They are also “frontline mediators” for many public services and charities, and they help to alleviate social isolation and loneliness (issues of ever-increasing concern as the number of people in older age continues to grow).
Libraries Connected said that the UEA analysis “makes a powerful case for increased local and national investment in the library network”.
For the first time, we have rigorous academic analysis the [sic] demonstrates the far-reaching economic and social impact of libraries. This innovative research by UEA should be a gamechanger for public libraries and how they are viewed by local and national decision-makers. The evidence is clear: investing in libraries brings huge returns for local communities and the public purse.Isobel Hunter MBE, chief executive of Libraries Connected
We have written previously that well-stocked libraries are an investment in our future. What a bitter irony it is that, in times of economic difficulties and retrenchment, investment in the public services that produce the best long-term returns is often the first to be slashed. The Guardian newspaper reported in 2019 that almost 800 libraries in Britain had closed since 2010. It is safe to say that the situation will not have improved since then.
Perhaps the biggest hole of all is in our school library provision.
A 2021 report published by the National Literacy Trust charity said that a quarter of disadvantaged primary schools in England do not have a library and that four in ten primary schools do not have a dedicated library budget. The report reminded us that it is not even a legal requirement for schools to have a library.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the benefits of good library access — more reading for enjoyment, better attitudes to learning, higher attainment — school library provision is extremely uneven across the country, with schools in areas of highest deprivation having the worst provision.
Every time a library closes it becomes harder to have access to and enjoy books. Ending book poverty is therefore a question of social justice as well as of educational common sense: every child, regardless of their background, should have access to a rich supply of high-quality books and to spaces that make it easy and pleasurable to read.
Image at the head of this article by Hermann Kollinger from Pixabay.