The role libraries play in economic development

The role libraries play in economic development

Libraries are so much more than books. 

We’re not just talking about the pivot to digital content. As any librarian or patron knows, libraries play a vital role within their communities far beyond that of entertainment and education. Yes, libraries are a go-to source for research support, accessible information and thoughtfully curated content, but in many cities and communities around the world, the library is the de facto community center or social services hub, connecting people in need with resources (both on-site and off-site), and offering shelter, compassion and connection. Libraries also are key in building citizens’ media literacy, which in turn has a powerful impact on democracy as a whole. 

But it doesn’t end there. Libraries also play a critical role in economic development. 

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Though the economy may be the last thing that comes to mind when we think about a free government resource, libraries do have an incredible impact on a region’s economic health.  

“The  rules of engagement in economic development are changing,” said Martin Gómez, president of the Urban Libraries Council in a recent report. “More and more, economic development success strategies involve people, technology and growing an infrastructure for economic activity built on ideas, knowledge, experience and quality of life.” 

Libraries are dynamic. They’re important. They have incredible reach, both locally and virtually. It’s no wonder that investment in libraries benefits individuals and makes cities stronger. Here’s how. 

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Impacting literacy rates   

The role libraries play in economic development: impacting literacy rates

While of course literacy rates are important for anyone interested in getting an education or generally participating in society — not to mention enjoying a good novel — literacy rates are also intrinsically tied to economic development 

Literacy rate (in particular, early literacy) and mean education level are both indicators of economic development. Elevated levels of early literacy improve the quality of child care and academic success. Of course, literacy plays an important role later in life too: literacy leads to a greater workforce participation level. 

Supporting small businesses 

The role libraries play in economic development: Supporting small businesses

Even as funding shrinks, libraries are an impactful patron of local small businesses. From hiring local artists and educators for workshops, to investing in locally sourced resources or purchasing technology from local companies, libraries drop a significant amount of money into their local communities. Add in business partnerships with small- and medium-sized companies, and the library, though a non-profit venture, almost acts as a mini-economy in and of itself.  

Libraries also provide important resources to small business owners via their tools and databases. In fact, research has found that when libraries provide business development data, market entry costs drop dramatically, lowering the barrier to entry for small business owners.


Attracting new residents and visitors   

A city with amenities is a vibrant and attractive one — and libraries are part of that package. With more and more people expressing interest in living in urban centers with accessible amenities, a library can offer plenty of appeal. And with a growing population comes a growth in spending and investment.  

While libraries may not be explicitly what encourages someone to sign the lease in a particular neighborhood, or uproot their family for a big move, libraries are often associated with access to an enhanced quality of life. Studies show that libraries are perceived to contribute to the safety and stability of a neighborhood. These good vibes aren’t just felt by residents. In fact, when a library is located in a commercial district, there’s also a so-called “halo effect” of spending at nearby establishments.  

Services for the disabled

The role libraries play in economic development: Services for the disabled

When people have their basic needs met, they’re able to strive for success on other levels. Which means that social services and educational support aren’t just nice things for libraries to offer, karma-wise: they’re the building blocks to help all citizens participate in the economy.  

Whether offering accessible reading materials or social support, library services for the disabled community help level the playing field.  

This isn’t just true of the physically or mentally disabled patrons: it’s true for economically disadvantaged members of the community, too. All too often, the library’s computers and internet access are the only ways for lower income individuals to access technology — 70 percent of library computer users, in fact.  

By providing these essential resources free of charge to anyone who needs them, libraries are equipping everyone with the tools they need to apply for jobs, attend workshops, communicate or seek out resources — and get involved in the local economy in the process. 

Job creation

Beyond the fact that libraries offer assistance to the general public with job searches and resumes, libraries themselves are sources of employment.  

It goes without saying that libraries can’t achieve all of their incredible functions without staff. By providing jobs in the community, libraries are contributing to the economy in another, more literal way.   

Even unpaid library volunteers see an economic benefit from doing work for the library, by levelling up their job skills and personal confidence, making them all the more employable in other roles.  

Beyond providing incredible content to patrons, it’s undeniable that libraries are an important contributor to economic development. And even as the role of the library evolves (adapting to a post-pandemic reality, evolving to offer more digital resources), this will continue to be true. 


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