The Return-On-Investment from Your Public Library is Unbelievable!

If libraries were a business, you’d want to buy that stock

Wise investors know a good deal when they see it, which is why so many people who are smart and rich love their public library. It’s simple, really, if you consider what the average U.S. household pays for library services (~$7.50/month) and put that next to a public library’s vast offerings, the point is obvious. For under ten dollars you get thousands of books, music, movies, wholesome activities for kids, very expensive market research databases, and a much, much more.

But say you’re still not convinced that libraries are a smart investment. Okay, what if I tell you that over and over again research has shown that the Return-on-Investment (ROI) for your local library is around $5 (but could be up to $9), for every dollar spent. It’s true: for every dollar that communities invest in library services they get five back!

Is this a killer deal? Of course it is! It’s why nearly every personal finance guru sings the praises of libraries. Note, these are not abstract benefits like how libraries help build a stronger Democracy, or how they inspire curiosity in people, a library’s ROI is the institution’s worth in cold hard cash. This doesn’t just translate to value for the individual either, a well-funded library raises surrounding property values, helps develop an intelligent workforce (making your area attractive for cutting-edge companies), and makes local social services more efficient. Heck, as a teenager, I learned basic job skills through a program at my library. It’s where I wrote my first resumé!

Increased property values, job skills development, and strengthening of social services are all examples of the public value libraries create. That means that these are ways in which libraries benefit even those who never set foot inside. It’s like if an imaginary person named George was trying to launch a business — he knew what he wanted to do and was good at it, but had no experience with running his own firm. Not knowing what else to do, George went to his local library and partook in the numerous resources it offers to small business owners. A year later, his business is providing a useful service to customers, paying wages to local workers, supporting local governance through taxes, and earning him and his family a decent life. Now, multiply George by fifty or a thousand, and you get the public value of libraries.

This is not even attempting to quantify the long-term financial rewards of supporting our nation’s education system through targeted early literacy initiatives. I’m going to say it plain: After parents and grandparents, libraries are the first place where children establish lifelong reading habits; kids learn to read at the library. Moreover, new parents learn how to teach their kids to read at the library by attending an age-appropriate storytime and observing the librarian. Does this fit directly into the five dollars of value libraries give you for every one dollar you pay? I don’t know, but I’ve never ever heard anyone argue against the valuable investment that is teaching our kids to read well.

Likewise, I’ve never heard anyone who truly understood the research on the excellent ROI (up to $9 for every dollar spent!) that libraries provide for communities muster a cogent argument for de-funding this important and beneficial institution. Libraries aren’t just feel-good spaces for softies, they are solid, tangible evidence of public money returned directly to a community as public value. Rare are enterprises more worthy of our support.