Libraries' economic contribution 'can only be measured long-term'

Libraries' economic contribution 'can only be measured long-term'

Public libraries have an economic impact on their communities that far exceeds their "traditional perception", according to a report released by Arts Council England (ACE).

However the review concludes that the benefits are usually longterm, making it difficult to put an immediate "monetary valuation" on their role.

The report, Evidence Review of the Economic Contribution of Libraries, said: "What the available evidence shows is that public libraries, first and foremost, contribute to long term processes of human capital formation, the maintenance of mental and physical wellbeing, social inclusivity and the cohesion of communities….What it does show is that measuring libraries’ short term economic impact provides only a very thin, diminished account of their true value."

The review looked at three different ways in which libraries could contribute to the economy, examining basic financial impact, the effect a library has on its immediate community, and a benefit-cost analysis. It examined studies done in the UK, US and Canada as well as Spain, France and Germany. Some of the specific research into economic impact showed that libraries in Scotland supported 1,1296 jobs on top of those directly employed by libraries, while an appraisal of the Library of Birmingham carried out before it was developed estimated that it would bring £84.4m in benefits compared to £10.9m in costs for a 30-year period.

It also referenced a number of studies showing how libraries are valued by the public at more than they cost to provide, citing a study in Florida that showed libraries returned $6.54 for every dollar spent on them, and a UK study from 2002 which showed users valued the library service at £814m, over £90m more than the £724m it cost to provide. A British Library study in 2004 demonstrated that it generated a value of £363m, a figure 4.4 times greater that its annual public funding of £83m.

Brian Ashley, director of libraries at ACE, said: "We always knew this was a complex area, and we are fortunate to be able to build on the work of so many who have explored it both in this country and across the world. It would be great to be able to define the full economic contribution of libraries, and we will continue that work, but nobody should lose sight of the difference they make to people’s lives day in, day out, in communities all across the country."

The research follows a study carried out by ALMA-UK (Archives Libraries & Museums Alliance UK), which showed that people visiting libraries place a theoretical money value of between £24 and £27 on each visit to the library, around 5.7 times greater than the cost of providing the service.

Last year, the former culture secretary Maria Miller said that culture must be valued on its economic impact, saying: "In an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact."

ACE said it planned to carry out more research in the next 12 months, looking at how libraries contribute to healthy lives and the financial impact of that.

An independent review into public libraries is being carried out by a panel led by William Sieghart, with plans to report by the end of the year.