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Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries

Foreword from Arts Council England, Final Report June 2014: “Every day, across England a wide range of people walk into their library, or visit their library online to do an extraordinary range of things: borrow a book or DVD, attend a training session, track down some crucial information, meet a friend or client, study quietly and even download an e-book. Libraries support us in an everyday way, throughout our lives. Walk into any library and see toddlers, mums and dads at Story Time, studious teenagers and the local job club. And while just about everybody is getting online, around a quarter of us don’t have access at home. Whilst anything can happen in a library, something you rarely see is money changing hands. Perhaps the odd overdue charge, a small fee to attend a workshop or borrow a film but overwhelmingly library services are free for all at the point of use. And so when we talk of an ‘economic contribution’, as we increasingly must with arts and culture at a time when local authorities face significant financial challenges, libraries may not immediately spring to mind. Think a little more laterally and it becomes clear that there are many arguments for the vital financial role that libraries play.  For example, whilst libraries may not ‘turn a profit’ they provide us with many things that support local economies, from information for businesses, to access to essential text books. Libraries have a local presence and may contribute to a sense of place. Then there are the beneficial effects of services accessed in a library whether that be a social reading club, support to quit smoking, or help looking for jobs online. These are the services that ensure effective and financially efficient public spending and enable us to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.  So it is entirely believable that libraries make an economic contribution, but what we don’t know is how it is made or how much it is. This report is our first step in understanding what it is about public libraries than can make an economic contribution and the scale of contribution a library can make. It is a question of some complexity and this report summarises both the available evidence on the subject, and the ways in which others have approached the question, including the advantages and potential pitfalls of the different methodologies. Having this consolidated base of evidence allows us to take the  next step, and begin to develop new research into this question. In the next 12 months we will be investigating further one area of impact and asking how libraries contribute to healthy lives and what that represents financially. Answering the question of the economic contribution of libraries is no small undertaking, and one that Arts Council England will not be able to do alone. So we are working with partners (such as the Society of Chief Librarians, the British Library and the Local Government Association) and wider library constituency to develop our research in this field. In the meantime, the evidence presented here will support discussion at local and national level about library reform and raise the debate about this subject up to the level it deserves and requires.”

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