As a young boy, I never liked libraries. It wasn’t because of the musty smell of a thrift store or the scowling librarian who insisted on total silence or because I could never figure out the Dewey Decimal System or the bad jokes like How do librarians file melted marshmallows? According to the Gooey Decimal System.
No, it was because when I was in the fifth grade I checked out the book Old Man and the Sea for a book report and never returned it. From the moment I started receiving past due notices from my home room teacher I had a fear that the Houston Texas Public Library police would surround my house, shine lights in my bedroom and tell me to come out with my hands up. Then they would go through my room and discover the book under my mattress and take away my glasses for a year. (Fortunately none of that ever happened).
To this day, I still think about how the library changed my young life. Of course, then and now they have changed and continue to change people’s lives in a good way and not just with new and better jokes, smells and librarians. Over 94% of Americans say that “having a public library improves the quality of life in a community.” Libraries can be economic engines for individuals and local leadership and play a significant role in community economic development in numerous ways. First, access to a well-stocked library that can include all kinds of books and visual materials, current industry magazines and DIY how-to information adds significantly to the overall competence and resiliency of community life. Second, librarians are often the most educated and well-trained community information specialists available to a community and region. They can find information that helps local business provide roadmaps for entrepreneurs and help check out targeted companies under consideration for their towns. Third, libraries frequently not only have up-to-date computer systems that are of growing importance in an information-based economy but also can access larger libraries – everywhere – that have additional information. This is of crucial importance in rural areas where resources are limited or access is challenging. Business operators recognize the need for these services and try to access them but, unfortunately, often do not know that they are available in the local library or value the library as being a part of the community ecosystem.
And there’s more. Libraries act as great “Third Places” where people can meet, network and share information. In the past year I have visited libraries that have hosted startup weekends, designated spaces for incubators and makerspaces, exhibited local artist’s works and even sponsored job fairs in their facilities. Libraries offered 3.75 million public programs in 2010, the equivalent of one free program per day in every public library in America. Walter Chronkite once said: “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” That should be on everyone’s bumper as it is as true today, as it was then.
And if anecdotal information won’t convince you, read the Making Cities Stronger Report that finds that the return on investment in public libraries not only benefits individuals, but also strengthens community capacity to address urgent issues related to economic development. “Public libraries are increasingly finding their “fit”, it reads, “in the formal and informal network of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and community organizations working together to elevate levels of education and economic potential, making cities stronger.” Why, exactly? As Neil Gaiman says: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
A world without libraries is a world in which information is available only to those who can pay for it. So if you are thinking about how to make your community stronger, think about advocating for more funding for public libraries; invite librarians to be on your community and economic development boards; invite them to economic development events so they can see their role in the process; host events at the local library and be a local zealot for using libraries for a lifetime of learning.
In the meantime, I am going to go home and look for the Old Man and the Sea and see how much I owe the library before they come knocking. And check out my Top 10 on libraries and economic development.