NOTE: There won't be an issue of ExLibris this week as I am approaching the finish line on my book, but I do have an article in the September issue of Searcher, "Doing It Right: How Some Universities Encourage the Creation of Prime Research Web Sites," which you can read online at http://infotoday.com/searcher/sep02/Block.htm. If you work at the universities mentioned you might want to pass the article on to your campus public relations office.
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R.O.I.: THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF LIBRARIES
by Marylaine Block
Many libraries are gearing up to apply the new accounting standard, GASB 34, a standard which is intended to make the financial assets and liabilities of government agencies more transparent to the public, and to make it easier to determine how well those assets have been managed. It's intended to make government more businesslike.
This is not a bad idea, but its application is a little limited. One figure businesses need to account for, after all, is R.O.I. -- return on investment. And in these budget-tightening times, it might be a good idea to explain to those who fund us what economic returns they're getting for their investment in libraries.
Mind you, I'm not in any way arguing against the fact that libraries are basic educational and cultural amenities without which no community can truly call itself that, nor am I downplaying the richness libraries lend to the human spirit. I'm just pointing out that when governments are forced to cut the fire department and police budgets, contributions to the human spirit are not at the top of the budget priority list.
I would make the case that libraries in fact have significant economic impact, in a number of ways. Does the value of real estate, for instance, go up in the vicinity of a library or a new branch? Do libraries draw to their vicinity potential customers for nearby stores and restaurants? Does crime and unruly behavior, with the attendant economic impact, go down where kids have access to library programs and services to ward off boredom?
How about the ways that libraries and librarians affect the economic lives of ordinary people? Many libraries offer ESL training for new citizens, and workshops on survival skills like jobhunting, test preparation, resume writing, word processing and spreadsheet programs, investment information, home buying, and such. What do we know about the people who've attended these programs? Have they gotten jobs or college scholarships as a result? Built their retirement accounts? Purchased a new home? If so, we have added to the tax base of the community as well as to its human capital.
How about the financial impact of our collections and normal reference services? Have the research reports and journal articles we tracked down led to the creation of new products? Has the competitive intelligence material we unearthed allowed our companies to improve their market position? Have people passed civil service exams by using our test books? Written business plans or gotten bank loans with the help of our small business collections? Found agents or publishers for their books using our writers' reference sources? Written them in the first place with the aid of our collections and databases? I make my living as a writer and speaker. I could not have written any of my articles or books, or prepared my conference presentations or workshops, without the use of my libraries' books, journals and databases. Chalk one economic success up to them -- and since those databases are partially funded by the Iowa and Illinois state libraries, chalk one up for them as well.
At Internet Librarian one year, I heard a California librarian tell about a homeless man who taught himself to use first the Internet, and then the technology behind it, on the library's computers. As a volunteer, he taught other library patrons how to use the net, and pretty soon he became their trouble-shooter as well -- whenever a problem came up, somebody would run outside and grab him off the bench he customarily slept on. Eventually, of course, he was no longer right at hand on his bench near the library, because he was able to land a good-paying job as a computer technician, buy a house, and start paying lots of taxes.
I know you have your own success stories, even if they're mostly anecdotes. You may also have conducted some follow-up surveys with the people who've attended your workshops. What we need to do, it seems to me, is start gathering these stories and systematically recording them. If we're not currently doing follow-up surveys of our workshop attendees, we should start doing so, at least occasionally. We can put the stories and the survey results in our annual reports, and publish them on our web pages. In fact, we could use our web pages to gather stories like this, by including an interactive page for users, called something like I LEARNED IT AT THE LIBRARY.
The next step would be to take these stories from libraries all over the country and consolidate the information so we can get a sense of the national economic impact of libraries. I can do that, with your help. I can create a page for library success stories on my web site.
The page doesn't exist yet, because I can't do it by myself. You need to supply me with the content for it. Send me your anecdotes, and the URLs for your posted survey results, to: marylaine at netexpress.net (use the subject line "library success story," please), and I will include them on the page. I'll let you know when it's up and running. Let's jointly create documentation we can brandish in the faces of mayors and city council members and company financial officers, proving our worth in the dollars and cents terms they understand.
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A lot of libraries will be having their fall book sales in the next month or so. You might enjoy doing what I do: I stock up on children's books dirt cheap at the library sales, and then give them away to trick or treaters on Halloween. They actually like getting books, which last longer than the lollipops.
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Antonio Panizzi was the de facto king of this intellectual empire. Panizzi had fled his native Italy in 1823, arriving in England with little English and less money and worked his way up to become perhaps the greatest librarian who has ever lived. Panizzi "applied revolutionary zeal to the Museum collections." He got money for the new building. He enforced the copyright deposit by taking publishers to court. He raised funds for new acquisitions. Behind it all was a simple goal: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect."
Cleo Paskal. "Love and passion in the Reading Room: Where novelists found plots and historians found facts." National Post, April 16, 2002
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2002.
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