Earlier today, someone posted to Somerville Voices questioning the need for a new library in Union Square. I agree that we should have conversation and debate about the Union Square re-development, including the new library, but there are some flaws in the arguments presented in that post. To begin with, the library is being portrayed as a warehouse of books, which is indeed an outdated model- but it’s also one that is an inaccurate portrayal of the Somerville Public Library as it is now, and even more so as it is being conceived as a new space.
First, it is important to consider the costs and cost-benefits of the new library. The author of this post rightly points out that we are in tough economic times at the federal, state, and local level, and that a new library will be expensive. What he fails to consider, however, are the long term returns on investment that a library can provide its community. To begin with, the city is not expected to fund the entire cost of a new building. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has already approved an $18M grant that would cover about 40 percent of the costs. In addition, however, repeated studies throughout the country show that libraries offer their community significant returns on investment. The author contends that the city would do better to create business incubators. It is important to note that small business owners in particular tend to benefit from the presence of a public library. Not only can small business owners take advantage of the resources of the library, including access to proprietary databases and other information resources as well as research assistance, but they often benefit from the induced spending of library patrons. Libraries attract thousands of visitors (the Somerville Public Library draws 300,000visitors per year), and those visitors often spend money at the local businesses in the vicinity of the library. A study in Philadelphia, for instance, found that about 75% of library patrons spent between $2 and $75 at local businesses when visiting the library. Return on investment studies in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Toledo, and New England found between $3 and $6 ROI for every dollar invested in the library. Finally, the Philadelphia study found that home prices for residences located within 1/4 mile of the library averaged almost $10,000 more (and that was after controlling for other variables) which obviously benefits the home owners, but also means increased property taxes for the city. There are also benefits that are more difficult to calculate, but are equally important, such as public library’s contributions to community literacy, support for language learning and access to resources on citizenship for immigrants, support for job-hunters, etc.
For many years, the library has offered much more just books. In fact, the library has a history of free access to computers, including Internet and wi-fi access, and usage statistics show that the public-access computers are one of the most highly used resources. It is important for us to remember that, while prices are coming down for tablet computers and smartphones, they are not necessarily “cheap,” and in addition to the cost of the device, one also has to factor in monthly costs for service plans and internet access. There are still many people who cannot afford these costs. Nor are most e-books other sources of online information available at “no cost.” While some works in the public domain are available freely online, the vast majority of sources are copyright-protected, meaning that if the library does not cover subscription costs, people have to pay per access. And, despite continued belief to the contrary, not all information is available online. Huge tracts of information, including important government and historical documents, have yet to be digitized, and can only be accessed in print. While digital resources are growing in popularity, a recent Pew study shows that the public still values and wants access to print books. The mission and goal of the library—any library—is to offer the public free access to a depth and breadth of information in a variety of formats. By growing a collection that includes print books, audiobooks, ebooks, CDs, DVDs, online journals, etc. the Somerville Public Library is ensuring the Somerville residents have access to information for education and entertainment in whatever format suits their needs at the time.
Libraries are also sources of local knowledge and history. While public libraries might be able to depend on consortia like the Minuteman Network for shared access to popular materials, the local public library takes responsibility for collecting, preserving, and providing access to the cultural heritage of that community. Unlike museums, however, libraries provide these services and access for free.
But libraries are about more than just access. They are also places of education, and community centers where people can meet and socialize. The trend in libraries, as the author rightly notes, is toward more emphasis on services than resources. New library buildings are focusing on flexible spaces that can be re-arranged, broken down, and divided up for use in many different ways depending on community needs. There is increased focus on education and training, be it computer training, job-hunting skills, genealogical research, and so on, at no cost to the patron. With dedicated spaces for teens, exhibitions, and meeting rooms the new Somerville Public Library will offer the community free space to gather, work, study, and socialize.
So, let’s have a conversation- but let’s also look at the whole picture, and begin by understanding that libraries are, and always have been, more than just a warehouse of books.
Laura Saunders is an Assistant Professor of Library Science at Simmons College and a Trustee of the Somerville Public Library