Do libraries matter? Public libraries and the creation of social capital

Andreas Vårheim (Library and Information Science, Oslo University College, Oslo, Norway)
Sven Steinmo (Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute, Florence, Italy)
Eisaku Ide (International Graduate School of Social Sciences, Yokohama National University, Yokohama, Japan)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Publication date: 17 October 2008



Librarians and the library profession keep repeating that libraries contribute greatly to generating social capital by “building community”. However, little evidence of this has been presented. This paper aims to be a first step towards correcting this situation by asking whether public libraries matter in the creation of generalized trust.


This study used quantitative data in analyzing macro‐level data on whether public library expenditure could explain social trust patterns in the OECD countries. Additionally, a few qualitative interviews with public library leaders in the USA and Norway were used to indicate by what mechanisms, or by which processes, libraries generate generalized trust.


The main finding is that public libraries seem the most important factor in creating generalized trust in the OECD area, even more so than efficient/impartial public institutions. However, there is the problem of causal direction. It might be the case that it is high trusting countries that prioritize public libraries. Therefore, times series data are needed as well as qualitative data on the process of trust creation in the library. Interviews with library leaders point towards the fact that they see outreach activities as creating trust and that people trust the library. Replication of these results, however, is crucial. Moreover, the findings appear to indicate that when the library's attention is directed at disadvantaged groups of non‐users it is the widespread trust in the public library institution that breeds trust among these groups too.


The paper contributes to the understanding/theory of the creation of generalized trust in general and to the role of the public library in this process.



Vårheim, A., Steinmo, S. and Ide, E. (2008), "Do libraries matter? Public libraries and the creation of social capital", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64 No. 6, pp. 877-892.

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