A review exploring the facets of the value of public libraries

Cheryl Stenstrom (School of Library and Information Science, San José State University, San Jose, California, USA)
Natalie Cole (California State Library, Sacramento, California, USA)
Rachel Hanson (Mesa County Libraries, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA)

Library Management

ISSN: 0143-5124

Article publication date: 12 August 2019



The purpose of this paper is to discuss a review of the literature on the value of public libraries and propose a preliminary value framework for the public library based on the results. The review was conducted and the framework was developed as part of a larger ongoing project exploring the value of California’s public libraries.


This paper is a literature review of approximately 130 international, national and local resources from 1998 to 2018. Findings were developed through an analysis and synthesis of the works as they relate to public libraries.


The themes that emerged from the exploration of studies fell into three intersecting categories: support for personal advancement; support for vulnerable populations; and support for community development. A wide variety of quantitative and qualitative methods have been employed in this area of research. Among the many ways to discuss value, the most appropriate for the user will always depend on the context for which the concept of value is being defined.

Practical implications

Practitioners may find the various definitions of value useful when sharing information about public libraries with decision makers and other stakeholder audiences and when designing service models and outcomes.


The authors believe this paper is the first to identify the emergence of a value framework for the public library based on a literature review exploring both the social and financial value of public libraries.



Stenstrom, C., Cole, N. and Hanson, R. (2019), "A review exploring the facets of the value of public libraries", Library Management, Vol. 40 No. 6/7, pp. 354-367. https://doi.org/10.1108/LM-08-2018-0068



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


In light of recent headlines reporting on new federal government attitudes that propose significant funding declines across social and arts-based programs and departments (e.g. Krieg, 2017; McGlone, 2018), a documented disconnect between how libraries and similar services are perceived and their actual value (Audunson, 2005; Kann-Christensen and Pors, 2004; Koren, 2009; Smith and Usherwood, 2004; Stenström and Haycock, 2014; Usherwood, 1994), data demonstrating a softening in committed support for libraries among Americans (OCLC and the American Library Association, 2018), and the emergence of new service models in libraries (Eastell et al., 2017; Waters et al., 2017), concerned stakeholders are compelled more than ever to demonstrate the value of their work to those who make financial investments in human services and as well as to the public at large.

The California State Library is conducting a study, supported with California Library Services Act funding, that aims to demonstrate the value of California’s public libraries. The first step has been to carry out a literature review examining articles and resources that explore the financial value and social value of public libraries. This review has led to the development of a preliminary value framework for the public library which we will test by conducting primary research in California libraries. A discussion of the literature, the preliminary framework and next steps are presented here.


We selected approximately 130 resources for inclusion in the review. To help us develop a broad and complete understanding of the value of the public library, we reviewed resources that look at financial value alongside those exploring the more difficult-to-measure social value of the public library and the indirect value of the growth of an informed population with equitable opportunities for learning, leisure, wellness and connection. The resources and articles we included describe studies that were undertaken between 1998 and 2018.

Because the California State Library’s project is grounded in practice, we wanted to ensure that items relevant to the professional community were represented. Alongside reports from scholarly studies, we considered less formal reports from individual libraries about their economic and social value as examples of the ways library stakeholders have begun to measure the concept of value at the local level. We selected resources for their relevance to public libraries in the USA; for example, we examined a number of statewide studies from Vermont through to Texas. We also focused attention on studies completed in California, and although just three local studies on economic or social value have been conducted within that state, all were included. In addition, we included studies that have proven over time to be of national or international importance. We selected papers and articles covering other types of libraries or GLAM institutions (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) where the findings were well-substantiated because of the relevance of their findings across the non-profit sector. These proved to be of considerable interest as we explored social value and outcomes.

We used broad and flexible definitions of value in searching for works to include in our review. Previous studies have noted the complex nature of value as a concept as it applies to libraries, and have concluded it is context dependent (Poll, 2012; Stenström and Haycock, 2014; Town, 2011) and may or may not include economic facets (Poll, 2012; Saracevic and Kantor, 1997). Searches were conducted through Ebsco’s Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts and Library & Information Science Source databases, as well as Google Scholar and for non-scholarly items, Google’s open search engine. Terms used included the following:

  1. social & value & public libraries, with sub-searches including:

    • social services;

    • space for community engagement;

    • programming for all age groups;

    • improving reading proficiency;

    • fostering creativity;

    • complementing school curriculum;

    • connecting persons with employment and boosting workforce development; and

    • user satisfaction.

  2. libraries & society OR community;

  3. public libraries – social aspects; and

  4. library(ies) & (return on investment (ROI)).

Ultimately, we developed our findings through a critical review of the resources and a descriptive synthesis of the works across the broad categories of “financial” and “social” value. All of the works in the bibliography have also been annotated and are included in a searchable database at: www.library.ca.gov/services/to-libraries/value-of-libraries/


While we did not intend to be exhaustive with this review, our thematic analysis nonetheless provides solid insights into findings on library value based on social value and financial ROI. Our aim was to include enough works to reach saturation point from a thematic perspective (i.e. within the sample, the resources could be clearly categorized within the bounds of the emerging framework) and from a utility perspective (i.e. we wanted to include enough representative examples of works for the professional community to draw upon but limit the overall number of works).

The thematic analysis allowed us to definitively identify three umbrella categories of social value each with notable facets:

  • support for personal advancement, including knowledge and learning, economic benefits and emotional and physical wellness;

  • support for vulnerable populations, including people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, veteran, very early learners and pre-readers, and adult literacy learners; and

  • support for community development, including social capital and generalized trust, social infrastructure, crisis response and community resilience and public fund stewardship under which we include the financial ROI provided by the public library.

Each of these categories is interconnected. For example, links to the development of social capital are evident among the resources focusing on services to vulnerable populations; links to the theme of providing services to vulnerable populations are strong in the category describing personal economic development for users (Figure 1).

Support for personal advancement

Personal advancement includes the benefits of library use to those engaged in job searches, resume writing and small business development. (Franks and Johns, 2015; Söderholm, 2016). In addition to workshops, programs and collections that support the development of job-related skills and small businesses, patrons can also benefit economically from using their public library by avoiding the cost of purchasing reading, learning and entertainment materials. For example, variations on the Maine State Library’s “library use value calculator” (Maine State Library, 2017) have been developed and implemented as website tools, or programmed to show patrons the retail value of the items checked out on a given day.

Libraries also afford individual users the opportunity to enhance their personal learning and knowledge (Bertot et al., 2008; Griffin, 2016; Halpin et al., 2015; Jaeger et al., 2011; McClure and Bertot, 1998; NEMO, 2016; Nielsen and Borlund, 2011; Pabērza and Rutkauskiene, 2010). The ability for any community member to access learning materials in many formats is one of the cornerstones of public library service and the resources we examined demonstrate that the public library remains relevant to those seeking to increase knowledge, gain skills and change attitudes on topics of interest to them, whether for personal curiosity or to advance in their careers. At its broadest reach, this category encompasses support for literacy development groups, beginning computing skills and the reading of print and digital materials.

Support for vulnerable populations

Vulnerable populations included in the literature are persons experiencing homelessness, those recently arrived in a new country and who are facing cultural and linguistic barriers, and those with physical challenges or other disabilities (Buníc, 2013; Gómez-Hernández et al., 2017; Kelleher, 2013; Sirikul and Dorner, 2016; Vårheim, 2014). While each of these populations is well-represented among the communities served by our public libraries, the discussion about providing welcoming spaces for community members experiencing homelessness and a growing reliance on connections to the social work profession perhaps dominates the literature. Within the literature of practice, programs focused on providing access to language classes and multilingual collections, connections to other social services and access to free technology are common examples that fall within this category. It is important to note that the facet of support for vulnerable populations does not imply homogeneous groups, but rather an unambiguous reflection of the growing emphasis on providing access to services for people who might not be able to otherwise access these social supports.

Support for community development

The most-widely examined theme among the resources included in the review was centered on social capital in communities, focusing on the development of generalized trust (i.e. trust across the community and society broadly) (Varheim et al., 2008) and an increase in broad community engagement (Ashley and Niblett, 2014; Audunson, 2016; Barclay, 2017; Bryson et al., 2002; Buschman, 2013; Goulding, 2004, 2008; Gutsche et al., 2015; Jaeger et al., 2013; Leckie and Hopkins, 2002; McClure and Bertot, 1998; McKinley, 2017; Matthews, 2015a, b; Merlo-Vega and Chu, 2015; Miller, 2014; Oliphant, 2014; Poll, 2011; Ruiu and Ragnedda, 2016; Scott, 2011; Skelly et al., 2015; Stilwell, 2016; Tzu-Tsen Chen and Hao-Ren Ke, 2017; Usherwood and Linley, 1998; Vallet, 2013; Wavell et al., 2002; Willingham, 2008). The development of trust and community is multi-faceted in the public library setting. In the first instance, community members find a common space in which to socialize, meet and engage with one another (Aabø and Audunson, 2012; Harris, 2007). In recognizing the library as a publicly supported venue, citizens have an entree to government-supported services and introduction to the manifestation of public policy. Finally, libraries as institutions themselves further the principles of social capital by partnering with organizations and groups within their jurisdictions. Each of these activities contributes to community development in difficult-to-measure ways.

The literature also demonstrates that public libraries play a valuable role in crisis response and contribute to community resilience (Alajmi, 2016; Grace and Sen, 2013; Lloyd, 2015; Vårheim, 2017). Through widespread stories in the media after significant local crises such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, both regular users and non-library users understand that public libraries can assist during times of need (Pew Research Center, 2016). In practice, libraries can provide safe public spaces, key information dissemination and basic infrastructure such as water, power and access to broadband connectivity.

Our review found that libraries provide a solid return on financial investment and confirmed library administrators as responsible stewards of public funds. Like other meta-reviews (Imholz and Arns, 2007; Library Research Service, 2016), the category of studies discussing financial ROI and stewardship of public funds shows that for every dollar invested, between $2 and 10 are returned, with the most common return being between $3 and 6. A significant portion of the studies in this body of literature attempt to directly assign a dollar value on services provided by a specific library (Berk and Associates, 2005; Buffalo and Erie County Library, 2012; Fleeter, 2016a, b; Griffiths et al., 2007; Kaufman, 2008; Kamer, 2005; McClure and Bertot, 1998; Martin Prosperity Institute, 2013; Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, 2016; Obal, 2015; Smirnov, 2012) or a larger region (Barron et al., 2005; BBR, 2013; Fraser et al., 2002; Georgia Public Library Service, 2007; Griffiths et al., 2004; Indiana Business Research Center, 2007; Ko et al., 2012; Levin et al., 2006; McClure et al., 2000; NorthStar Economics, 2008; Pooley et al., 2010; Pung et al., 2004; Ryan and McClure, 2003).

Within California, just Santa Clara City Library (Berk and Associates, 2013) and San Francisco Public Library (Murphy et al., 2007) have been examined, with Berk and Associates (2015) completing a more recent report in San Francisco. Findings for these two libraries showed returns that ranged from $2.50 to 5.17 and $5.19 to 9.11 for every dollar invested in Santa Clara City Library and San Francisco Public Library, respectively. Interestingly, the more recent San Francisco Public Library study showed an increase from the $1.40–3.34 return per dollar invested finding in 2007.

While a wide variety of methods was used in the studies, the most commonly discussed method in this category was contingent valuation. Nearly 25 percent of the 53 studies (n=13) directly discussed and described their use of contingent valuation (Griffiths et al., 2007; Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development, 2013; Harless and Allen, 1999; Hider, 2008; Ko et al., 2012; Lance, 2011; McIntosh, 2013; Pooley et al., 2010; Pung et al., 2004; Steffan et al., 2009). Further four reports from institutions employed contingent valuation to analyze their local setting (Kawartha Lakes Public Library Board, 2014; London Public Library Board, 2015; Martin Prosperity Institute, 2013; Vancouver Island Regional Library Board, 2016). Readers are reminded that the rationale for using this theoretical way of estimating a total dollar value is based on the notion that it captures a community’s willingness to pay for the services gained (McIntosh, 2013).

Steffan et al. (2009) and Toronto Public Libraries’ study undertaken by the Martin Prosperity Institute (2013) add a market valuation component to their work. In addition, three other direct analyses delve into market-based techniques (Berk and Associates, 2013; Bourne, 2013; Ryan and McClure, 2003). Interviews, surveys and focus groups rounded the techniques complimenting many of these financial value studies (Barron et al., 2005; Berk and Associates, 2005; BBER, 2011; Fraser et al., 2002; McClure et al., 2000; McClure and Bertot, 1998; NorthStar Economics, 2008).

Largely absent from the reports on financial return are comparisons with other non-profit and social-sector institutions and organizations. In other words, it is unclear if the $3–6 figure cited in the studies on libraries is more or less than the returns from municipal recreational facilities, museums or informal learning organizations. The positive financial return may strengthen the foundation of local communities but may not add significant benefit to their overall economic outlook.

Confirmation of reports in practice

The themes that emerged from the review, and the connections between them, are echoed in recent reports and monographs issued in the USA and UK:

  • In its report on the role libraries and museums play as community catalysts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) notes how libraries are “[…] place-based hubs for the public to engage in informal learning, access collections for educational or aesthetic purposes, and participate in public dialogue.” (p. 3). IMLS proposes that libraries position themselves as catalysts for change at the intersection of collective impact and well-being, drawing on examples from across the USA. The authors of the report state that “Collective impact and the multiple dimensions of social wellbeing are important concepts for understanding four areas where libraries’ and museums’ community-focused initiatives tend to be focused: lifelong learning and culture engagement, economic development, physical and mental health, and place-making and the environment,” (Norton and Dowdall, 2017).

  • The American Library Association’s 2018 State of America’s Libraries Report notes how public libraries are narrowing the digital divide and the achievement gap for low-income families through innovative programs and partnerships. Also, libraries are recognized as community centers and are playing a vital role in times of crisis. The report’s authors predict that increasing social inequality will mean that library services in support of skill development and the opportunities provided by the library’s space to bring people together will become more important (American Library Association, 2018).

  • The Aspen Institute (which created the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries to help advance the work libraries are doing to address community challenges and support the transformation of communities and their public libraries in the digital age) argues that in the digital era, libraries now have a new role with important focuses on people, place and platform, while still embracing libraries’ core values and the foundational elements of offering opportunities, access and equality (Garmer, 2014).

  • The Pew Research Center’s 2016 library survey found that Americans identify libraries as safe gathering spaces that promote a sense of community, and as places for educational opportunities and sparking creativity (Pew Research Center, 2016).

  • In the UK, a report issued by the Carnegie UK Trust, titled Shining a Light: the future of public libraries across the UK and Ireland, argues that public libraries improve people’s well-being as economic enablers, social hubs, cultural centers and learning hubs (Peachey, 2017).

  • And in Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, Eric Klinenberg discusses extensively how libraries are “social infrastructure in action,” and in Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in an Uncertain World, Rebekkah Smith Aldrich argues that libraries are critical to their communities’ sustainability and resilience.


The findings of stable financial returns across different jurisdictions reinforce that governments and other financial investors can continue to trust public library leaders as good stewards of public money. For over two decades and across many studies, researchers have verified that funding provided to libraries has a positive return regardless of size or location. This well-established finding can hold an important place in the advocacy process for library leaders and other stakeholders, particularly for those located in jurisdictions that require community agencies to measure financial output.

Our analysis suggests that the conclusions from the literature relating to social value are equally – and perhaps more – compelling as those relating to financial value. The studies exploring social value are notably more nuanced, the methodological techniques exploring social value tend to be uniformly scholarly and qualitative, and studies have been conducted more broadly. However, although there is a growing body of work in this area, and a variety of different types of value are studied, many of the studies are exploratory in nature. We see significant opportunity to expand upon these works as well as replicate and enrich the findings across jurisdictional and temporal boundaries in order to begin to establish some uniformity and a deeper body of literature. Nevertheless, we believe reviewing the wide range of definitions and topics and the framework presented here can be helpful to those interested in demonstrating libraries’ value and exploring social outcomes and service models in libraries.

An effective and nuanced approach toward identifying the value of public libraries must consider social and financial value together. Developing a rich picture of these multi-pronged value outcomes is a growing trend in all sectors and across governments and into the private non-profit sector (OECD, 2015; Waters et al., 2017). The value framework we propose encompasses facets of support manifested in three ways: personal advancement, vulnerable populations and community development, with the latter including public fund stewardship and ROI. Each of these facets intersects with the others and incorporates well-defined sub-categories. The facets could be viewed as lying on a continuum from individual to group to community; however, we believe there is a level of equality in the significance of each when considering the library’s unique value proposition.

Underpinning our framework, we see both the robust foundation of access to and use of technology in public libraries, and the unique combination of people, space, information, ideas and opportunities that libraries comprise. Similarly, a common outcome relating to each of the three facets is the change or transformation that public libraries can effect by providing these services. All of these will inform the primary research – including outcome-based program evaluation, surveys and interviews with key stakeholders – that we will conduct based on our literature review.


In this literature review, approximately 130 items spanning the two broad definitions of financial value and social value of public libraries were examined using a thematic analysis. While these topics have been widely studied, we believe this paper is the first review to consider financial and social value alongside one another and draw on this information to present a value framework.

Since the 1990s, many researchers have used a variety of proven methods to show that, most often, between $3 and 6 is returned to the community for every dollar invested in public libraries. Studies examining the more complex ideas around social value have also begun to appear, and clear themes can be identified across the literature: support for personal advancement, support for vulnerable populations and support for community development. Each of these themes is interconnected, and public access to technology provides a foundation across all.

Because this review was conducted as part of a larger statewide examination of public library value in California, it is also worth noting that very little research has been conducted on these topics within that state. The broad scope of the articles reviewed allows practitioners to infer that the findings are applicable within this geographic region; however, further study within California would add to the literature due to both its high population and its distinctive political context.

From this analysis, a framework of value that is unique to public libraries is beginning to emerge. Both the review and framework might be useful to those seeking to understand the importance of investing in libraries as well as to those designing and measuring service outcomes and service models. The dimensions are context dependent and fluid within the framework and may be considered individually as well as together. Additional research concentrating on the social dimensions of the framework, and an exploration of the conditions that allow the public library to deliver this value, would be useful in solidifying a robust description of the value of modern and evolving public libraries.


The facets of value in public libraries

Figure 1

The facets of value in public libraries


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Further reading

Aldrich, R.S. (2018), Sustainable Thinking: Ensuring Your Library’s Future in An Uncertain World, ALA Editions, Chicago, IL.

ALA (1996–2017), “Libraries matter: impact research”, American Library Association, available at: www.ala.org/research/librariesmatter/ (accessed March 2018).

Association of Research Libraries (n.d.), “LibValue”, available at: www.libvalue.org (accessed March 2018).

Bureau of Business Research (2017), “Texas public libraries: return on investment”, IC2 Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, available at: www.tsl.texas.gov/sites/default/files/public/tslac/pubs/ROI_Final.pdf (accessed March 2018).

Elliot, D.S., Holt, G.E., Hayden, S.W. and Edmonds Holt, L. (2007), Measuring Your Library’s Value: How to Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis for Your Public Library, American Library Association, Chicago, IL.

EOS (2014), “How libraries can understand and measure ROI”, available at: http://eos.sirsidynix.com/how-libraries-can-understand-and-measure-roi/ (accessed March 2018).

Felton, J. (2009), “Bibliography”, Nebraska Library Commission, Lincoln, NE, available at: http://nlc.nebraska.gov/stats/roi/Bibliography.html (accessed March 2018).

Griffis, M.R. and Johnson, C.A. (2014), “Social capital and inclusion in rural public libraries: a qualitative approach”, Journal of Librarianship & Information Science, Vol. 46 No. 2, pp. 96-109.

Holt, G. and Elliot, D. (2003), “Measuring outcomes: applying cost-benefit analysis to middle-sized and smaller public libraries”, Library Trends, Vol. 51 No. 3, pp. 424-440.

Klinenburg, E. (2018), Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and The Decline of Civic Life, Crown Publishing, New York, NY.

New York Senate (2017), “Assembly Bill A5810: relates to authorizing a study of the economic impact of public libraries”, available at: www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/a5810/amendment/original (accessed March 2018).

Pan, D., Wiersma, G., Williams, L. and Fong, Y.S. (2013), “More than a number: unexpected benefits of return on investment analysis”, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 39 No. 6, pp. 566-572, doi: 10.1016/j.acalib.2013.05.002.

Tenopir, C. (2010), “Measuring the value of the academic library: return on investment and other value measures”, The Serials Librarian, Vol. 58 Nos 1-4, pp. 39-48, doi: 10.1080/03615261003623005.

Corresponding author

Cheryl Stenstrom can be contacted at: cheryl.stenstrom@gmail.com