Public libraries offer a great return for Texas taxpayers

Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

The importance of libraries and the numerous ways they support their communities unexpectedly has become a topic at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. A recent opinion piece in Forbes by Panos Mourdoukoutas (later removed from the magazine’s website), was deeply critical of the value public libraries provide for the tax dollars spent. The author argued that Amazon could fulfill the responsibilities of public libraries at no cost to taxpayers. I was gratified to see how quickly so many library supporters jumped to defend the crucial role that libraries play in our society.

The results of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s 2017 return on investment study have been used by some taking part in this conversation. I see the findings and facts of this study reflected in the stellar work of Texas public libraries every day in my role as Texas State Librarian.

Libraries are hubs that connect all residents with much more than just books, though access to books and other information resources continues to be a key role of libraries. As the study notes, for every dollar invested in Texas public libraries communities see a return of $4.64 in access to resources, programming, services and technology. That would be an enviable return on investment for any enterprise, much less a public one. But what exactly are we as taxpayers getting for our investment?

Libraries provide educational programs that support informed, engaged communities. Staying connected to online information is a critical component of modern life, and public libraries are the only source of public internet access for approximately 60 percent of communities. Public libraries also provide physical space for the public to use, with meeting rooms and other facilities where visitors can come together to start businesses or collaborate on creative projects.

Even in this era of social media and plentiful screens, story time is still a hit at your local library. And that’s just the beginning of what children can learn and experience at their local branch. There are craft days, puppet shows, magicians, live music and dance performances. Texas librarians are constantly finding new ways to engage with young people and encourage their growth and development. Texas Family Place Libraries provide family-friendly environments that help caregivers prepare young children to be successful in school and later life. These libraries create interactive spaces to encourage healthy learning and development in a fun environment, while creating strong partnerships with other community organizations that serve young children and their families.

Many libraries provide adults with services that help them start businesses, find jobs and contribute to their local economies. Library users can learn how to prepare or update their resumes when searching for jobs, develop materials to get the word out about their own businesses, conduct research with the help of reference librarians to remain engaged in their industries and receive individual counseling on running successful enterprises. Individuals can use a library’s computers to fill out job applications and search for open positions, and librarians are available to help them put their best foot forward in their job searches.

Libraries in Texas are constantly coming up with innovative programs. Dallas Public Library serves the homeless population with specialized programming and personalized assistance services. San Antonio Public Library created a low-vision reading room to make its central library more accessible to blind and visually impaired children. Houston Public Library opened a digital creative space this year that gives the public free access to all kinds of high tech equipment, including a 3D printer, a recording studio and a video production facility. And North Richland Hills Library houses the small business center, which offers expert guidance from the Tarrant County Small Business Development Center and the Service Corps of Retire Executives, both of which provide advice, networking and other resources that help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground. You don’t need to look toward Silicon Valley or other tech hubs to find innovation. It’s all happening at your neighborhood public library.

Even if you don’t personally visit the library and participate in these programs and services, public libraries are using your tax dollars in ways that benefit you. Texas public libraries generated $967 million in economic activity in 2015, the year studied for the 2017 study. I hope that you will take advantage of all public libraries have to offer, but even if you don’t, your community is a better place with a library in it.

Mark L. Smith

Director and state librarian, Texas State Library and Archives Commission