Public Libraries Daring to Be Different: Position Your Libraries Strategically to Realize a Meaningful Return on Investment

Article excerpt

The state of the economy has left local governments agonizing over budget reductions in virtually every service area. Budget discussions frequently focus on core versus discretionary services. Public libraries are often among the services labeled as discretionary despite their benefits to quality of life, literacy, and access to technology.

Last year, 169 million people in the United States visited a public library to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, learn about critical medical treatments, and connect with their communities. Yet across the country, library operating budgets are being cut because they are rarely associated with public safety or health.


New research is finding that libraries are making significant contributions beyond their traditional roles. Local governments, forced to do more with less, have discovered that public libraries are an untapped resource and can assist in both the economic recovery and other strategic initiatives.

Is your local government getting a good return on investment by using its library strategically? Regardless of governance structures, reporting roles, or funding sources, public libraries can be valuable partners in addressing community needs. Your library system can actively contribute to larger community goals in education, public safety, economic development, and the environment.


In 2007, ICMA partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore how local governments can use their public libraries in more innovative ways. "Our partnership with ICMA has highlighted the many ways public libraries can help solve critical issues that communities and their residents face, and improve quality of life for all people," said Jill Nishi, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's U.S. Libraries program. "We challenge city and county managers to be champions of public libraries."

Here are the stories of nine jurisdictions that engaged their libraries in creative solutions to community challenges involving public safety, emergency management, the environment, economic development, early childhood literacy, teen services, and cultural engagement.

Fayetteville, Arkansas: Solar Test Bed Project

Population: 72,208

Library Budget: $3,790,929

In June 2010, Fayetteville Public Library's Solar Test Bed Project installed 60 solar panels on the library roof, testing new technology in an effort to support emerging local business. The solar energy system is generating electricity and reducing the library's carbon footprint. A kiosk in the library displays real-time energy production data and provides educational information on solar power.

The solar array will initially provide power to the library using a commercially available inverter. After six months of collecting production data, the library will test a highly efficient state-of-the-art silicon carbide inverter developed by Arkansas Power Electronics International.

In partnership with the city sustainability coordinator, the University of Arkansas, Arkansas Energy Office, American Electric Power, BP Solar, and other partners, the Solar Test Bed Project will facilitate local economic development and demonstrate the region's commitment to sustainability. "The Fayetteville Public Library and the University of Arkansas are out in front in the field of sustainability, and this is a great example of that leadership," says John Coleman, Fayetteville's sustainability coordinator.

Fairfax County, Virginia: Changing Lives Through Literature

Population: 1,041,507

Library Budget: $26,035,911

Fairfax County is one of the nation's safest large jurisdictions. In 2005, however, it experienced an alarming rise in recidivism and gang involvement, particularly among teenage girls. Court and probation officers identified anger and alienation as the chief characteristics of repeat offenders. …