The Economic Value of the Free Library in Philadelphia (2010)

This report is authored by the Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania, and Fels Research & Consulting.

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What value does the Free Library of Philadelphia (“the Library”) create and add to the economic lives and futures of its users and the citizens of Philadelphia? This was the central question posed by the staff of the Free Library to the Research & Consulting Group at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, and it is the central question that drives this report.

In answering the question, the team at Fels benefited from a growing and creative body of work done around the country over the last decade, including a report by the Americans for Libraries Council (ALC) that summarizes best practices for assessing the impact of these essential institutions.1 From Seattle to Louisville to Pittsburgh and St. Louis, libraries have been taking a fresh and creative look at their role in communities and the difference they make in the lives of their citizens. This growing compendium of reports encourages communities to see libraries not as collections of books but as economic development agents in their communities.

In particular, a 2007 Urban Libraries Council report (Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development) shows the myriad roles libraries can play in a rapidly evolving and increasingly knowledge-based economy. Most important, libraries help people learn to read, the most basic and fundamental skill necessary to succeed educationally and economically in a changing world (literacy). Second, with their access to computers, databases, and career materials libraries help people find a job and learn about career opportunities (workforce development). Third, the Urban Libraries Council points out, libraries help entrepreneurs and small business people gain the insight, market research and information necessary to grow, improve and sustain their business (business
development).

The Fels staff used this framework to drill down into the particular case of the Free Library in Philadelphia, to “size” the value that our library system creates in these three areas. How much value, in fact, could be attributed to the Library’s presence in these three areas? (To our knowledge we are the first city in the country to attempt to use the ULC framework to derive quantifiable value, making this study a truly groundbreaking effort.)

To answer these questions, the Fels team drew on several streams of data and insight, much of which the Library already collected:

  • Field statistics from all Library branches including: circulation by subject area; program attendance; database usage; branch hours, circulation and attendance.
  • Interviews with 17 librarians and 33 library patrons at 14 branches throughout the city.
  • A survey of 3,971 Library patrons and 85 librarians.
  • Census data and Bureau and Labor Statistics data for the City of Philadelphia.

In addition, Fels enlisted the help of Kevin Gillen, Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban Research, keeper of an extensive database of Philadelphia home sales and a foremost expert on real estate trends and values in Philadelphia. Mr. Gillen was asked to help answer a fundamental and hugely significant question—through all its various programs, services, and roles, including but not limited to those outlined above, how much difference does proximityto a Library make to the value of a home in Philadelphia? (Again, that we are aware of this is the first time that this question has been asked and answered about a library system.) Our answers to these questions reveal that the Library creates considerable value —economic value—for its users and the citizens of Philadelphia.

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