Fix Manitou’s library now, Part 2: The economic case

*Note: This essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on November 15, 2018. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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When it’s expanded and upgraded, the library will have a far larger economic impact on the citizens of Manitou than the Cog Rail or any other local tourist attraction. But to see the upside, you’ve got to look beyond price—to value.

Some focus too narrowly on cost. Forbes magazine recently published an economist’s opinion online, with the headline “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” He argued library functions have been replaced by more efficient options: Starbucks provides community and wi-fi, Netflix provides video rentals, and Amazon provides books. The backlash was swift; the column was taken down within hours.

But this column wasn’t removed merely for its ugliness. The economist myopically missed public libraries’ forest of value in favor of a few corporate trees.

Public libraries only recently started using economics to justify their existence, yet the results are jaw-dropping (visit ala.org/advocacy/calculator to calculate your library’s value to you). A few years ago, a study in Florida found that for each dollar of taxpayer money spent on libraries, communities received $6.54 in benefits. Wisconsin: $4 benefit for $1 spent. Vermont: $5 for $1 spent. Quite a return on investment—libraries deliver value.

In 2010, Philadelphia spent $33 million on its 54 public libraries and asked the city’s University of Pennsylvania to assess the impact. One finding: within a quarter mile of a library, home values rose an average of $9,630. That expenditure added nearly $700 million to home values—which generated over $18 million in property taxes to the city and schools per year—recouping over half the city’s investment.

Libraries deliver value in other ways. Access to knowledge is critical for survival and economic opportunity in the Information Age. And for a few dollars per month per citizen, everyone has access to millions of books and other informational items that would otherwise cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to amass.

Let’s start with children. Research demonstrates that exposure to 1,000 books by kindergarten is an exceptional predictor of academic success. For a parent to purchase these books would cost over $16,000, which is simply not affordable. But all those books are waiting at the library.

Even more specific, last week, my first grade daughter came home from school fired up about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. When I got home from work, we walked over to the library and found two age-appropriate books about Kahlo’s art and life. My daughter strutted home, bubbling about how excited she was to tell her teacher. At a store, this experience would have cost $20 or $30. To the young—libraries deliver value.

Not everyone can afford home internet. Local cable internet costs nearly $1,200 per year. Day by day, more and more of our lives move online. How do you apply for a new job, to move up the economic ladder, without internet access at home? (Answer: You go to the library.)

Or consider that older residents often live on fixed incomes and may wish to chat or look at pictures of family members who live far away via social media. Without home internet, their only option might be the public library. To the aged—libraries deliver value.

Or consider the cost of lifelong learning. Online classes and work-study stations are available without charge at the library. Or, more practically, when we recently bought a home appliance, the ratings in Consumer Reports magazine were crucial. A subscription would have cost about $60 per year.

Or when I wanted to learn about Pvt. Eber Duclo, Manitou’s sole World War I troop killed-in-action, I turned to the library’s archives. Especially in a tourist town, who can put a price on our city’s story?

And, on that subject, isn’t it sad that when we walk into the Manitou library, we’re entering the exact same structure Eber Duclo did beforehe went off to fight in World War I?

While some residents have already registered regret at the Cog Rail’s 50-year deal, they can rest assured that nobody ever regretted investing in a library. The returns are always too great in a 100-year investment from which everyone gains.

That’s because libraries always deliver value, but right now, without necessary improvements, the Manitou library isn’t delivering all the value it could.

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