Minnesota’s public libraries: Priceless, in dollars and sense


People in southeastern Minnesota were reminded of the value of their public libraries when torrential August rains caused massive flooding, destroying homes and businesses. Although some were damaged, local libraries remained the places to get the information and government forms desperately needed once the water receded and recovery efforts began.

The library in Rushford, the Fillmore County city that probably was the most severely flooded, stayed open while most buildings in town were closed. Situated on high ground, it became the flood emergency command center. “I will no longer curse all the steps I have sometimes shoveled in winter to get in,” said library director Susan Hart. “Height is good!”

Libraries are, too. But it isn’t easy for community leaders and economic developers to put a dollar sign on the value of these local information centers that so often are taken for granted. Some benefits of institutional services just can’t be measured in simple economic terms, but they still should be factored into effective community development strategies.

Researchers from Florida to Vermont have tried to calculate the economic value of libraries. Economists from Kansas and Illinois concluded that library services are necessary for development even if their quality of life benefits can’t be tallied in dollars and cents.

To appreciate the benefits of local libraries during the August floods, check out the Southeastern Libraries Cooperating system blog.

But libraries are just as valuable across Minnesota. In the Twin Cities or Worthington, Minn., for example, new immigrants are especially active library users. Communities with large senior citizen populations also heavily depend on libraries.

Becky Walpole of the Park Rapids Public Library said northern Minnesota librarians in the Kitchigami Regional Library System often help seniors get information or file documents on line for Medicare and Social Security. “A lot of these people have never held a mouse in their hand,” she said. “This help is a terribly important public service.”

And then there’s the tax season. “The library is the only place in Park Rapids where you can get tax forms,” Walpole said. For people without computers at home, that’s a vital service.

Libraries also are important sources for books on tape, popular companions for people with sight impairments and for truckers and tractor drivers during the sugarbeet harvest in northwest and west-central Minnesota.

Sherri Syverson, a rural Fergus Falls farmer, cabinetmaker and avid reader, listened to five books on tape while “topping” beets for the harvest. And that’s a plus for the safety of the seasonal workers on 12-hour shifts during the round-the-clock sugarbeet harvest.

Good books keep drivers and field machine operators alert … and undoubtedly in a healthier frame of mind than if they were listening to rant and rave radio, grinding their teeth while grinding the gears.

But what’s all this really worth?

Early this year, a Vermont state agency study found $5.05 in direct benefits for every $1 spent on public libraries, plus $1.91 in indirect benefits from the same dollar.

There’s more. In a 2005 study, “The Economic Impact of Public Libraries on South Carolina,” 47 percent of survey respondents claimed that their libraries increased local property values and 38 percent said the libraries helped attract new businesses to the community. And 32 percent of South Carolinians said libraries helped them with personal finances or saved them money.