What is the Value of a Public Library to its Community?

Building on a growing body of research that studies the impact of cultural organizations on social wellbeing, The Northern New York Library Network in Potsdam, NY launched a three-year national research project, Libraries in Community Systems, to create a clearer understanding of the unique role public libraries play within community systems, and how this role can be maximized for improved social wellbeing outcomes.

Wellbeing is multidimensional— including physical and mental health, economic security, school effectiveness, cultural engagement, political voice, etc. It amounts to people having what economist Amartya Sen describes as

“the freedom to lead lives [people] have reason to value.”

By August of 2024, this project will publish tools for library service valuation based in library worker and community member perceptions and experiences, as well as comprehensive statistical analysis. Our general timeline is below.


To learn more about the national team working on this project, visit People.

Emerging Considerations for Practice

Libraries produce community wellbeing

The true value of public libraries is hidden within outcomes occuring all around town: Higher graduation rates. Early literacy and school readiness. Financial relief. Civic power and participation.

Libraries can optimize the role and utility of their organization by recognizing and leveraging their power. Own it with intention. Continue your good work.

Libraries are living archives.

Libraries play a critical role in preserving and promoting local cultural heritage. They host events, share bilingual stories, and capture oral histories, ensuring that the community’s traditions and narratives are kept alive and accessible.

Libraries are one node, not the hub.

We often conceptualize the library as THE hub which all other places connect to. Often, they are one node in a network of linkages with other
important nodes which could be people or other organizations. When we recognize those other nodes, new leverage points for action can be more visible, as can our potential partners, and community members currently underserved within local networks.

Libraries combat isolation.

Libraries play a vital role in addressing social isolation by offering spaces for community interactions and mental health resources. They host book clubs, craft sessions, and other activities that foster a sense of belonging and community connection.