BULLET Placing a Value on Public Library Services
Glen E. Holt, Donald Elliott, and Amonia Moore

The weighted data, corrected for all survey biases, produced the following estimates of value returned relative to current tax support. Remember that the annual tax income of the St. Louis Public Library in the year of the survey was $15.3 million.

  • Estimates for general user benefits were as follows:
  • Consumer surplus
$47 million
  • Willingness to accept
$136 million
  • Willingness to pay
$15 million
  • Opportunity costs/costs of time
$90 million.
  • Estimate of business user benefits based on WTA
$7 million
  • Estimate of teacher and caregiver benefits based on WTA
$13 million

When we summed the benefits of total patron benefits relative to current tax support of $15.3 million, we obtained the following range of benefits.

Method of calculationBenefits Return to current tax dollars
  • Consumer surplus + business + teacher
$ 67 million 446% More than $4 to $1
  • WTA + business + teacher
$156 million 1,033% More than $10 to $1
  • WTP + business + teacher
$ 35 million 230% More than $2 to $1
  • Opportunity cost of time + Business + teacher
$110 million 730% More than $7 to $1

Harkening to criteria laid out early in this article, SLPL spokespersons now claim that each $1 of annual tax support for the library produces, on average, direct benefits to users of more than $4. This figure is conservative and therefore credible. One must be careful, however, in interpreting and touting these results. Given the business orientation and private-sector experience of many library board members, rates of return to current library tax investment of the magnitude above may be viewed with skepticism. Explaining to the board that the ratios incorporate benefit streams accruing not only from current operating outlays, but also from past accumulation of library capital may assuage such concerns and reinforce board members’ appreciation for the library as a critical investment in the community’s infrastructure. The benefits accruing to users annually are produced not only by current tax-funded operating outlays on staff, subscriptions, maintenance and other items, but also by past public investments in buildings and collections. Current users are reaping returns not only from current public funds supporting the library, but also from the foresight and generosity of past tax and philanthropic support. Yet, no matter how generous or lavish the past investment, it is current tax support that permits users to access collections conveniently, receive staff assistance to find and use collections effectively, and assure that the collections built up over time through past investment will continue to be preserved. The ratio of benefits to current annual tax support reflects how much the community is reaping from past and current investment as it provides annual operating revenues to the library.

Beyond the knowledge gained and the talking-point benefit for SLPL spokespersons, the St. Louis research team believes that public librarians generally should be heartened by the results of the SLPL Services Valuation Study. An established economics methodology applied conservatively, weighted to account for non-response bias associated with low-income and other social and geographical characteristics, and measuring only direct benefits has produced a lower bound for benefits that SLPL policy makers feel safe in defending to board members, elected officials and conservative donors. And, that figure is substantial. SLPL is a good investment for the people of St. Louis.

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