How can libraries make communities more economically vital?

Libraries of all types are taking on new roles and responsibilities. Through robust programming agendas, they’re at the center of community-building efforts all across the US. As part of the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), Knology sat down with advisors from across the library sector to discuss the impacts libraries aim to have on the communities they serve. During these discussions, we also brainstormed ways to track these impacts across various domains of community life. Two important ideas emerged from our conversations:

  • Impact Domains
    Specific areas where library programs can make meaningful differences in people’s lives. We defined nine of these. Libraries can help create: (1) connected communities; (2) knowledgeable communities; (3) creative communities; (4) civically engaged communities; (5) healthy communities; (6) economically vital communities; (7) welcoming communities; (8) joyful communities; (9) caring communities.
  • Indicators
    Ways of measuring the real-world impact of library programming. These Indicators allow us to determine whether or not programs are having their intended effects.

In this series of blog posts, we’d like to talk about each of these impact domains individually, and talk about how libraries are contributing to each of them. In this post, we focus on economic vitality.

What are Economically Vital Communities?

Economically vital communities continuously create the conditions that promote economic development and individual and collective prosperity. Much of this depends on governmental policy, but there are many ways that community members and community institutions (including libraries and local chambers of commerce) contribute to economic vitality. Economically vital communities work towards job readiness and help community members develop the skills to reach their full potential. Economically vital communities support local providers of goods and services, and help new entrepreneurs break into the marketplace. These activities lead to equitable participation in the local and regional economy, and ensure the equitable use of community goods, services, and natural and human resources.

Example: Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs

One of many ways libraries can promote economic vitality is by providing resources and support for community members starting or running their own businesses. Entrepreneurship can take many forms: a “side hustle” or a full-time job, a registered business with employees or a one-person operation, an online shop or in-person, providing goods like food and art, or services like writing and health coaching. No matter what form their business takes, entrepreneurs face a number of challenges, from planning to obtaining funds to identifying customers to balancing budgets — not to mention adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2018 to 2022, 12 large public library systems received funding from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to expand their support for local entrepreneurs.

For example, the Austin Public Library offered Book a Librarian sessions where patrons could ask for help with tasks like market research (using the library’s databases) or developing a business plan. They also hosted a wide variety of workshops, from using Excel to analyze data to topics like digital marketing and search engine optimization (in collaboration with SCORE, a nonprofit organization). The library also hosted the city’s Forum on Technology and Society presentations, along with networking sessions to a Global Arts program focused specifically on giving immigrants an opportunity to “test run” business ideas like art or cooking classes.

To learn more about the Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs project, check out the Urban Libraries Council page on the initiative here.

How Can You Contribute to Your Community’s Economic Vitality?

Not all libraries’ offerings can be this expansive — nor do they necessarily need to be. A survey Knology conducted as part of our Entrepreneurial Hubs evaluation found that 23 percent of current, potential, and former entrepreneurs had used a business-specific resource at their public library, whether this was an event/program, interaction with library staff, or access to makerspace resources or business databases. Another 25 percent of respondents benefited from access to books, the internet, and meeting spaces libraries provided.

Entrepreneurship training is just one way to increase a community’s economic vitality. Libraries can also support their communities by developing financial education programs, by offering employment training programs that teach job skills and help residents improve their resumes and job applications, and much more. On a broader level, they can serve as catalysts for revitalization and redevelopment efforts. Programs focused on economic vitality might include:

  • Financial literacy education for kids and adults, empowering patrons of all ages to make steps toward financial security. Check out Smart Investing @ Your Library or Thinking Money for Kids for programming ideas!
  • Training on technology use, English language classes, GED programs, and other programs aimed at gaining job-related skills or certification.
  • Assistance with resumes, job applications, taxes, financial aid, applying for social services, etc.

Let’s Put it To Work!

We’re interested in learning more about how you think libraries can create economically vital communities. How do programs at your library support economic vitality in your community? What partnerships do you have that help you meet this goal? And how else might libraries help the communities they serve to thrive economically?

Let us know what you think about these things. You can either comment below or email programminglibrarian@ala.org. And for more information on this topic, please consult the literature cited below.

Funding

These materials were produced for National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The authors are solely responsible for the content on this page.

Photo by Dan Meyers at Unsplash