Think Piece

The Impact of Library Closures

In July 2018, Forbes posted – then quickly deleted – an op-ed by Panos Mourdoukoutas, chair of the economics department at Long Island University, that suggested Amazon stores replace libraries. 

“Public libraries are obsolete in the Internet and Amazon age.”

The Internet’s reaction was immediate and strong in its support of libraries, one of the last free and open civic spaces. But perhaps it’s worth pausing to consider: Do public libraries still matter? What happens when a library closes?

What is a Public Library?

It helps to define what the public library is today in the United States. Most of us grew up with a neighborhood public library with books to check out and storytime events where friendly librarians read books to young children. If we lived in a rural area, a bookmobile might bring books closer to home. 

During the past 20+ years, libraries evolved drastically in mission and services. They boast a vast array of free services designed to make life better for the people they serve. Just a few examples include:

  • Digital Media Streaming (eBooks, audiobooks, and digital magazines) 
  • Online Learning Platforms (Lynda.com or Coursera)
  • Makerspaces (3D printers, laser cutters, and other tools) 
  • Virtual Reality (VR) Experiences
  • Coding and Programming Workshops
  • Language Learning Resources
  • Digital Archives and Local History Projects (historical documents, photos, and archives)
  • Health and Wellness Programs (yoga classes, meditation sessions, and wellness workshops)
  • Resume Building and Job Search Assistance
  • Community Podcasting Studios

Who Uses Public Libraries?

The Pew Research Center conducts regular surveys on reading and library visiting habits. The surveys reveal that Americans still like to read, and many prefer to use public libraries for access to books. 

Book readers are generally younger, more highly educated, and have higher incomes. Adults with lower levels of educational attainment are also among the least likely to own smartphones, an increasingly common way for adults to read eBooks.

While higher income residents read more library books, lower income residents rely on library access to technology. Free internet access, career centers, and free social service assistance help those who might otherwise slip through the cracks. 

What Happens When a Library Closes?

Budget cuts and closures have significant and hard-to-predict ripple effects. One is impact on real estate values. According to a Philadelphia area study, homes within a quarter mile of a library are worth $9,630 more than homes more than a quarter mile from a library. 

One in five Americans use public libraries for Internet access1, a fact brought into sharp contrast during the pandemic when schools were closed and many students were not able to participate in remote learning. Without libraries, learning opportunities are lost when public schools close for holidays and summer break.

In a time of political division, increased social isolation and loneliness, the loss of the library as a third space is significant. Today nearly 40 million Americans live alone, representing almost 30% of all US households — up from 9% in 1950. The share of people who work primarily from home rose from 6% in 2019 to 18% in 2021, according to the US Census American Community Survey. Adam Ozimek, a remote work analyst, found that nearly a quarter of those who work from home actually spend part of their working time in coworking spaces, coffee shops, the homes of friends or colleagues, and libraries.2

Loss of libraries means loss of social infrastructure. As defined by the sociologist Eric Klinenberg, social infrastructure facilitates human connections, interaction, and civic engagement. A “third space” or familiar spot outside of the home where people can connect with others, is a source of refuge. While spots like coffee shops and bars require purchases, money is not necessary at libraries. In fact, many public libraries no longer charge overdue fees. 

Library closure also results in reduced public trust in local government. Public libraries and librarians are among the most trusted institutions in the US. 78% of Americans say they trust libraries or librarians and 40% say they trust libraries and librarians a lot — more than twice the rate registered for local and national media and the highest figure across eight information sources.3 

Also noteworthy are the positive impacts of and achievement data associated with library openings. A new branch or renovation of an existing branch brings increased library visits (up 21%), children’s attendance at library events (up 18%), and children’s checkouts of books and other resources (up 21%). Student achievement in reading also increases significantly. On average, a new public library results in increases to student reading achievement that are 29% of the size of those associated with the opening of a new elementary school building, at 15% of the cost of the new school.4

The Library Value Proposition

Closing public libraries means ignoring digital disconnect, gaps in literacy, and a growing need for socialization. Libraries are associated with community wellbeing, and residents know how important they are. The remote working boom associated with pandemic shutdowns has led to a new crop of library users seeking a workspace. “This influx of interest in using libraries as a third working space is challenging the age-old view of libraries as dusty spaces whose silent atmospheres were fiercely guarded by stern librarians. In their place are thriving, collaborative hubs for people who want to connect with others, while doing focused work, with access to smart tech.

Whether using the library or not, Americans intuitively value public libraries. 66% of Pew Research participants said closing their local public library would have a major impact on their community. 69% said libraries are doing a good job of providing a safe place for people to spend time and half said libraries help spark creativity among young people and provide a trusted place for people to learn about new technologies.5

Public libraries help residents of all ages and backgrounds cope with 21st century realities; they have cemented their status as valuable community institutions. In the midst of low levels of trust for many public services, libraries maintain their foothold as resource and information hubs as well as social spaces, helping people in a myriad of ways.