Economic Development: The Future of 21st Century Libraries

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

The City of Stockton, California has moved from bankruptcy to regaining economic traction in California’s Central Valley. The library played a role in making this happen. It began long before the dire circumstances that brought on such economic problems. The library’s role in economic development needs to have both a short term and a long term strategy and although you will not be able to predict the outcome you will be able to put the strategy in place that will create results.

When I speak with Economic Development Directors of states, counties, and cities, libraries are usually not at the top of their list of economic development opportunities. That is not because they do not drive economic development, it is because the economic returns are about sustaining communities long term.

This article will give you talking points and examples to use as you talk with Mayor’s, City Council, and other government leaders about the true impact libraries have on the economic health of communities today.

Opened in 2000, the public library in Des Plaines, Ill. anchors a 6.2-acre mixed use development that includes retail and residential components. Hudson, Ohio built a new public library to anchor a commercial extension to its Main Street business district. Opened in 2005, the Hudson library stands amid a mixture of retail, office and housing developments. In Logan, Utah, the city is soliciting private developers to create a mixed-use property with residential and commercial components right next to the public library, which will act as an anchor for the development.

In recent years, more and more commercial developments have been including public libraries to anchor mixed-use, retail and residential developments.

Inherently, people who are attracted to the array of reading material available in and the quiet, relaxing spaces of a public library will also be compelled to shop and eat nearby. Especially since adjacent retail stores and restaurants are within walking distance after finishing their time at the library. Given the nature of a public library, patrons will also return to the mixed-use area to return books, again slipping into nearby shops to see what’s on sale, or conveniently meeting lunch or dinner guests.

Experts estimate that average public libraries attract 500 to 1,500 people per day. Major city libraries attract substantially more people. The Seattle public library, credited with helping to revitalize downtown Seattle, attracts more than 8,000 visitors per day!

“Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions To Local Economic Development,” a 2007 report sponsored by the Urban Institute and Urban Libraries Council concludes that the people who visit public libraries contribute quite a few economic benefits to downtown, residential, mixed-use and commercial developments; that they contribute to safety and quality of life in mixed-use and residential developments; that they reduce some of the financial risk connected to mixed-use developments; and that they attract foot traffic that patronizes surrounding businesses — without competing with those businesses.

The primary reason libraries draw traffic is that they generate a large number of repeat visitors that are attending regularly to check out and return books, participate in programs, use public computers etc. Libraries have a high door count, and building a new library can dramatically increase door count. The Seattle Central Library Economic Benefits Assessment indicates that, “Nearly 2.3 million individuals visited

the new Central Library in the first full year (June 2004 to May 2005). This represents growth of nearly 250% over the same period the year before.” A number of strategies can tie a public library into a development that draws traffic. These include:

• Main-street designs used by open-air shopping centers.

• An overall design that creates a community icon.

• Using the library itself as the icon.

• The Library as a second anchor

“The return on investment in public libraries not only benefits individuals, but also strengthens community . . . Researchers at the University of Chicago, identify early education investments as more efficient public investments because their benefits tend to compound, by creating a solid foundation for later human capital investments, such as education, youth development and job skills training.” (Making Cities Stronger; The Urban Libraries Council; copyright January 2007)

“According to David Weinberger of Harvard University, the library platform can be thought of “as an infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town, or the classrooms and yards of a university. Think of the library as coextensive with the geographic area that it serves, like a canopy, or as we say these days, like a cloud.”[28] A great library platform is a “third place” — an interactive entity that can facilitate many people operating individually or in groups. The library platform supports the learning needs and goals of the community. To accomplish this, libraries embody the disposition of the entrepreneurial learner: seizing opportunities wherever they may exist, engaging others in the process. The library can then curate and archive the solutions created for sharing and future use. As a platform, the library promotes development in the community and society by identifying and filling gaps in community services including early-childhood education, lifelong learning, technology literacy and e-government.[29] The library as platform makes the library a participatory enterprise.” (


“Joint-use facilities that combine public libraries with other community amenities are becoming more common in cities and towns across the country . . . Public libraries are increasingly finding their “fit” in the formal and informal network of agencies, corporations, nonprofits, and community organizations working together to elevate levels of education and economic potential, making cities stronger.’ (Making Libraries Stronger: Urban Libraries Council)

The opportunities are increasingly available when you look into what other government agencies or non-profits are doing and find common ground on which to collaborate and work together. Here are a few examples of partnerships libraries have capitalized on to strengthen their communities.

  • Museums
  • Performing Arts Venues
  • Artists in Residence
  • Arts Festivals
  • Art Galleries
  • Recreation Centers
  • Senior Centers
  • Cafes
  • Parks
  • Business Incubators

“The transformations of the digital age enable individuals and communities to create their own learning and knowledge. To that end, libraries become platforms — bases on which individuals and communities create services, data and tools that benefit the community.[27] They allow for innovation that the platform creators cannot anticipate. Users may “customize” the platform and adapt its resources to their individual needs, whatever those needs may be. The library as community learning platform is the innovative proposition of the public library in the digital age.” (

Libraries are great economic engines for communities as they provide a foundation of life long learning, create opportunities for success which can then provide a community with returning college graduates to shape the future of a community. One such example comes from the story of Michael Tubbs, Mayor of Stockton California. Born into poverty and a difficult family situation with his mother as a teenager and his father serving a life sentence in prison he overcame adversity to graduate from Stanford and at age 26 become the youngest and first African-American mayor in the history of the City of Stockton, California. Suzy Daveluy, City Librarian said she remembers first meeting Michael when he was a teenager serving on the library’s Teen Advisory Council. His ability to bring Stockton’s economy to where it is now growing shows just how important the library can be in playing a role in the economic revitalization of a community.

Although every library does not have such an extreme success story to tell, they do however have many smaller success stories that in many cases when combined tell a much larger success story of libraries across America and throughout the world.

To target economic development as a key focus in you community’s library use the resources listed in this article to create short term and long term strategies the focus on the small and simple things that change people’s lives.

To follow this series or to learn more about what each of the 13 written episodes will reveal click on this link to download “The Future of 21st Century Libraries: The Series Begins”