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Public Libraries in the Knowledge Economy

December 12, 200612 December 2006

Literacy, Libraries and Publishing

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Based on a literature review, a survey of 28 library authorities and case studies, this British report argues that public libraries are important factors in the “community-driven knowledge economy” as well as local economic and social vitality. Libraries help ensure access to knowledge, skills and information, which are essential for a vibrant economy, inclusive society and active citizenry.

Many libraries act as local “information hubs” and provide knowledge-based services related to skills, learning, enterprise and economic well-being. Specific services noted by survey respondents include: business services “from dedicated book stocks to market research assistance”; learning and support functions related to “basic skills, family learning and education for young people”; “access to learning and skills development for hard-to-reach groups”; and information and communications technology training. The report argues that the informal nature of many of these services provides an accessible learning experience “for people who have a negative experience of formal education”.

The case studies highlight library activities that “demonstrate the range and impact of library services on learning and skills, enterprise development and local area quality of life”. One example is the Birmingham library, which provides impartial information to help less-skilled and migrant residents acquire skills and employment opportunities. Another case study highlights the Manchester library “intellectual property service, which helps hundreds of investors and innovative businesses with the patent application process”. Some libraries contribute to the development of the creative industries, through specialized resources and partnerships with local publishers, museums and galleries.

Overall, the report finds that public libraries generate intangible, knowledge-based capital that helps community growth, competitiveness and employment. By helping to minimize the disparities between “knowledge haves” and “knowledge have-nots”, libraries are seen as important contributors to social inclusion. As public institutions with a large customer base and a high level of public trust, libraries have strong “customer capital” that can be built upon by other public agencies, such as those involved in adult education or health care. The report also indicates that many libraries are “an integral part of a vibrant town centre” and key “partners in redevelopment schemes”.

The report recommends that awareness-building campaigns “show how public libraries are contributing to economic vitality in their communities”, with “appropriate evidence on impacts and performance”. To help with this, the report provides a “conceptual framework for measuring the impacts of public libraries on economic vitality, including a set of performance indicators”. The report also recommends that policy and funding be available to reinforce libraries’ roles in local socio-economic vitality.

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