September 21, 2017

From Patchwork to Network: Taking a wide view on infrastructure | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015I’ve been thinking a lot about libraries as infrastructure and why we—as voters and taxpayers—don’t demand that our dollars be used for their upkeep and refurbishment to meet changing needs and help spur community growth. Libraries usually do well at the polls, and this year is no exception, with the majority of bonds passing. The local nature of libraries obscures the larger view: a varied patchwork of support for a national treasure. Several things have me thinking there may be a way to reshape the local conversation against the national backdrop.

First, I continue to be impressed by the impact of the Center for an Urban Future’s (CUF) deep dive into the health of New York City’s branches. That study (which everyone should read) approached libraries as another piece of city infrastructure and analyzed them as a unit in the overall system (see LJ coverage here). Led by a city-first point of view, it revealed important gaps in how that asset had been used and the capacity being squandered by its neglect.

More important, the report saw the branches, across three systems, as a network to be catalyzed. Since its release, the findings have anchored the beginning of a citywide reinvestment in all three libraries. Though still in the early days, the momentum is impossible to miss. By ignoring institutional boundaries, the report revealed a systemic failure that was wasting past investment and hampering potential for residents. Let’s call it the CUF effect.

Lest we wonder what such comprehensive thinking could mean, let’s look to San Francisco. The people of that city have been reinvesting in their libraries with vigor since 2001 via the Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP). Now, the city controller’s office has documented the return on that investment in the compelling “Reinvesting and Renewing for the 21st Century: A Community and Economic Benefits Study of San Francisco’s Branch Library Improvement Program” (PDF here). As LJ’s Lisa Peet reports, the study revealed that for every dollar invested in BLIP, San Francisco realized a return of between $5.19 and $9.11.

That astounding result should turn the head of every city leader.

BLIP was born from a recognition that San ­Francisco’s branches were compromised and in need of renovation or replacement. Instead of turning their backs on their libraries, voters saw the value in them and opted overwhelmingly to reinvigorate the system. The project has taken many turns but ultimately affected 24 branches.

Those who follow libraries will not be surprised to hear that investing in libraries pays off—we see that in large and small settings alike when new libraries open or old ones get modernized. Door counts skyrocket, circulation jumps, and surrounding businesses get a lift. This extends to academe, too, which can see upward of 66 percent leaps in usage when buildings open anew. Over time there have been numerous attempts to articulate the ROI of supporting libraries. With this report, SFPL and the city have taken the anecdote out of that process with a rigorous look at the impact of the funding infusion.

One statement in the report stood out to me: “BLIP was truly a program, rather than a piecemeal, incremental approach to investing in branches one by one. What might have taken 30 years through regular capital funding was accomplished in an energetic 14-year period…. Thanks to this systematic approach, both the BLIP process itself and the network of renewed branches function more effectively than they otherwise would have.”

While very different in its initiation, this network approach connected, for me, to the breakthrough perspective brought by CUF and got me thinking about the national picture again.

We have a massive civic investment in place in this country that many don’t consider through that lens because each institution is isolated by its local governance. While a local focus is critical for great library service, libraries necessarily looking locally for the bulk of their budget may be missing a key to gaining stronger support. Finding a new way to articulate how each library is part of a valuable national infrastructure could help build the case for funding at home. It would illustrate where individual libraries are falling short of their potential in relation to their peers and point to the value that comes from reinvestment.

Taking the CUF approach to the national stage could provide this insight. Seeing libraries as a unit afresh could drive new thinking about them. If we could find a way to map the nation’s libraries as one network, might we see a nationwide CUF effect? I’d like to find out.

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This article was published in Library Journal's December 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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