Field Studies

Public Libraries – A Wise Investment: A Return on Investment Study of Colorado Libraries

In spring 2006, a need was identified in Colorado to describe the variety of benefits delivered by public libraries to their patrons and to quantify the return on investment to taxpayers for monies invested in public libraries. To provide this data, the Library Research Service (LRS) undertook What’s It Worth to You? A Return on Investment Study of Selected Colorado Public Libraries in May 2006. Using a multiple case study approach, this research was designed to create such information for eight public libraries, representing geographically, economically, and demographically diverse regions of Colorado. Libraries studied include Cortez Public Library, Denver Public Library, Douglas County Libraries, Eagle Valley Library District, Fort Morgan Public
Library, Mesa County Public Library District, Montrose Library District, and Rangeview Library District.

Data were gathered using a combination of questionnaires, key informant interviews, and available data sources. Almost 5,000 Colorado residents responded to the survey questionnaire; in addition, library staff and community members were interviewed as key informants about their libraries’ services and their economic value. Available data about library staff expenditures—including salaries, wages, and benefits—and library spending with vendors and contractors were obtained from the participating libraries.

For most of the libraries participating in the study, the return on investment (ROI) was approximately five to one—that is, for every $1.00 spent on public libraries, $5.00 of value was realized by taxpayers. Two outliers among the participating libraries—Cortez and Fort Morgan— demonstrated higher ratios, due to the pronounced discrepancy between who funds these libraries (i.e., municipal governments) and who uses them (i.e., county residents). While nonresident use is a factor for all public libraries, in these cases, it had an extreme impact on the study results.

An analysis of the many ROI studies conducted nationwide reveals that the differences in their resulting ROI ratios are readily understood by considering what returns and which investments are included as well as which services are addressed and which “market value” multipliers are used.

An analysis of patterns in various types of library use reported by respondents for participating libraries also revealed notable variations. Generally, it appears that the setting of a library—whether it is located in a metropolitan or non-metropolitan area and whether it is a central city or a suburb—is strongly associated with these patterns (e.g., higher circulation rates for non-print formats, such as audio books and DVDs, greater use of library computers to access Web resources). Notably, the reported incidence of in-library use of materials varied little among the participating libraries.

To find out more about this Colorado ROI study and read this report and reports for the eight participating public libraries, go to: http://www.lrs.org/public/roi/ and see Public Libraries – A Wise Investment.

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LRS is part of the Colorado State Library, a unit of the Colorado Department of Education. We design and conduct library research for library and education professionals, public officials, and the media to inform practices and assessment needs. We partner with the Library and Information Science program at University of Denver's Morgridge College of Education to provide research fellowships to current MLIS students.

This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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