Report shows public libraries in South Australia support economic activity in the local community and generate $253 million of annual benefits.
Public libraries generate significant community benefits even as they continue to evolve in response to changing community needs. The recent SGS Economics and Planning report The Economic value of Public Libraries in South Australia confirms that the benefits generated by public libraries are at least double their costs.
The report highlights that public libraries generate direct benefits for their users through:
- Access to library materials, collections, services and programs
- Access to library equipment and spaces, including meeting rooms
- Access to technology, including computers with internet access and online services
- Social interaction gained at a library.
Public libraries also indirectly benefit users through contributions to:
- Improved language and digital literacy
- Improved community health and career development outcomes
- Complementary support for the services of education institutions
- Environmental sustainability through multiple borrowings of print material
- Enhanced local neighbourhood amenity.
Interestingly, non-users also place a value on public library services. This value stems from the non-user’s option to use the public library in future and knowing that public libraries are available for other members of the community.
The report also highlights that public libraries support economic activity in their local economies, through library operating expenditure and spending of library users.
Report supports effective advocacy
Local governments fund the vast bulk of public library operations across Australia. Given that funding for libraries is increasingly facing pressure from competing local government service needs, stakeholders need to be able to advocate to protect funding allocations effectively. These advocacy efforts will be more effective with a report that concisely describes how:
- Public libraries generate community benefits and how these benefits outweigh costs considerably, and
- Public libraries act as an important safety net for disadvantaged and often marginalised community members, promoting social equity as well as economic efficiency.
To protect and potentially improve these funding sources, local governments need to be able to advocate effectively. To help advocacy efforts, our report answers two key questions in the South Australian context:
- How do the benefits generated by public libraries compare to their costs?
- How do public libraries support economic activity in their local communities?
We employed cost benefit analysis to answer the first question while using a Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) model to answer the second. This work continues research previously undertaken for public library stakeholders in Queensland and Victoria.
Public libraries have over 9.7 million visitors each year in South Australia
Public libraries in South Australia provide vital services to their local communities. They welcome over 9.7 million visitors each year; equivalent to six visits for each and every South Australian resident.
In terms of frequency of public library use, in South Australia:
- 40% of public library users visited at least once a week
- 20% visited at least once a fortnight
- 24% visited at least once a month, while
- 16% visited less than once a month.
Not surprisingly, the frequency of visit varied by the type of visitor, particularly by employment status. Those who were looking for work, retired or a full-time student visited the public library more frequently than people who were employed or who had domestic duties.
The most common activity for library visitors was to borrow materials, with 70 per cent of survey respondents saying they always undertake this activity when visiting a library. Other activities that visitors ‘always undertake’ when at the library include:
- Reading, watching or listening to library materials (22%)
- Using library spaces (18%)
- Accessing information (18%)
- Seeking staff assistance (17%), and
- Accessing the internet/wifi services (15%).
In addition to the library ‘branch’ visits, use of and visitation to online library services is increasing with over 20 million visits recorded last year.
The costs of public library operations
Total expenditure by public libraries across South Australia totalled $97.5 million. The majority of this expenditure was on employee costs, at $58 million (60 per cent of total expenditure). Public libraries also spent a large amount on operating and corporate expenses ($21 million) and library materials ($8.8 million). 
Public libraries generate $253 million of annual benefits
To quantify these benefits, we monetised the opportunity costs accepted by users when visiting public libraries. This includes their travel and time costs when using the library, as reported in an extensive survey of South Australian public library users.
Essentially these costs have alternative uses and require a conscious decision to invest; meaning that the benefits derived by public library users must outweigh these costs (as a minimum).
The value enjoyed by non-users of public libraries reflects the values revealed in extensive surveying of library non-users in Queensland and Victoria, using stated preference techniques.
So how do the public libraries benefits compare to costs? Public libraries in South Australia generated $253 million of annual benefits. After accounting for operational costs, the net community benefits were estimated at $164 million per annum.
This equates to $96 per capita per year in net community benefits. It also means that for every dollar invested in public libraries, $2.80 of benefits are generated for the South Australian community.
Public libraries also support economic activity in the local community
Public libraries also support economic activity in their local economies. This is through the local operating expenditures of libraries combined with the local spending of library users that can be directly attributable to their library usage.
The SGS research revealed that the direct economic impact (stimulus) generated by public libraries in South Australia was $162 million per annum:
- $89 million was generated by public library operational expenditure
- $54 million was generated by library user triggered expenditure, resulting from visiting the library, such as buying an iPad after attending a class at the library
- $19.5 million was generated by library user retail spending during their visit to the library, such as buying a coffee or lunch.
After accounting for the indirect and induced local economic activities generated by these direct impacts, total economic activity generated by public libraries equated to $114.5 million in Gross Regional Product.
Public libraries in South Australia employ over 680 full time equivalent staff; this is the direct employment impact across the state. The additional spending and economic activity resulting from public libraries support a further 95 jobs in the South Australian economy.
 SA Public Library Services Annual Statistics 2017/18