The costs of non-access: why we should talk about the impacts of not investing in libraries

A lot of advocacy for libraries focuses on showing the return that our institutions provide on investment. Through this, we work to demonstrate that however much governments or other funders spend, the value created by the presence and work of libraries is more.

These arguments can be very helpful at times when governments need to take decisions, by building the case for choosing a new, renovated, expanded or enhanced library.

What we tend to do less is explore what are the costs of not acting. In other words, what are government and societies missing out on, if they do not allocate resources to the library? What harms can this cause to the achievement of wider social, economic and cultural goals?

This reflection is likely to help in developing arguments in the coming months and years. We have difficult times ahead – and already with us in many cases. Those who are currently not facing challenges are likely to do so when stimulus packages come to an end, and austerity hits, at least in many countries.

It seems more likely that the choice facing funders will not be where to spend new money, but rather how to allocate reductions in budgets. In this situation, the goal then is how to cause the least pain.

From the point of view of our institutions, it will be necessary to be able to show that cuts to library staff and services should never be an easy option.

Fortunately, a lot of the time, this can simply require ‘flipping’ existing arguments for libraries.

A case for a literacy programme that increases reading confidence and performance can also be presented as an avoidance of cost – without the library’s intervention, participants would be less likely to read, both reducing demand for books, and leaving them less able to cope with information around them.

In this situation, there would be harm both to the individual, who would be deprived of possibilities to discover new opportunities, participate in the cultural life of the community or engage in civic and political life. This community in turn loses out by having members who are less able to become involved and active. And the economy loses out when people are not able to realise their potential, with bookshops and others in particular suffering from a smaller reading population.

Similarly, an argument for having a space to welcome local community groups can also be phrased in terms of the cost of not having such a space. Forcing groups to meet in private or commercial spaces may exclude individuals, or simply make these sorts of meetings impractical.

This would have a negative effect on community cohesion and civic engagement. When not all people feel comfortable joining groups, then opportunities to build social cohesion and inclusion are lost. Local civil society does not reflect the wider population, and so loses impact. And of course, if groups which may not be able to afford private space are unable to meet, the community as a whole risks being poorer.

Provision of internet access and internet-enabled devices offers another example. The costs of non-access to the internet through public centres such as libraries will, for some people, mean significantly reduced possibilities to get online, for others it may mean none at all. There are also impacts in terms of losing a key part of the digital skills infrastructure.

For individuals, the negative effects include a lack of access to eGovernment services, to information about jobs and business opportunities, and to a growing share of culture and information in general. When skills cannot be provided, the risks of under-use (and even mis-use) of the internet grow. eCommerce also suffers from there being fewer customers.

So many other library activities can also be argued for in this way. In doing so, it is important to make sure you are working on the basis of reasonable evidence, for example surveys of what users would miss.

Clearly, such arguments should be used carefully. It is important not to end up looking excessively negative, or ‘crying wolf’ – i.e. claiming things that are unlikely or hard to believe. Furthermore, while concern about harm is a powerful motivator, so too is a friendly face and a positive approach.

Nonetheless, an ability to talk about the harm caused by not investing in libraries is an important part of any advocacy toolkit.