IMLS Report Offers Data on Libraries’, Museums’ Contributions to Community Well-Being

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in partnership with Reinvestment Fund, recently released “Understanding the Social Wellbeing Impacts of the Nation’s Libraries and Museums,” a report on the ways that libraries and museums promote social inclusion and well-being. The study, conducted between 2018 and 2020, looked at measures that included community health, school effectiveness, institutional connection, and cultural opportunity.

cover of IMLS Social Wellbeing ReportThe Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), in partnership with Reinvestment Fund, recently released “Understanding the Social Wellbeing Impacts of the Nation’s Libraries and Museums,” a report on the ways that libraries and museums promote social inclusion and well-being. The study, conducted between 2018 and 2020, looked at measures that included community health, school effectiveness, institutional connection, and cultural opportunity. Research was led by Reinvestment Fund, a community development institution, in partnership with HR&A Advisors and the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. This research is part of the larger Community Catalyst Initiative, which will conclude in fall 2022.

The study continues a 2016 collaboration between IMLS and Reinvestment Fund, “Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change: Museums and Libraries as Community Catalysts,” under previous IMLS director Kathryn K. Matthew. That research examined how libraries and museums engage with their communities through programs and partnerships, also framing them in a context of contributing to social well-being.

 

BEYOND “QUALITY OF LIFE”

Social inclusion encompasses strengthening connections for individuals and groups; social well-being extends that concept to what it takes for community members to flourish—”to live a good life once they are securely included in society,” as the report states. While “quality of life” as a gestalt is hard to measure, Reinvestment Fund collected and analyzed data on three specific dimensions of well-being: education and school effectiveness, community health, and economic well-being. Library data was collected across 3,090 counties nationwide.

For its qualitative assessments, the team conducted in-depth case studies at 24 institutions, 12 of them libraries: Blue Ridge Regional Library, VA; Central Arkansas Library System; C.E. Weldon and McWherter Public Libraries, TN; Denver Public Library; Fletcher Free Library, VT; Liberal Memorial Library; KS; Mid-Continent Public Library, MO; Milwaukee Public Library; Spartanburg County Public Libraries, SC; Victor Farmington, Geneva and Wood Libraries, NY; Whitman County Rural Library District, WA; and Yavapai County Free Library District, AZ. These were chosen, among other criteria, because they were well-placed in their communities’ networks of support, drawing on robust programming and partnerships to help strengthen access to resources such as early childhood education, nutrition, physical and mental health services, and a range of educational opportunities.

All site visits were held in person except the final one, which had been scheduled for the week of March 9, 2020; as the nation went into lockdown, it was conducted remotely. While the report was intended to provide a picture of libraries, museums, and their communities before the pandemic, survey authors conducted follow-up interviews in September and October 2020, asking about how the subject institutions were responding to the pandemic, its challenges and perceived opportunities, and the increased awareness of racial inequity that was a critical element of 2020. Those conversations, which are surfaced in the report’s Foreward, will inform future IMLS work.

 

QUANTIFYING VALUE

The study found a direct correlation to social well-being in communities where libraries and museums are present and widely used. Those institutions’ commitment to formal and informal learning, the creation and promotion of local networks, and a rapidly expanding support for community mental and physical health all contribute strongly to public well-being. The report also addresses how libraries’ roles are moving away from a focus on collections and core services—”the shifting orientation that these are institutions that integrate people with one another into their communities, or are focal point for accessing information to help people do what they need to do,” said Reinvestment Fund Chief Policy Analyst Michael Norton. “That sort of transition, and it’s been going on probably the last 20 or 30 years or so, is really making and maintaining the relevance of these institutions.”

These results may not surprise anyone working in the field, said IMLS Director Crosby Kemper, but having strong statistical proof of libraries’ value in key areas is useful in many contexts. “It’s good to have a serious research piece demonstrating the correlation of what libraries and museums do with these effects, and creating some indexes that we can build on for the future,” he told LJ.

Quantifying the value of partnerships is particularly helpful, he noted. Collaborations of all kinds allow libraries to amplify their work “as conveners, as sites for activities, as institutions that bring institutional and communal resources together and have a network effect. It increases the power of what goes on in the community by bringing it all together. It’s an invigorating effect.” The study also helps demonstrate the ways in which libraries, which are perceived as trusted institutions and host diverse populations, are increasingly partners in the racial equity and inclusion work taking place in many communities, Kemper said.

The education well-being piece is another area of growth, Kemper added. “The traditional work of libraries and museums in education and reading—increasingly in terms of relationship to curriculum, to informal learning in early childhood, and K–12—is, we think, really important in the determination of success in life and social well-being,” he said. “This begins the demonstration of that in a statistically valid way.”

The study did not turn up evidence of libraries as drivers of economic well-being in their communities, however. “They don’t generate tons of revenue and they don’t employ big swaths of the population,” noted Norton. “The value that they create is all about the social well-being that is associated with the ability to access information, the ability to make connections with other people, the ability to go someplace that’s free and open to the public. Those aren’t things that you can quantify in a traditional economic impact model.”

 

ON SITE

The 24 case studies were a critical component of the report’s findings, particularly around consequences for school effectiveness and community health. Joan Johnson, deputy director of the Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) at the time of the site visit in 2019 (she has since been promoted to director and city librarian), told LJ that “this was an opportunity for us to be heard and seen, and to really showcase the good work that we’re doing in the community to improve well-being.”

In 2019, MPL was in the process of rebuilding a branch library in a predominantly African American neighborhood and was making intentional efforts to co-create and design program offerings with the support of a newly created community liaison position. The library’s mission statement, “Inspiration starts here—we help people read, learn, and connect,” addresses its vision of serving as an anchor institution in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods.

The survey team spoke with a range of MPL staff and community members, and Johnson felt they were thorough in their investigation of the library’s role—”not only talking to leadership, but talking to the staff who are on the front lines working directly in the community, and then also getting to hear from those who are directly impacted by our work.” Ultimately, she said, “they were able to get a good sense of how the community felt supported by the work that we do.”

The case studies were not only anecdotal, Norton noted, but helped support the data his team gathered; he was pleased to see that the quantitative and qualitative findings—even at the extremely granular county level—aligned well. “There was a nice coherence between the data and all the site visits for the case studies that really corroborated the quantitative findings,” he told LJ.

Going forward, the study should prove useful on many levels, its authors suggest: for library and museum leaders and staff, funders and policymakers, and researchers who want to understand more about how these institutions work.

Norton hopes it will help raise awareness of the ways museums and libraries have adapted to new realities, augmenting the support service sector “in a routine way that people generally just don’t associate with the work that they do. Particularly in some of the rural parts of the country, they’re really stepping into either a diminished or absent public service support system,” he noted. “These institutions are really attuned to the needs of the people that come through the doors, and that are in their communities. And they respond in ways that have changed their traditional ways of operating.”

On the IMLS side, Kemper foresees an even deeper focus in future research, looking beyond county-level statistics to get data from individual neighborhoods. “That will involve probably much more targeted research. We won’t be able to do a national version—it’d be too difficult, too expensive,” he explained. “But we think we’ll be able to target certain areas, really drill down and do research that will demonstrate more direct cause and effect, building on the obvious correlative effects that this study shows.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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