Business Monday

My view by Frank Nero: Libraries are a crucial investment in children, education, community

My first job prior to working in government and economic development was as a public school teacher.

I realized then what is more widely understood today — that early exposure to books and reading is a critical determinant in a child’s academic success, and the independent research skills that libraries foster are both an essential ingredient in academic success and lifelong learning.

As I worked in economic development, it was driven home that the business community is well aware that a literate workforce is the foundation for Miami-Dade’s economic future. By making a collective commitment and investment in the development of a well-educated, creative workforce of tomorrow, we will ensure a bright economic future for all of Miami-Dade County’s residents.

This is underscored by the “One Community One Goal (OCOG) economic strategic plan I initiated.

So, why do we seem to be experiencing a disconnect between the obvious, positive influence libraries have on economic development and our local government’s support for libraries?

Ten years ago, a study commissioned by the State Library and Archives of Florida and conducted by researchers at FSU, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, outlined the distinct value of our libraries.

The total revenue investment in Florida’s public libraries was $449 million in 2004. The total economic return attributable to the existence of the public libraries was $2.9 billion. That is based on an analysis of what would happen if the public libraries ceased to exist, including the net benefits (added costs to use alternatives), the benefits that would be lost because users would not bother to use alternatives, and revenues that would be lost by vendors, contractors, etc.

The study also indicated that, projecting forward over 32 years (2004-2035), if funding for public libraries was reallocated across Florida’s government sectors, the state economy would result in a net decline of $5.6 billion in wages and 68,700 in jobs.

For every $6,448 spent on public libraries from public funding sources (federal, state and local) in Florida, one job is created. For every dollar of public support spent on public libraries in Florida, GRP increases by $9.08. For every dollar of public support spent on public libraries in Florida, income increased by $12.66.

In the small town of Pleasant Hill, California, the city council recently increased library spending, calling it an investment in its children, in education, and the community. We need to do the same in Miami-Dade County — to the tune of at least $65 million, as library advocates have called for.

The physical space that libraries have is a real asset that shouldn’t be ignored during this era of transition to all things digital. Libraries are community centers where people come and access the resources they need to do whatever they need to do. That may be for schoolwork, it may be to apply for a job or unemployment benefits, or it may be to run a business. Libraries can be the span to help bridge the digital divide.

The success of libraries in the future may have a lot to do with how flexible they can be in adapting to the needs of the community, but even so, the core mission of libraries remains the same. Its traditional role has always been as a community resource for information and referral — it’s just that technology is changing how it does that. We must recognize that libraries are not just a collection of books, but a collection of experiences and opportunities.

Public libraries have always been the gateway to education for preschool children and have always played a major role in supporting formal education. In the great circle of life, I’m witnessing this myself in my granddaughter. Her love of books originated at story hours at public libraries.

My granddaughter is fortunate; she has doting parents and grandparents with the wherewithal to not only take her to the library regularly, but to buy her all the books she wants. Recently, she told me she made a “deal” with herself to read a library book each week during the summer.

National research indicates that in moderate- to upper-income neighborhoods there are roughly 14 books for every one child, while in low-income neighborhoods that ratio falls to one book for every 300 children. One more reason why libraries are critical to our community.

The bottom line is that libraries level the playing field for all children and that makes good business sense for Miami-Dade County as we compete globally for well-paying, diversified, knowledge-based jobs.

Frank Nero is chairman of DiBari Innovation Design and president of Beacon Global Advisors.