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  • May 29, 2024

The educational benefits of public libraries

Do investments in public libraries boost student test scores?

Source: Kalani

Through a mix of local, state, and national funding, plus private donations, the United States spends billions of dollars each year on public libraries. In return, libraries provide free access to information through materials lending, research services, and a range of events like children’s story time, computer classes, and tax preparation. But do these investments really have a tangible impact on the communities, particularly on child academic performance? According to a paper published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy by Gregory Gilpin, Ezra Karger, and Peter Nencka, they do.

Their findings come from an analysis of infrastructure spending data related to the construction of new library buildings and major renovation projects between 2009 and 2018. The researchers used an event study to compare school districts,  isolating the timing of sizable capital expenditures and tracking the subsequent differences between communities that invested in local libraries and those that didn’t. They found that public library capital investments increase children's engagement with their local library, which in turn improves test score measures in local school districts.

Panel A of Figure 3 from the authors’ paper shows the impact of library investments on standardized test scores in nearby school districts, highlighting the positive relationship between increased library funding and academic performance.



Panel A of Figure 3 from Gilpin et. al (2024)


The chart plots event study estimates for each year relative to a major library investment, with projects equivalent to spending roughly $200 or more per student. The estimates are measures of average reading test scores, normalized so that a one-unit increase corresponds to a one standard deviation increase in test scores. The vertical bars represent 95 percent confidence intervals.

The figure shows that after a boost in library capital investment, reading test scores steadily increased. In the short run, library investments increased reading scores by 0.01 standard deviations. Seven years out from a project, scores were 0.04 standard deviations higher in districts that invested in public libraries than their counterparts.

Ultimately, the results suggest that library capital spending, similar to investments in public school capital spending, can have significant positive effects on children’s academic performance.

The Returns to Public Library Investment appears in the May 2024 issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.