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Reinvesting and Renewing for the 21st Century

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Reinvesting and Renewing for the 21st Century

San Francisco Public Library, Calif.

Institutional Change and Strategic Management | 2016

Innovation Summary

Rebuilding the library’s branch system resulted in increased use and awareness of our libraries, but also in a measurable return on investment and economic benefits to the city. A study commissioned by the city Controller’s Office quantified the results, proving that libraries are vital economic engines with far-reaching benefits.

Problem Statement

In the 21st century, libraries can be undervalued by decision makers, resulting in limited funding for capital improvements. In 2000, San Francisco’s branch libraries, the heart of their neighborhoods, were sadly out of date and in need of extensive repairs. A voter-approved, $200 million bond program led to renovations and new buildings for 24 libraries, which resulted in significant increases in library visits and circulation. But the true economic value of this capital project was not known. Determining the return on investment and economic benefit was needed to provide justification for the true benefits of the Branch Library Improvement Program.


The Controller’s Office study interviewed community leaders in every neighborhood and crunched the numbers to quantify the impact of 24 revitalized libraries. Evaluated in the process was the impacts of increased library hours, expanded collections and space, public programs, community meeting rooms, construction jobs, new technology, savings related to green practices, and more. The result was the identification of a true dollar value for the project. Conservatively, for every $1 invested, the city realized a return of $5.19 - $9.11; and the capital investments and additional operational spending contributed more than $330 million in indirect benefits to the community.


San Franciscans voted to make libraries a priority through operational as well as capital funds, supporting a 14-year-old Branch Library Improvement Program that resulted in the renovation of 16 libraries and the construction of eight new buildings. The economic benefit study provided the Library with strong justification for the value of the capital improvement program and reiterated the overall value that libraries bring to their communities, as safe, welcoming resources for education, entertainment and information and as civic anchors in their neighborhood. The study also provided strong arguments that the Library is an excellent steward of city resources.