The thinking of Comrade F. Dobler from the early 20th century remains relevant and even prescient: those who need open access to information may be those who are fundamentally excluded from public libraries.
Can public libraries make people happier and healthier?
There is close link between equality and happiness. The people who live in more equal countries tend to be happier than the people who live in less equal countries. The research team who produced The World Happiness Report (2015) analyzed data from 156 countries.
The participants were asked two sets of questions. The first probed their emotional state: Do you laugh a lot? Are you happy? Do you enjoy life? Do you worry? Are you sad? Are you angry? The second examined how they felt about their lot, their life and their prospects. Their answers were cross-referenced with their country’s economic, social, political, environmental and religious profiles.
What the researchers discovered was that six factors – per capita income, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, freedom from corruption, having someone to count on in times of trouble, and personal generosity – accounted for three quarters of the variation in national happiness. The second point that jumped out of the data was that mental illness – a low priority for most governments – was the single most important cause of global unhappiness.
Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Canada are among the world’s most happy countries; they are also among the top five countries in terms of public library circulation:
This suggests that there may be a relationship between happiness and public library circulation. If public libraries are making people happier, the challenge is to identify that contribution and evaluate it. If we can understand and measure the public library contribution we can make happiness a strategic priority and re-align our structures (staff and services), systems (policies, processes and procedures) and organisational culture (‘the way we do things around here’) with this objective.
The World Happiness Report made three important recommendations which are relevant to a range of agencies and service providers, including public libraries
- Pay more attention to mental illness. Not only is it a cause of misery, it lowers productivity, reduces incomes, fractures relationships and prevents people from contributing to the wider community. Even in rich countries, two thirds of mental illness goes untreated.
- Listen to the public. There is a serious misalignment between what matters to citizens and what motivates policy makers.
- Do not assume that cynicism is permanent. It fades when people see a way forward, see tangible improvements being made and see their lives getting better.
Happiness is an important component of mental health and overall health and well-being. An English study looked specifically at The Health and Well Being Benefits of Public Libraries (2015), and considered:
- The value of engagement in library services in terms of the impact on people’s overall quality of life. This represents the primary benefits of library services. Primary benefits are those that accrue directly to the individual (i.e. the impact on their wellbeing).
- The value of library services and how this value differs by service type and the socio-demographic characteristics of the individual.
- The factors which drive the reported values, such as socio-demographic factors and aspects of service use.
The average willingness to pay (WTP) to maintain current library services among library users in England was $35.11 per year in increased council tax. As would be expected, non-users reported a lower WTP of $18.55, which is around half that of the WTP values stated by library users. It is possible to aggregate use value across the library-using English population to estimate a national average WTP for library services of $657.5 million per year. It is also possible to aggregate a value for non-users in the English population to estimate a national average non-use WTP for library services of £644.5 million per year. In total this provides a combined annual WTP for local library services of $1.3 billion across library users and non-users in England.
This study also considered the value to society of the health benefits of library services by calculating the potential savings due to reductions in medical service usage as a result of improvements in general health from library service usage. This represents the secondary benefits of library services. They relate to impacts that benefit society more widely which at some point may be an indirect benefit to the individual as well. This mainly encompasses impacts on the economy and public purse. These are benefits because they could lead to reduced public spending on health which could lead to lower tax rates or shifts in resources to other important policy areas.
The study found that library engagement had a positive association with general health. After controlling for other confounding factors, being a regular library user was associated with a 1.4 per cent increase in the likelihood of reporting good general health. This improvement in health was valued in terms of cost savings to the National Health Service (NHS). Based on reductions in family doctor visits caused by this improvement in health, it was estimated the medical cost savings associated with library engagement at $2.37 per person per year. It is possible to aggregate NHS cost savings across the library-using English population to estimate an average cost saving of $49.5 million per year.
More research is needed in this area, but the existing evidence suggests that there is a direct link between happiness, mental health and the primary and secondary health benefits of using public library services.
John Pateman is the CEO / Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. The Open for All? column explores the nature of libraries and their commitment to openness.