Earlier this year at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, about a dozen aspiring teenage singers, deejays and rappers gathered to learn how to make music with a vocoder, a device invented in the 1940s that has more recently been used to insert a robotic sound into pop music.
The gathering — part of the Carnegie Library's popular "The Labs" program for teens — might not have an obvious connection to the Pittsburgh region's economic health, but libraries are often overlooked.
"You can't apply for a job today without going online. And if you don't have access to a computer, you can come to the library and get on the computer," said Mary Frances Cooper, president and director of the Carnegie Library. "It happens all day, every day in libraries across the country and across the region, and I'm not sure that people realize that's a significant role."
Studies — both locally, statewide and nationally — have found that for each $1 of investment into libraries, $5.50 to $6 is returned to the community.
"It's not just the resources that libraries provide," said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association in Chicago. "It's also the investment in lifelong learning."
Ms. Stripling lists examples of how libraries contribute to a region's economy, including the ability for adults to access online job applications and to learn computer skills and other knowledge necessary for the workforce. She also points to classes and training programs to enable people to enter or advance in the workforce.
But, more than just direct job training and placement, she said, libraries also provide a place to prepare children and young adults for eventual entry into the workforce.
Early literacy and youth engagement tie into future job success, and libraries are instrumental in providing spaces for children and teenagers to develop skills and to connect with the community.
"The more words a child hears before [he or she] gets ready for school, it really develops their neural pathways," Ms. Cooper said.
Innovative programs across the country for both children and adults include so-called "makerspaces," where libraries provide anything from sewing machines to wrenches to robots to allow people to do creative projects. In a similar vein, the Carnegie Library's popular "The Labs" program gives teens access to high-tech equipment to pursue creative endeavors.
"We work to provide out-of-school time where they can interact with other kids who have the same interests," Ms. Cooper said. "That keeps them focused on their schoolwork and their future."
Other libraries in Allegheny County stand out for different initiatives, such as community outreach in McKeesport and intergenerational programming in Bethel Park, said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the Allegheny County Library Association.
Nationally, the Carnegie Library ranks in the middle of the pack on one measure of engagement: library visits per capita.
Compared to 10 libraries in regions of the country with similar populations, the Carnegie Library ranks fourth out of 11 in library visits per capita, according to the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C.
While one common measure of engagement is library visits, it fails to measure online interaction that patrons have with the library — an increasing focus in the age of e-books and online requests, Ms. Cooper said.
Besides, libraries in Allegheny County as a whole are hard to compare to other places, Ms. Jenkins said, because there are so many independent library systems.
"When we try to do comparables for our system looking at other places in the country that have a similar structure, it's very difficult," she said. "I've never been anywhere where there were 45 independent libraries."
Even within local government-laden Pennsylvania, Allegheny County has the most independent libraries, she said.
Ms. Cooper believes that because there are so many, the level of cooperation between them is one of the county's greatest strengths.
"If you live in the North Hills and you want a book that happens to be on the shelf here in Oakland, you can request it and pick it up there," she said. "The level of cooperation really helps boost the quality of life."
— Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.
First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM