Report Details ROI on 14 Years of Citywide Library Improvement

When the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) completed its recent 14-year Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), the city Controller’s Office released an impact study detailing the economic benefits and returns on investment that the program stimulated throughout the city. The 68-page report, “Reinvesting and Renewing for the 21st Century: A Community and Economic Benefits Study of San Francisco’s Branch Library Improvement Program,” revealed that for every dollar invested in BLIP, San Francisco realized a return of between $5.19 and $9.11.
ReinvestingRenewingWhen the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) completed its recent 14-year Branch Library Improvement Program (BLIP), the city Controller’s Office released an impact study detailing the economic benefits and returns on investment that the program stimulated throughout the city. The 68-page report, “Reinvesting and Renewing for the 21st Century: A Community and Economic Benefits Study of San Francisco’s Branch Library Improvement Program,” revealed that for every dollar invested in BLIP, San Francisco realized a return of between $5.19 and $9.11. In addition, branch libraries were able to enlarge their collections, improve technology resources, increase community meeting space, and expand service across the community through partnerships and programs. The study also found that capital investments and additional operating spending associated with the program contributed more than $330 million in indirect and induced (secondary and tertiary) benefits to the city’s economy. Each year the Controller’s Office Performance and Audit Unit undertakes studies of various city departments in order to measure citywide services and investments. Once construction on all branches was complete, SFPL suggested that the office perform an economic benefit assessment and analysis of BLIP. “We’ve always been curious about the value of our investment, because it was the largest capital improvement program in the history of the library,” explained city librarian and LJ 2012 Librarian of the Year Luis Herrera. “We wanted the controller’s office to really study it, to give us a different perspective and objective evaluation.” Herrera, along with SFPL deputy city librarian Michael Lambert, chief of community programs and partnerships Michelle Jeffers, CFO Maureen Singleton, and chief of facilities Robert Lombardi, worked closely with the Controller’s Office and BERK Consulting, a Seattle-based planning and consulting agency, to gather data and speak with city leaders, library staff, and community residents. The study analyzed four specific measures of community benefit: collection expansion, technology resource improvement, an increase in community meeting space, and service expansion via community partnerships and programs, as well as an economic benefits analysis, 25 stakeholder interviews, and reviews of the literature about BLIP, including the two bond measures that funded the program. All possible metrics, from the construction costs to library service assessment, were taken in to consideration.


Launched in 2001, BLIP is the largest building campaign in SFPL history. The program, a partnership between SFPL, the San Francisco Department of Public Works, and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, resulted in the construction or renovation of 24 of SFPL’s 27 neighborhood libraries. Under the program 16 historic branches were renovated; four leased facilities were replaced by city-owned buildings; three branches were replaced with new buildings; and the system’s first new branch in 40 years, the Mission Bay Branch, was constructed. San Francisco voters’ historical support of their library system was the driving force that made BLIP possible. Proposition A, a $109.5 million bond measure passed in 1988, funded the construction of a new Main Library, which opened in 1996. In 1994 Proposition E, the Library Preservation Fund, dedicated a percentage of city funds to SFPL for 15 years, providing for improvements to the Chinatown Branch in 1996 and the Mission Branch in 1999, as well as the construction of the Ocean View Branch in 2000. Aside from these four projects, however, by the turn of the last century the system’s infrastructure was in disrepair. Several branches faced closure because of noncompliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and seismic safety needs. A second significant measure, the $105.9 million Branch Library Improvement Bond, was passed in November 2000, supplemented by Proposition D in 2007, which extended the Library Preservation Fund for an additional 15 years and allowed the city to issue revenue bonds for branch improvements. Funds for furniture, fixtures, and equipment were raised by the Friends.


With nearly $200 million to work with, BLIP sought to bring all of the system’s branches into seismic and ADA compliance, replace leased facilities with city-owned buildings, upgrade all buildings to meet 21st century needs, and build a new system-wide support service center for SFPL’s collections and branch operations. A rigorous schedule was drawn up jointly by the Department of Public Works—which would administer the construction—Herrera, and key library staff. Construction on the first BLIP project, the renovation of the then-35-year-old Excelsior Branch, kicked off in 2002. The final installment, the North Beach Branch modernization, was completed in May 2014.


The team met weekly, and initiated a series of meetings within various neighborhoods to solicit community input on the design and construction of each new or renovated branch. Wherever possible, local contractors were hired to work on their neighborhood branches. Despite strenuous planning, the entire project exceeded both its timeline and original budget. In September 2007 an audit by the Controller’s Office revealed project delays of 20 months per site on average, but by November 2010 management recommendations had brought the project workflow back on track. However, it was worth the wait: since completion, its reception has been unanimously positive. Eight of the branches achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold status, and two were rated as LEED Silver. Additionally, the program exceeded minimum requirements for Local Business Enterprises to ensure the hiring neighborhood residents. “One of the things that we’ve learned more and more is how important it was to engage the community,” said Herrera. “This project seemed like it took a long time, but what we heard after the completion of the program is that people really own each of their neighborhood branches, and they feel so proud of the fact that they were listened to. They felt heard in the process.” Herrera added, “At many times we actually took time outs and…made revisions and modifications because we would go back to the community and they weren’t happy about a particular feature, or they wanted more time to mull over and vet some recommendations. Each neighborhood branch was different in its dynamic, but at the end of the day engaging with those communities really paid off. You cannot put a price tag on the visibility and the marketing effectiveness of this entire program.” The Visitacion Valley Branch, for instance, was located in a small, leased building in an isolated and underserved neighborhood in southern San Francisco. “You don’t have a lot of community centers, you don’t have a lot of agencies,” explained former branch manager Alice Chan, now district manager for SFPL’s Southeast district. Students at the two local schools had nowhere beside the local Boys and Girls Club to go after school hours, and at less than 1,000 square feet, the small storefront library’s space severely limited its programming. The new branch, located a few blocks from its former location, is spacious and inviting, with space for up to 70 children at storytime. Visitacion Valley has partnered with the local Jump Start, APA Family Support Services, and the Boys and Girls Club, among others, and sends its bookmobile to nearby affordable housing and the Samoan Community Development Center. Local grassroots organizations use the community room to meet regularly. Community members “finally have a place that they can call their own,” Chan told LJ. “They feel really safe. It’s a very neighborhood-oriented place. We all know each other.” She added, “A lot of people are asking how long the building has been there, because it fits the neighborhood beautifully.”


The report, which looked to the Aspen Institute’s 2014 “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries” as a model for framing the work of creating community-centered 21st-century libraries, took some nine months to produce. When the team hit the neighborhoods to talk to stakeholders about their new libraries, said Herrera, “There was such interest…that [team members] kept coming back and saying, ‘We need more time because you need to talk to this merchant, or you need to talk to an elected official, or you need to talk to a school district person.’ So we found that even though we had given them what we thought was a pretty comprehensive list, it took a little longer [than predicted] to do the stakeholder interviews.” “Reinvesting and Renewing” was released by the Mayor’s and controller’s offices as a public press release, and several days later was the subject of a public library commission hearing, as well as dissemination through the Urban Libraries Council and the American Library Association. The report “is going to have legs” as a vehicle for advocacy, Herrera believes. “We really think it’s a tool that folks are going to take interest in if they’re looking at potential capital projects in their own communities,” he told LJ. “For example, last week our deputy city librarian was in Stockton [CA], where they’re very interested in galvanizing the community to have greater visibility and support for their library system. He spoke about the Return on Investment study and there was great interest on that front.”


While BLIP itself was broad in scope, Herrera feels that the report holds inspiration for library systems of any size. “Any city or county, any jurisdiction could use [it] as a framework,” he suggested, particularly “the importance of partnerships, because each group will have a different skill set that the library management team, for example, may not necessarily have in its entirety. In our case the Friends were able to leverage their advocacy, their fundraising skills, for the benefit of the capital program, and then the Public Works Department did the construction management.” Herrera also plans to use the findings going forward within SFPL. “We’re already building into our budget ongoing post-occupancy investments,” he told LJ, “which means we want to make sure we maintain these buildings. We want to see that five or ten years down the road our investments paid off because we continued to put money into the upkeep and maintenance. So the commission understands that and owns that commitment to continue to invest monies in our neighborhood branches…. I think that’s been a success. They want to see these things sustained and maintained." In addition, Herrera said, “we’re now looking at three branches that were not part of this overall package that we’re thinking of [as] significant investments in the next three to five years…. I think this sets the stage for support, financial and otherwise.”
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