By Siobhan A. Reardon

We all know that libraries are nice to have. But as it turns out, we need to have them.

Last week, as I walked into the Pascalville Free Library branch, I saw a snapshot of the ways libraries promote literacy and learning while making a direct economic impact on our communities.

Children at the branch were reading or working on crafts as part of the Free Library's annual summer enrichment program, which engages 57,000 children in literacy activities. Studies show that if children read just six books over the summer, they will avoid the "summer slide" and begin school at grade level the following fall.

I could also see young adults at the branch searching online for jobs. This Southwest Philadelphia community has an unemployment rate of more than 12 percent, so the library has started a workplace center in its basement to help adults write resumes, learn interview techniques, develop online job-search skills, and set up e-mail accounts to inquire about job opportunities.

Forty-six percent of Philadelphians don't have an Internet connection at home. So the Free Library system, with 850 public computers and free wireless access at every one of our 54 locations, helps connect the unemployed with jobs. It's also a critical tool for students and small-business owners.

People who work in or patronize the city's library branches can tell you they know in their gut that the library is building literacy and learning and having a direct economic impact. But in these challenging times, when all institutions are being asked to prove their worth and relevance, we at the Free Library of Philadelphia have set out to give the city real, hard numbers that show the return on investment in libraries.

We've partnered with economists at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels Institute of Government to conduct an economic impact study, which we expect to complete this fall. As part of the study, we're asking all Philadelphians to go to our website and fill out a brief survey on how and why they use the library and how it affects their lives. The survey will be available until Monday, and we need the public's participation to make it as comprehensive and representative as possible.

We already have a sense of the economic benefits the Free Library delivers from a survey we conducted last year, which included 19 branches and 251 participants. Of those, 202 said they used a local library to search for jobs online, 190 to fill out a job application online, 221 to check replies from potential employers, and 104 to work on a cover letter. This speaks volumes about the libraries' role as an economic engine.

The Free Library is an important asset for the future economy of Philadelphia. In every neighborhood, we are the trusted focal point for citizens to learn, grow, and give back.

Siobhan A. Reardon is the president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia. For the survey and more information, see www.freelibrary.org.