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How Many Branches Does The City Library Need?

Laurence D. Cohen

October 06, 2008

At least for the moment, the angst and agony of the Hartford Public Library branches appears to be over.

After much hand wringing and impassioned press conferences and marching in the streets by the organization, Little Hartford Kids for Library Justice, the city and the state and the library bureaucrats came up with a plan to rescue two local branches from being padlocked.

But like so much of this local street theater played out on local stages (don’t close the senior center; don’t close Firehouse No. 1; don’t build a nuclear power plant on the Little League baseball field), the final act doesn’t really bring the show to a satisfactory conclusion.

Left unanswered in the Hartford melodrama, for example, is how many branches of the public library does this city of 125,000 actually need? Or, more to the point, what is the optimal number of library branches for a former factory town that doesn’t have any factories?

Along with the central library downtown, the city seems to have about nine branches scattered hither and yon. Is it written in the Bible that nine is the right number?

If nine seem wonderful, why not 15? Or, if the number were reduced to six — and the six were funded to provide reading tutors, drug counselors and folk singers strumming acoustic guitars — would that be best of all?

Nothing’s Free

Mediocre cities tend to view such stuff as libraries as important to their grown-up, culture-rich façade — and they may be right. Neighborhoods — especially marginal neighborhoods — tend to appreciate cultural accoutrements as key to tricking newcomers to move in and fire up the ol’ barbeque grill.

But at the end of the day, there is little in municipal governance that suggests, yet along demands, that hard-nosed auditors with one eye in the middle of their foreheads actually examine the provision of public goods to decide how much and how many are optimal — or even sensible.

At birth, we have computer chips implanted in our brains by community activists affiliated with Barack Obama, so we are programmed to believe that public goods are somehow “free,” and thus available in limitless supply, if the cause is just and the threat is one child stranded more than two blocks from a library branch.

There is a somewhat arcane tool of economics intended to help mere mortals deal with the question of valuation for public goods, among other things. Raise a glass in honor of “contingent valuation,” which sort of asks the question, how much would you be willing to pay for “x,” if x was for sale and the only way you could get it is to cough up some cash?

So, if the only way you could access the Mark Twain branch of the Hartford Public Library was to buy a ticket, how much would you be willing to pay? If we can determine a market price — and we can get the idea out of people’s heads that libraries are “free” — then we could begin to do some analysis about the importance of any particular library branch.

In colonial America, subscription fees were often charged to borrow library books — an idea championed by Benjamin Franklin, for one. European book dealers rented books to patrons in the 18th century. For an interesting history of the book-borrowing business, buy or rent or lease or borrow a copy of Fred Lerner’s book, “Libraries Through the Ages.”

So, how much would you be willing to pay to read a Cohen column? It’s only a theoretical question. Be kind.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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