Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Where are the libraries? Where are the bookstores?

I haven’t blogged about LibraryThing Local here, on Thingology. So, for the benefit of those who don’t read the main blog, LibraryThing Local is a new sub-site devoted to finding, mapping and describing the world’s bookstore, library, book fair and festival—as well as all the readings, signings, lectures and other events they host. Open to all for three days now, LibraryThing Local just hit 10,000 venues—all user-contributed.

As it grows, LibraryThing Local is geting more interesting. Below are some interesting visualizations of where the world’s cities have bookstores (green dots), versus where they have libraries (blue dots).

Cambridge, MA Dublin, Ireland
Sydney, Australia Chicago, IL
Toronto, Canada Houston, TX
Minneapolis, MN Los Angeles, CA*

Although none of the maps—with the possible exception of Cambridge—are complete, and not all the libraries are public, the pattern is clear: Bookstores cluster together in the high-traffic center; public library branches spread out into the outlying areas and are separated from each other evenly like identically-polarized magnets.

I don’t think this basic fact will come as a surprise to many, but it’s striking even so. It’s worth thinking about why these two institutions—so different but also sharing much—are positioned so differently in space.

I think the easiest explanation is the difference between economics and politics. Economics favors businesses that can create the most amount of happiness—which is to say revenue— whether or not this makes access difficult for some people. Representative politics favors solutions that give all citizens good or equal access to the resource, even if the resultant distribution is inefficient in economic terms.

So, bookstores go where they’re going to survive and grow. High-traffic areas are best for that, and competition isn’t necessarily damaging and may even be good.** By contrast, library branches are never clustered together, which would seem inefficient. And towns position branches, either directly or through a process grounded in neighborhood representation, to ensure that no area is left out.

That’s my take. There are, I’m sure, other good explanations. Here are some:

  • Google Maps dots are all the same size, but a city’s main library is generally far larger than any branch library, and far larger, compared to a branch library, than city bookstores are to peripheral bookstores. If a city’s main library were broken into bookstore-sized chunks, libraries would seem to cluster indeed!
  • Libraries focus more on services to families, which naturally sends them where the families are.
  • Libraries are often positioned near schools, which show a similar regional distribution.
  • LibraryThing Local probably underestimates peripheral bookstores. Library branches are generally easy to find, but you need to know where a bookstore is to find it. You’re more likely to know the big downtown bookstores.

Food for thought?

*Los Angeles is the anti-case. It’s so spread-out that the bookstores have nowhere to cluster.
**Take Ann Arbor‘s Shaman Drum, an independent, the national flagship Borders, and the excellent used bookstore Dawn Treader are arrayed in a tidy row.

Labels: city planning, economics, librarything local, politics, visualizations

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

“I just get sleepy when I read”

CNN has details on a somewhat depressing survey of American reading habits. I’d be more depressed, but reading has never been anything but a minority pastime.

The blogosphere is buzzing over quotes by Pat Schroeder, the president of the American Association of Publishers and a former Democratic house member from Colorado. According to Schroeder:

“The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple slogans: ‘No, don’t raise my taxes, no new taxes.’ It’s pretty hard to write a book saying, ‘No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes’ on every page.'”

I find the argument unnecessarily partisan. The statistics hardly support the weight:

“Among those who had read at least one book, liberals typically read nine books in the year, with half reading more than that and half less. Conservatives typically read eight, moderates five.”

That’s not much of a difference, I think, and the real villains are the ones in the squishy middle. And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, it’s distressing to find the titular head of American publishing dismissing eight out of 22 readers.

It seems to me the numbers support a rather different conclusion, that most Americans have political opinions untested by serious reading. To me, that’s a little scary. But does it matter? If democracy really required a reading electorate, Iceland would be the only functioning one.

One of our greatest strengths is the degree to which LibraryThing crosses political and social boundaries. There are, of course, political groups, two of the largest being Political Conservatives and Progressive & Liberal!. But, members mostly get along, either because the community here is welcoming and we prohibit ad hominems or because book lovers share something as powerful as a political orientation.

Then again, maybe it’s because our book-based social system tends to keep opposites away from each other…

Labels: politics, polls, reading