The town library, of which 220 exist throughout the state of New Hampshire, has been and continues to be a central and important feature of towns, in many, almost from their inception. The question is, why?
Town Infrastructure in Two Forms
For many individuals who when thinking about a village, town, city, or a large metropolis, think first, not unsurprisingly, about structures – the buildings, the sidewalks, the streets, the bridges – the so-called “bricks and mortar”. Those items, in one way or another, play crucial roles in how we acquire our basic needs of clothing, food, and shelter. Undergirding these structures is what is called the physical infrastructure. The water supply, waste removal systems, electricity, communications, a form of governance, laws, and courts—numerous structures whose presence and function allow communities to form and exist. All of these things are what town budgets and town governing bodies spend their time constructing and managing.
Less recognized and spoken of and, at times, seemingly less valued are the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact with each other—what sociologists refer to as the “social infrastructure”. This aspect of community existence has more recently been studied in the context of community disasters such as heat waves, floods, hurricanes, mass casualty events, and the opioid crisis by experts from various disciplines. Eric Klinenberg PhD was in the process of acquiring his sociology degree when a week-long 106 degree F heat wave settled over Chicago in the summer of 1995. He wrote his doctoral thesis and subsequently a book called “Heat Wave” to present his research on the 739 deaths that occurred during that week.
Critical Importance of a Town’s Social Infrastructure
Klinenberg did detailed comparisons of Chicago neighborhoods where demographics were essentially the same (some wealthy and some ghetto-like) but death rates during the heat wave differed by as much as tenfold. His research led him to conclude that neighborhoods that offered safe, open-to-all, and free spaces like community centers, churches and libraries conferred a resilience and survival advantage to its residents. This conclusion has been confirmed by other researchers and written about in such books as “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam. Klinenberg’s 2018 book “Palaces for the People” gathers much of this data together with a singular focus on the crucial role the public library plays in ensuring a neighborhood or community has an inclusive, respectful, safe, welcoming, and free-to-all space where learning, inquiry, help on multiple fronts and community connections can occur.
In our town when we meet to consider our town budget, only a small amount of our attention is focused on the needs of the library to have:
- adequate space for its staff to function appropriately,
- appropriate access to the library collection for patrons of all ages,
- adequate space for new books to come in without existing books needing to be removed,
- appropriate space for young folks to be able to meet for group study projects,
- adequate space for groups in the community to meet with a shared interest, or
- for programming that would allow for greater participation from the community.
It is from a shared recognition by library experts and sociologists who study social infrastructure that standards for space in a public library have been developed.
The Size of the Barrington Public Library and Social Infrastructure
As in the “Backstory…” section on the development of the 2019 and 2020 library warrants for Barrington, those standards as well as the enormous amount of research and study by library Trustees, the Library Building Committee, the Library Foundation, SMP Architects, and numerous Barrington residents have led to the recommendation that for Barrington to have an adequate – not luxurious – 21st century public library, the size of the new library should be at least 13,900 square feet. And to be clear, that recommendation is for our current population.
Library Staff Workload and Library Space & Function (see graphic at the end)
The important point is that the workload of the current library staff in the 3740 square feet of space that exists is about 3 times greater than that which exists in other NH libraries in towns similar in size to that of Barrington. Workload can be defined in different ways. In the graphic below, two metrics are used from the NH.gov state library database: the annual total collection items and the total electronic content use, each requiring staff time and attention to maintain and manage. These metrics suggest that our library staff is overworked. It is not a stretch to imagine this workload might interfere with the use of our library by members of our community. Use of a nearby public library, for example, Durham, costs $75 annually for a non-resident of Durham, but the people that one meets there will not likely be from our community.
Social Infrastructure and Taxation
Finally, there are Barrington residents who have and never will use the library. Likely, their children and grandchildren may never use the library. Why should they have to suffer the increment in the town’s tax rate for the years of the life of a bond that pays for a new library? The answer is at least twofold.
First, Barrington residents choose to live in a community (as have most humans for millennia). There are distinct advantages to communal life – we support each other in good times and bad; social connectedness improves mental and physical health; family histories become interwoven over generations; communities attract providers of goods and services who, in turn, provide convenient access to members. Together the taxes collected in a community from each member contribute to a better life for all members.
Second, carving out the elements in town for individual support through their taxes is untenable, just as is taxing in proportion to one’s use of, for example, a bridge in town. Community taxation has been and will continue to be part of an implicit contract one makes when choosing to join a community.
Research from diverse groups of experts has provided strong and thorough support for the crucial role of the public library in the health, resilience, vibrancy, and welfare of neighborhoods and communities. The need for a town library able to provide its citizens with books, information, tech support, space that is adequate for the appropriate function of a 21st century public library is recognized and accepted by all growing and forward looking communities around New Hampshire and the entire USA.
Barrington should not and deserves not to be left behind!
Graphic: Comparison of NH towns of similar size, valuations, tax rate and median household income. Workload metric is the respective library patron’s annual use of library’s Total Collection Physical Collection and the Electronic Content use. An addition comparison using 2019 data (because of the impact of COVID restrictions on 2021 data) shows that the total number of library visits for the BPL was 45,469 versus the average of the 5 comparator libraries of 37,118.
Barrington Public Library, Barrington, NH
|Metric||Barrington||Five Town Average|
|Library Size||3,740 Square Feet||9,850 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||9,270||8,924|
|Municipal Valuation||$1.364 Billion||$1.060 Billion|
|Median Household Income||$98,275||$96,494|
|Total Annual Collection Use||76,931||36,468|
|Total Annual Electronic Content Use||31,910||14,656|
Hampstead Public Library, Hampstead, NH
|Library Size||15,000 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||8,948|
|Municipal Valuation||$1.326 Billion|
|Median Household Income||$88,250|
|Total annual collection use||76,931|
|Total annual electronic content use||33,201|
Litchfield Public Library, Litchfield, NH
|Library Size||12,515 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||8,467|
|Municipal Valuation||$1.147 Billion|
|Median Household Income||$112,380|
|Total annual collection use||24,860|
|Total annual electronic content use||12,028|
Weare Public Library, Weare, NH
|Library Size||5,536 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||9,072|
|Municipal Valuation||$1.227 Billion|
|Median Household Income||$90,024|
|Total annual collection use||34,673|
|Total annual electronic content use||9,963|
Newmarket Public Library, Newmarket, NH
|Library Size||7,450 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||9,365|
|Municipal Valuation||$981 Million|
|Median Household Income||$76,737|
|Total annual collection use||28,491|
|Total annual electronic content use||14,864|
Franklin Public Library, Franklin, NH
|Library Size||8,750 Square Feet|
|2021 Town Population||8,766|
|Municipal Valuation||$620 Million|
|Median Household Income||$57,092|
|Total annual collection use||21,688|
|Total annual electronic content use||3,225|