Economic Geography

This is neat. Contrast the location of libraries (blue) against the location of bookstores (green).

Chicago Los Angeles

Tim Spalding, Librarything head honcho, suggests:

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.

I agree with his comments about the economic incentives. You can look at those maps and tell where people like to buy books by looking at the location of the green dots. Those bookstores have an incentive to be located exactly where people will buy the most books.

His comment about political incentives, I’m not so sure about. To maximize access, you’d think the libraries would be concentrated with the population. There would be more libraries were there’s more people. I suspect, by looking at various other cities, this isn’t what’s happening. Doesn’t it seem like the libraries are too uniformly spread over the geography given the population probably aren’t?

Of course, maybe I should be looking at books per person (normalized by some distance) rather than library buildings per person. It could be that it maximizes access by having buildings evenly spaced, but bigger buildings (with more books) where there’s more people.

In any case, I don’t think you can look at those maps and conclude access is being optimized.