Trentonians want more libraries than they deserve

We Trentonians apparently have the notion that we’re entitled to services far beyond both our means and our needs.

In 2006, many Trentonians and their politicians were in an uproar as Capital Health Systems planned to close one of their two hospitals in town. We were upset even though Trenton has a far higher ratio of hospital beds to people than the rest of NJ and the nation. Even with just two hospitals, our average is higher. Though there will be no shortage of hospital facilities, it was just the appearance of losing the entitlement to more than its fair share of services that ticked off Trentonians.

Here we are again.

Trenton has five library branches compared to one in Hamilton, one in the Princetons and six that serve the rest of Mercer County.

As the table below shows, Trenton’s population is served at almost twice the level as Mercer County. No wonder there’s no strong move to combine with the Mercer County system, they would probably close two branches just to equalize the population served.

Trenton Princeton Burrough & Township Hamilton Rest of Mercer Co. Total Mercer Co.
Population* 83,923 32,000 90,000 161,682 367,605
Library Branches 5 1 1 6 13
Population / branch 16,785 32,000 90,000 26,947 28,277
* Source: Estimates based on US Census 2000 andACS 2006

It seems pretty darn greedy to demand such a far flung library system in such a small city with such a low population.

Let’s be practical and do what’s affordable and right for Trenton.

We have the lowest per capita income of any town in Mercer County and really can’t afford to operate most of our municipal services including the library. In fact, the state heavily subsidizes our entire municipal budget, so we’re not really paying full fare on the libraries we have. We should be happy to pay the county to take over and have them rebalance the resources.  We might have to limp along on only three libraries that we don’t really pay for.

For both hospitals and libraries, it’s potentially better to have fewer but stronger facilities.

Anyway, beggars can’t be choosers.

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11 Responses to “Trentonians want more libraries than they deserve”

  • Kevin Hogan:

    I for one would be happy for the county to take over. I do believe though the branches are essential for city residents who don’t have cars.

  • Algie:

    Dan I don’t what I’m going to do with you. First it was the Cowboys. Then you think we don’t deserve hospitals or libraries. Now you say our tradionally underserved community has too much. May I suggest that you display a interesting opinion of us. In another mood, I would have a more blunt characterization but I’ve decided to chill for today. You clearly illustrate why economists shouldn’t make public policy.

  • Algie:

    If you lived around here longer than 15 minutes you would know that all of the libraries in the townships are large modern facilities any one of which just in terms of square footage could probably fit all 5 of Trenton’s libraries inside. Trenton’s 4 “branch” libraries are mere book collections in suburban terms. As for Trenton’s so called “Main” library, there’s no comparison even to the libraries of Trenton State, Mercer County or Rider colleges. For instance the 5 story Princeton Public Library (with a Latte’ Bar)is just one of several libraries within a mile of each other if you include those associated with PU. The point is, the raw number count divided by the population does not begin to tell the story of access to academic resources or the quality of those resources that are available to those populations. Nor does it take into account the obvious disparities in the socio/economic status of various populations within Mercer County. What troubles me most about your assessment of the situation is that you invariably blame the victim for their condition, when their condition is the result of a long history of segregation and systemic racism. Either you do not know or choose to ignore generations of discriminatory public policies that exploited the resources of the urban areas to “gold plate” suburban schools, libraries etc. This is well documented, in fact, this scurilous pratice is the basis for the Abbott v Burke decision which has prevailed through 11 appeals in the NJ Supreme Court. Gov. Corzine has filed a 12th which is being litigated as we speak, so I’m not talking about the distant past. But then, this is the old argument after all. There are many who remain in denial and would rather believe that the obvious socio/economic disparities are the result of individual failings and the proportion of melanin in ones skin, than institutional racist practices. If the courts and the federal government after years of study have determined that Trenton and communities like her have been “tradionally under-served”, maybe you can cut us some slack and stop advancing the notion that it’s our own fault.
    Keep the libraries open, we kinda’ need em’.

  • Algie,

    Perhaps you can suggest another measure for equitable distribution of libraries. Please be prepared to show your analysis.

    BTW – I do blame the victim. Trenton has a democratically elected government and has had for many years. Trentonians chose the leaders that led the city into the mess it’s in and they chose the leaders that have been unable to get us out.

    I’m to blame as well for not doing more. This is why I’m writing this blog and attempting to bring a dose of economic analysis into the public discourse.

  • patriciastewart:

    While I agree with Dan’s basic arguments (and yes, most of our problems are our fault), right now the libraries should be saved. They serve an excellent purpose. Yet, Dan makes a good point. There is the excellent county system and a super state library on West State Street. I’d love to have an independent audit of the city books.

  • Jim:


    Your analysis may be correct so far as it goes, but it is rather one dimensional.

    In your subhead, you mention that multiple libraries are beyond our means. I would submit that is not necessarily the case.

    I believe we also must look at the mismanagement of the limited resources that Trenton has.

    For example, our administration is quite top-heavy. Shouldn’t we look at cutting some of those expenses that serve no one other than the Mayor before cutting services to the citizens?

    The fleet of take home cars and the gas to fuel them is another area that needs to be looked at.

    But before we cut off the branches completely I would like to see the city make an earnest and honest effort to keep them open for another year by cutting some of the truly uneeded extras; revamp the Library management and seek outside funding to sustain and grow the system in a responsible manner.

    The notion of a central “mega-library” is rather far-fetched at this point.

    Where would it be? How would it be funded? How will people get to it?

    One of the main reasons to keep the branch libraries open is so there is adequate access for all. Trentonians as a rule are not as mobile as the residents in the suburbs. The location of the main library has limited parking and may not be as kid- or senior-friendly as it should be.

    And let me try to dispel this County take over myth once and for all (and I’ve no doubt you will turn this point around on me): library professionals have indicated there really is no interest in expanding the county system to include Trenton. The collection of materials lacks any attraction to the county system. The buildings, even the main one, are somewhat problematic because of the cost of upkeep, etc.

    In short, a merger is not going to happen. Neither is a “reciprocal” agreement.

    We need to look at the management of the library and make sure that it gets the proper support from the city and the public.

  • No one likes to close libraries and I’m sure they were bungled by the board and the admin. However, I don’t believe we’ve even explored a serious county proposal, if we have, by all means, someone please share it.

    Furthermore, before I’m called too one-dimensional (would I look thinner?). Please read my article on turning around Trenton.

    In it, I recommend the ultimate multi-dimensional approach to facing our budget and revitalization issues, portfolio management. The approach is akin to the Governor’s admonition that “if we’re to save one line item, please tell me which other line item to cut”.

  • patriciastewart:

    I’ve heard from several county types that Mercer has no interest in replacing the state, “deep pockets.” Folks out in Hopewell and the Windsors pay enough taxes and have no interest in underwriting Trenton. Part of the problem is that Trenton has a reputation of not handling money well. Sound familiar? As a city we must aim for lean and mean. PHS

  • Jim:

    Without a doubt, we need new leadership. With new leadership, we should have a new way of thinkging.

    But what I disagree with is your assertion that we are asking for a library system beyond our means and needs.

    I’m not sure that is true.

    Further, over two decades ago, the city rebuffed a (half-hearted) approach to be absorbed into the County library system. It is fact. Look it up. Mathesius was the County Executive. Whatever was published in the paper, the major roadblock was the refusal to give p local control (a huge mistake).

    Today, there is less of an intersest because the Trenton libraries have fallen further behind. The collection is not up to stadards; the buildings have issues; the “system” doesn’t allow for easy access.

    This is one of those instances where we need to appropriate funds that are adequate; have leadership that is effective; and commit to serving the “underserved.” There’s really no way around it.

  • Kevin Hogan:

    Here is a portion of letter from Mercer County freeholder Pasquale A. Colavita, Jr.

    Last night at our Freeholder Meeting we asked the Administration if they had heard from the City Council regarding the library situation. We were told that there had been earlier limited discussions regarding the status of the Trenton Libraries and the debt. However, there has only been limited contact. At this time there has been no formal request from the Council to discuss the situation of the libraries with the County Administration.

    Hopefully with people like yourself speaking up and offering constructive suggestions some positive action may be taken. Bring your ideas to the City Council’s attention. From my understanding they would have to formally approach the County Administration to open any discussion to any possible interactions.

  • Thanks for that update Kevin,

    Up until now I’ve been generally passive on the library issue. I’ve simply published some simple analysis and an “out there, option”.

    I know many of my friends in Trenton are much more active and certainly more bullish on our ability to raise money and run the library.

    I’m doubtful.

    My minimum criteria for responsible stewardship of the library is to formally consider a healthy set of options. One of those options is certainly a formal proposal from the county.

    If the admin or council can not make a formal request then they are not exercising responsible stewardship.

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