In September I drove over 2,250 miles around Maine, Massachusetts, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (in an economical compact car) . It was part of my Churchill Fellowship travels. I think its fair to say I saw a lot of small towns along the NE Coast of the USA and Canada.
One thing that struck me was; no matter how remote, how small, how ramshackle and ‘clinging to existence’ (in some cases) the town, they all seemed to have something; a Post Office, a Library and a Volunteer Fire Department. Quite often they had all three.
If you consider a Post Office, Library and Fire Department to be; a measure of civilisation, fundamental public services (things that are provided for public good), a ‘cornerstone of the community’, the people of Maine in particular seem to be doing something right.
One of the people I met on my travels mentioned the perceived abundant provision of Public Services in “the Socialist Utopia of Europe” (his words). This did make me smile. I’ve travelled around a fair bit of the ‘Socialist Utopia of Europe’, mostly on a bicycle, and a know the UK quite well (particularly Wales). Having a Post Office, Library and Fire Station in every small town isn’t something I feel familiar with – which is probably why the Maine situation drew my attention. It certainly don’t think I see; a Post Office, Library and Fire Station in every village and small town in rural Wales.
Is this just personal bias and skewed perception? What’s the evidence? Sorry to trouble you with numbers, but here’s what I’ve managed to extract from ‘official’ and not so official sources. I’ve compared Maine with Wales here, because I spent most of my Fellowship time travelling around Maine and I want to talk about the Orr’s and Bailey Island community and their Fire Department in the next post.
Maine v Wales, does size matter? Maine is much bigger (x4.4) than Wales, with far fewer (42%) people than Wales, mostly concentrated on the coast. The biggest concentrations of people live in the vicinity of Portland and Bangor. It’s pretty rural and sparsely populated for everyone else. This website, ‘Maine Cities by population’ gives you the details if you want it.
Libraries Wales v Libraries Maine. The most useful source of information and data I found about libraries in Wales was this article by BBC Journalist Lucy Ballinger: ‘what next for libraries as scores are shut and out-sourced’. There’s even a graphic – see below – which helpfully highlights the numbers – it was 277 in early 2017.
You wouldn’t believe how much I struggled to quickly find that number from ‘official’ sources and various reports and ‘inquiries’, thank you Lucy (there’s a lesson in there somewhere).
Getting information about libraries in the USA is fairly straightforward. Have a look a the Institute of Museum and Libraries website (link here). If you want some data specific to Maine, The Public Libraries Survey, Fiscal Year 2016, Supplementary Tables report (link here) is the place to go.
I can tell you that Maine has 227 Public Libraries (compared to 277 in Wales). What is really interesting though, is the fact that 11% (approximately 25 libraries) served a population of under 1,000 people!
29.1% (approximately 66 libraries) served a population between 1,000 and 2,499 people and 25.6% (approximately 58 libraries) served a population between 2,500 and 4,999 people). Maybe my perception that every small rural town had a library was fairly close to the reality?
Post Offices in Maine v Wales. I’m not going to dwell on this one. There are apparently 439 Post Offices in Maine according DowntownME a search website for businesses in Maine (link here). So, if I thought saw a lot of Public Libraries in Maine (227), there were almost twice as many (439) Post Offices!
What surprised me more was the figure of 906 Post Offices in Wales, according to this August 2018, House of Commons research briefing on Post Offices numbers in the UK (Welsh figures on page 10). As they they seem to be mostly hidden at the back of the local SPAR store, I guess I just haven’t spotted them on my travels.
Volunteer Fire Departments (VFD) Maine v ‘Professional’ Fire and Rescue Services in Wales. This is a tricky one for me. I got mildly roasted by a ‘professional’ (retired) fire fighter friend for daring to compare the fully-time professional fire fighters in the UK to the Volunteer Fire Departments in the US. So I’ll tread carefully…
According to the U.S. Fire Administration website, National Fire Department Registry quick facts (link here), you can quickly work out that Maine has a total of 337 registered fire departments. 94% of these are Volunteer or Mostly Volunteer so I think it would be reasonable to work on a figure of approximately 316 Volunteer Fire Departments (VFD’s) in Maine. That’s more than the Libraries (227), and less than the Post Offices (439); but it’s still a lot of VFD’s
By compassion, I think Wales has 153 Fire and Rescue Stations, according in Welsh Government figures (link here).
So, based on 227 Public Libraries, 439 Post Offices and 316 VFD’s, my perception that almost every small town in Maine has one (or all 3), is a reasonable view of the world of Maine.
Compared to the “Socialist Utopia of Europe”, and Wales in particular, we might not be so blessed with public services as my new friend from Maine had perceived. This is particularly true if you look at it from the ‘per head of population’ perspective
Maine isn’t Wales and the huge distances and sparse population make any comparison with places like Wales unrealistic. However, there is something I want to focus on in the next post – the role the Post Office, Library and particularly the Voluntary Fire Department play in creating and maintaining a sense of community.
In the case of the VFD, the clue is in the name, ‘Volunteer’. There was a lot of conversation at the Wales Audit Office event on Community Resilience last week (#WAOResilient18) about this. The idea that ‘communities that look after themselves’ are more resilient was a strong theme. Maybe the motto of the Orr’s and Bailey Island VFD, “Neighbors Helping Neighbors”* has plenty in it that we can learn from. More of that in the next post.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Comparisons between Maine and Wales are pointless, and I shouldn’t do it. However…
- Per person, Maine has more Libraries and Volunteer Fire Stations than Wales.
- Great communities are about more than just the ‘assets’. How people use them is probably more important – more on that in my next post.
*For the grammar and spelling pedants, yes I can spell neighbour. I was quoting directly from the Orr’s and Bailey Island Fire Department website.