On Saturday, an opinion piece was posted on the Forbes website advocating for the replacement of libraries with Amazon stores. The article, which has since been removed (click the link to the article and you are met with a 404 error), was written by an economist named Panos Mourdoukoutas. Mourdoukoutas is a Professor of Economics at Long Island University in New York and the author of several books pertaining to economics.
“At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees,” wrote Mourdoukoutas. “This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.”
There has been tremendous backlash against the article—however, having worked at a library for a number of years, I would like to add a few more words of my own in defense of public libraries. Here are a few reasons why public libraries are not only beneficial, but crucial to our society’s freedom and progress.
Mourdoukoutas’s conception of the public library as an outdated warehouse for books, drinking in taxpayer dollars, is the first of many issues with his argument. A public library’s primary function has, in fact, nothing to do with books. A library’s job is to provide anyone and everyone a fair and equal opportunity to gain access to information. The public library is a resource. Whether this is by providing free WiFi, renting out DVDs and CDs, hosting lectures, or subscribing to the local newspapers, providing unfettered access to information is a library’s main goal. The job of librarians is not simply to catalogue books—though books are the best (yes, better than the internet), most vital source of information we have—but to assist people in attaining the information they are looking for.
The primary goal of Amazon is to make money and put that money into the hands of its shareholders—the wealthy and the elite, those who can afford to buy whatever information they want.
While public libraries are paid for with taxpayer dollars, that money goes towards helping society in its entirety. It both grants and guarantees many people access to information which they can then use to improve their own situation, gain a better understanding of the world, and become more fulfilled.
Many public libraries also go beyond providing information—they also foster a community. The community libraries build and support is representative of all the people who live within it, not just the wealthy or the privileged. Many of those who can afford it volunteer or donate. Those who cannot afford a book, a computer, or even a place to stay can seek refuge for a few hours within libraries. They do not have to have money; there is no need to buy a coffee for the WiFi password, no salesperson hovering. Libraries are places where people can be safe and free to learn no matter what their current situation is in life.
At the library where I work, we host many events throughout the year such as summer readings, book clubs, and storytimes (which sometimes bring almost 200 people in on Friday mornings), helping kids discover the joy of reading, the magic of books, and that this experience has nothing to do with money. Nothing need be given away or traded to have access to other worlds, places, ideas, and people.
Libraries serve the interest of the people. Amazon serves the interest of a few.