Why Libraries Still Exist

Over the weekend, I was on my phone, and in my news feed an article popped up because it was about libraries. It was this Forbes piece (links to the article through the WayBack Machine) by Panos Mourdoukoutas, who is a professor and chair of the Economics department at Long Island University, who also lectures at Columbia University occasionally (at least according to his bio on Forbes).

The piece is entitled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” After I started writing this post, the piece was pulled from Forbes, but these ideas still exist out there, so I’m going to continue with this post.

The article argued that “Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.”

Mourdoukoutas said that libraries aren’t free, because we pay taxes for them, and that their value as a place to host community events no longer exists. He believes Netflix and other streaming services have replaced the need for video rental services, like borrowing DVDs from the library. He also argued that Starbucks and other “third places” take over the role libraries have as a community space, where people can go online, meet up with friends, and enjoy a drink.

This isn’t everything he said, but I want to provide a counterpoint to a lot of what he wrote above, as many of these ideas have been floating around for a while.

Return on Investment for Libraries is Really Good

Libraries are technically not free. We do have to pay taxes to support them, and it does vary by town how much that costs and how much your return on investment is. a researcher at the Tax Policy Center says if all public library “funding were to be divided up among Americans, each person would get $36 back (Ha, 2018).” In addition, the Bureau of Business Research IC2 Institute at the University of Texas at Austin recently did a study of Texas public libraries and found that for every dollar invested in Texas Public Libraries, the communities saw on average a return of $4.64 back. That means you get nearly five times the money you put in back, in services. That is a pretty good return on investment.

Bookstores and Amazon are not free either, and typically cost more than the monthly value of the taxes you pay towards your library, and you don’t get any return on your investment. Here are just a few things you can do at a library at no additional cost, which add up to more than the amount you’re paying in taxes:

    1. Each book, ebook and audiobook costs money to purchase, and if you’re someone who likes to read, or go to a book club, that means you’re buying all of those items. This also means if you have children that you have to buy all of that stuff for them too, as schools encourage children to read in their spare time
    2. I can stream movies, TV shows, and music using Hoopla and other downloadable media apps that my library subscribes to
    3. I can borrow a museum pass from my library and not have to pay the cost of entrance to many museums in my area
    4. I can get research articles at no additional cost delivered by email to me
    5. I personally have Mango languages through my library, and I’m using it to learn Hindi, something that would be about $200 annually to subscribe

 

Events still happen at the library

Libraries frequently offer classes to help people learning English, or learn how to use computers or certain software. They have movie nights for teens, and story time for kids with entertainment that is age appropriate. They have authors come and talk about their books, and even can include cooking classes and resume help sessions of job seekers.

Streaming isn’t everything

Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services have not replaced checking out DVDs from the library or the ability to stream movies and TV on Hoopla and other applications. First of all, there is a limited selection available on each of these services, as with the library. Amazon probably has the largest selection, but you frequently have to pay extra for it.

I recently borrowed a bunch of DVDs for a movie night with a friend, so that we could choose what to watch in the moment. We started watching one movie and decided we didn’t like it, so we switched to another, and we didn’t have to pay to rent the movie on Amazon when we switched, because I loaned it from the library. Also, I should remind you of the rising cost of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Amazon prime is $8.25 a month, Netflix is at least $10.99 a month and Hulu is another $8 a month, at least. My point here is that not everyone has that kind of money to spend monthly on entertainment.

Starbucks isn’t for everyone

First of all let us not forget forget the recent news about Starbucks employees calling the cops on black men who were waiting for a friend without ordering. Starbucks isn’t a safe place for everyone, especially if you aren’t interested in purchasing anything. Mourdoukoutas also ignores one other important thing: not everyone has a computer or device on which they can access the internet with them or at home. Some people have to go to the library to use a computer, and computers aren’t cheap. Lastly, buying a drink can be done at many libraries, since many libraries have partnered up with some café or other coffee chain.

Libraries are especially important for marginalized Americans

“On Twitter, Mourdoukoutas wrote, “Let me clarify something. Local libraries aren’t free. Home owners must pay a local library tax. My bill is $495/year.” Writer Kashana Cauley responded to Mourdoukoutas in a tweet… “Let me clarify something. I don’t want poor and working class people to read books (Ha, 2018).”

Several of my points above touch on this, but I want to explicitly address this. Having these services available at no additional cost, is incredibly helpful for people who can’t afford to buy book, or DVDs, or don’t own a computer. Having a place to go to where that is available, and you don’t have to choose between which items you can afford this month, is beneficial to everyone, but especially those who are barely getting by. Libraries also have ESL classes, which is great if you’re new to the country and your English isn’t great. If you’re unemployed and trying to find a job, you can go to the library for resume assistance. If you’re older and don’t know how to use a computer, there are classes you can take to get better acquainted with them, as this gentleman did at my library.

Conclusion

I could go on and on about the many ways Mourdoukoutas, and people who believe similarly are wrong, but I won’t in the interest of keeping this post short and digestible. In short, your public library is an organization dedicated to getting you information at no additional cost to you (that includes shipping). You can do all of the things in a library that you could in a bookstore, except purchase a new item. There are plenty of other things you can do at a library that you cannot do at bookstore as well. Generally speaking, those who believe libraries are too expensive, are typically people who haven’t been in one in a long time, and they don’t have to worry about how much money they are spending on all of those books they’re ordering on Amazon.

References:

  1. Bureau of Business Research · IC² Institute · The University of Texas at Austin. (2017, February 2). Texas Public Libraries: Economic Benefits and Return on Investment  . Retrieved July 24, 2018, from https://www.tsl.texas.gov/roi
  2. Ha, T. (2018, July 23). Forbes deleted a deeply misinformed op-ed arguing Amazon should replace libraries. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from https://qz.com/1334123/forbes-deleted-an-op-ed-arguing-that-amazon-should-replace-libraries/
  3. Mourdoukoutas, P. (2018, July 21). Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money. Retrieved July 23, 2018, from https://web.archive.org/web/20180722235852/https://www.forbes.com/sites/panosmourdoukoutas/2018/07/21/amazon-should-replace-local-libraries-to-save-taxpayers-money/
    This URL is provided by the WayBack Machine, powered by Archive.org

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dhrutikaribhagat

I am a librarian who works on many different parts of librarianship in many different roles.

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