There was a recent article published in Forbes where contributor Panos Mourdoukoutas asserted “Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money.” From what I can gather, the piece has since been pulled, but you can still access it via the Google cache. Mourdoukoutas says that public libraries no longer offer “the same value they used to.”

Here was my hot take at the time:

Articles like this genuinely upset me. They reek of privilege and completely overlook the value that libraries provide to the communities they serve. I go to the library with Addie at least once every week or two, a habit I intend to keep up as she gets older. I like Amazon as much as the next guy, but this is not a good idea.

From Public to Private

The premise that public libraries are no longer needed and can be easily replaced by private enterprise leads down a profoundly dangerous slippery slope. If we follow this argument, then any of the following statements could just as easily be posited:

  • We don’t need public schools, since everyone can just take online courses.
  • We don’t need buses and subways, since you can just take an Uber.
  • We don’t need affordable daycare, since you can just hire a nanny.
  • We don’t need subsidized housing, since you can just buy a house.
  • We don’t need community centers, since there are private country clubs.
  • We don’t need free public places to gather and read, because we have Starbucks.

Oh, that last one? Mourdoukoutas actually suggested that one, because Starbucks locations “provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink.” Right, because everyone can afford to buy a $5 frappuccino every time they want a “comfortable place to read” or “meet their friends.”

For the Greater Good

It is in the best interest of society at large that its members are reasonably well-educated and well-read. As John Green once said, “Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or for the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order…. I like to pay taxes for schools [because] I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”

Finding books at the library

And books play such an integral role in all of that. When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do on the weekend was to visit the public library. It’s there that I learned about dog breeds (one of my biggest obsessions at the time since we weren’t allowed to get a family dog) and laughed at MAD magazines.

It was by way of the library that I read the book that changed my life: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. If it were not for the public library, I probably would not have read that book or any other Michael Crichton book. I was only about 11 or 12 years old at the time.

Even today, visits to the library are a weekly (if not even more frequent) thing for our family. We take out several books at a time for our daughter. If we bought all those books, we’d literally be spending hundreds of dollars every month. (And we’d need to rent a storage space for the growing mountain of dead trees.) That’s something most families simply cannot afford, especially if they have multiple children. (Adults should read more too.)

Reading Further Into This

The public library isn’t “just” about books either, as critically important as books are. Our public library also carries a collection of CDs and DVDs, and I even borrowed video games from one in Vancouver. The Forbes writer says we don’t need those anymore, because we’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Looking for DVDs at the library

The first time I ever went “online” was at the public library. Back then, somewhere in the early to mid-90s, the library’s “telnet” terminals provided a text-only interface; I used it mostly for email and discussion boards. In fact, my first email address was also through the library. These days, reliable Internet access is practically necessary for everyone. And for some people, the library is the only place where they can go online.

The public library also hosts a number of free workshops and community events. They address practical concerns like debt and estate management, as well as support hobbies like LEGO and knitting. Attending story time sessions with my daughter is a joy, even if I’m the only dad there. And I imagine they’re even more critically important in homes where English is not their first language.

The public library provides a safe space where people can gather and read and interact without the pressing obligation to buy something.

This Is Class Warfare

The crux of the argument put forth by Mourdoukoutas is that physical Amazon bookstores should replace public libraries because this will “save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon.” The cost per capita to maintain local libraries is so minuscule compared to the tremendous value that these institutions provide for the communities they serve. I like Amazon as much as the next guy, but private mega corporations should never replace fundamental community services.

But maybe he can’t see that from his position of incredible privilege, since he’s too busy drinking Starbucks, streaming Netflix, and buying every book he could ever want to read on Kindle… and he wants to boost the value of his Amazon stock so he and his other wealthy friends can get even richer. Meanwhile, what does this mean for families of more modest means?

Shame on you, Mr. Mourdoukoutas.