Why Libraries are Irreplaceable

On July 21, 2018, Forbes.com published an op-ed piece by LIU Post economist Panos Mourdoukoutas under the headline “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” Don’t try to find the article – Forbes pulled it down shortly after posting it due to the enormous backlash from librarians, educators, and the public as a whole.

Mourdoukoutas’ argument went like this:

  1. “[Libraries] don’t have the same value they used to.” The functions of the library have been replaced with superior (italics ours) venues: community and WiFi are now provided by Starbucks; video rentals by Netflix and Amazon Prime; and books by Amazon.

In truth, all of these functions – and more – are currently supplied under one roof, free of charge.

  1. 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.” Closing libraries, therefore, will save the taxpayers money.

Really? According to a report by the Ohio Library Council, homeowners in that state, which has the eighth highest property tax rate in the country, would see only about a $65 refund from their tax bill.[1] And according to Richard Auxier, a researcher at the Tax Policy Center think tank, if public libraries were to be cut and all their funding were to be divided up among Americans across the country, each person would get $36 back.[2] How many books or services can you buy with that money compared to everything that comes packed in a public library supported by those tax dollars, including WiFi, language lessons, children’s story time, crafts and writing workshops, librarians’ detailed knowledge on subjects across the board, and a whole lot more?

  1. “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.”

Mourdoukoutas stated this despite Publisher’s Weekly’s January 2018 report that print book sales from traditional publishing houses are steady.[3] He then made the claim, completely unsubstantiated, that “some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.” Personally, I don’t know anyone who’s doing that, and if they are, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like to have them in my circle of friends.

  1. “Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have [sic] created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.”

Sure, you can do an online search, but keep in mind that many books, periodicals, recordings, microfilms, and the like are still not digitized; they are only available in hard copy – at your local library. And this assumes that you have the knowledge of how to do a search. Many individuals, especially the elderly or those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, do not have access to their own computers or free classes outside the library system that will teach them what they need to do. And why should you have to buy a cup of coffee to access services?

Amanda Oliver, a librarian in Washington, D.C., was incensed by the Forbes article. “Amazon charges people who want access to art and entertainment. By offering anybody free access to a massive collection of books, music, and movies, libraries fundamentally advance the idea that culture is a public good that everybody has a right to enjoy, regardless of their income. … [Libraries] offer a safe public space for people to gather, computer and internet access to those who don’t have it, story time for children, a safe space for teens, and resources for the unemployed and homeless.”[4]

If Mourdoukoutas had his way, “where are people without access to computers or internet supposed to go to find the agencies that will help them job-search or secure low-income housing? Where can they go to sit down and figure out their next steps, with knowledgeable help close by? … Libraries and librarians fill in the significant gaps created by what I would argue is our society’s pandemic of ignoring our impoverished, underserved, and most vulnerable populations.”[4] And they can access all of these services without having to pony up the cost of a latte or a cup of espresso.

We currently have an amazing resource that provides a safe haven for children (especially in underprivileged areas), a fantastic place to research school projects or just something that sparks your interest, and a connection to the world at large guided by people who can help you discover exactly where to look. Add to that a facility that tailors itself to the community and the people around it, and you have a situation that’s a “win” for everyone involved. It’s absurd to suggest that companies “look to profit from one of the few institutions available across the entire country that doesn’t exist to make money for someone else,” says Oliver. Public libraries are irreplaceable institutions of learning and community, and we should treat them with the reverence they deserve.



[1] Howard Fleeter & Associates. (December 18, 2017.) “Analysis of Property Tax Levies for Library Purposes. Ohio Library Council.” Retrieved from olc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Library-Levy-Report-Dec-2017.pdf

[2] Ha, Thu-Huong. (July 23, 2018.) “Forbes deleted a deeply misinformed op-ed arguing Amazon should replace libraries.” Retrieved from https://qz.com/1334123/forbes-deleted-an-op-ed-arguing-that-amazon-should-replace-libraries/

[3] Milliot, Jim. (January 5, 2018.) “Print Sales Up Again in 2017: Unit sales of print books were 10.8% higher last year than in 2013.” Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/75760-print-sales-up-again-in-2017.html

[4] Oliver, Amanda. (July 26, 2018.) “I’m a librarian. The last thing we need is Silicon Valley ‘disruption.’” Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/7/26/17616516/amazon-silicon-valley-libraries-forbes


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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