Editor’s Note: Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer specializing in sex, dating, books and pop culture. She’s editor of the annual “Best Women’s Erotica of the Year” anthology series and teaches erotica writing workshops worldwide. Follow her on Twitter @raquelita. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
On Saturday, Forbes contributor Panos Mourdoukoutas, chair of the economics department at LIU Post, published an essay touting the preposterous idea that Amazon stores should replace libraries. It quickly went viral, touching off a social media maelstrom. The piece has since been taken down. But anyone who cares about education, books, learning and their local community should be horrified by this suggestion.
To suggest that Amazon – or any other single company – could replace the rich knowledge local libraries have about their patrons’ needs is insulting. To minimize and dismiss the significant role of public libraries – historically and today – in combating inequality and fostering democracy is simply ignorant.
Libraries are one of the last remaining civic spaces open to the public. They provide vital free services and are storehouses of information. In addition to allowing patrons to check out paper books (including large print and out of print), ebooks, audiobooks, movies and music at no cost, libraries also offer free internet access, career centers and community programming. Additionally, they allow nonprofit agencies and organizations to use their rooms as meeting spaces.
In many communities, librarians are on the front lines helping those who otherwise might slip through the cracks. At a time when struggling Americans are falling deeper into poverty and America’s wealth gap is growing, public libraries remain one of the only places where vulnerable people can connect with the resources to improve their lives.
Suggesting that Amazon, or any other commercial entity, replace libraries, where staffers have degrees in library science and are trained to assist patrons, doesn’t make sense for a society that cares about knowledge. When Mourdoukoutas suggests that libraries “don’t have the same value they used to” because of places like Starbucks, he fundamentally misrepresents the role of the library in a community. The two locations aren’t in competition for people’s attention or time; I’m pretty sure even little kids know that a coffeeshop is where you go if you want to eat or drink or meet up, and a library is where you go if you want to get books or movies or games. Even those aren’t absolutes, as some libraries offer cafes and some people use both as places to caffeinate and get work done.
He also claims digital technology has “turned physical books into collector’s items.” If that were the case, why is the holds section at my local library full every time I visit? Just because Mourdoukoutas may not read print books or visit his library doesn’t mean that plenty of other people aren’t; in fact, sales of print books rose in 2017, so all library closings would do is keep them the province of those with disposable income.
Mourdoukoutas’ main point seems to be that cutting out libraries would save taxpayers money; he cited his own $495 tax bill on Twitter. This way of thinking aligns with President Trump’s bid to cut library funding in the 2019 fiscal budget. This myopic view of the value of libraries privileges the wealthy and erases the great contributions trained library staff provide, especially to children, seniors and job seekers.
Libraries offer a free, relaxed space where you can sit, read, play and learn, as well as access information. They aren’t seeking to sell you anything; instead, they want to enrich your mind. By doing so, they help enrich our society as a whole.
Historically, many libraries have been a space of empowerment for immigrants, women, and people of color. More recently, Carla Hayden, now the Librarian of Congress, kept a branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library open during the outcry following the death of Freddie Gray. As Hayden told American Libraries Magazine in 2015, “The library has been the community’s anchor. It’s the heart of the community at good times and bad times.”
If we care about children’s education enough to fund schools, we should care equally about library funding. We should value the importance of providing internet access for those who can’t afford it, reading skills and entertainment for children and other vital programs and services libraries offer.
This season is a particularly crucial time for libraries when it comes to helping children combat the “summer slide,” in which kids who don’t keep up with their reading fall far behind their peers who do. According to the American Library Association, 95% of libraries offer summer reading programs to keep kids’ knowledge on track so they’re prepared when they head back to school.
These aren’t just rote, dry encouragements to “read more” either. In Bristol, Virginia, children go on field trips to local caverns and mines at part of the Summer Reading Program. The children’s librarian was able to see the impact of those trips when all the library’s gem and mineral books were checked out around the same time. Other ways they’ve engaged children with reading include bringing 100 djembe drums into the library, as well as a presentation featuring serpents and other reptiles. While Amazon may be the “everything store,” I can see no reason why their bookstores would ever want to offer these types of programming.
Libraries also offer essential resources to their patrons, from technology workshops to career and resume workshops, which help them become productive members of society. Children can practice reading to dogs and attend a journal making event or anime club – these are just a few of thousands of such events across the country.
Libraries don’t just wait for patrons to come to them, either; they deliver services to people such as seniors who may not be able to come into the library. The Westerville, Ohio Outreach Program Librarian goes to senior living facilities and centers to run trainings and play interactive games. These aren’t services that an algorithm can generate or execute, because they aren’t focused on sales data, but human needs.
Amanda Winkler, a library clerk in a rural library outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, told me that many of her library’s patrons have needs “that are not met by the services provided by companies like Amazon. In the past we have offered a range of adult classes from technology usage and yoga to cooking and American Sign Language (ASL). These have always been free and open to the public for anyone to attend.”
Winkler also noted that library collections may include local and state history archives, telescopes, microscopes, mobile devices, cooking utensils and tools that can be checked out, and even Makerspaces with sewing machines or screen printing.
In response to Mourdoukoutas, EveryLibrary elaborated on other assistance libraries provide: “Veterans returning from overseas can attend programs to help them gain access to critical services. Small business owners and entrepreneurs can access global market databases like Gale Business Insights and use ReferenceUSA and AtoZ Databases to find new leads. “
Let’s not forget about data privacy. As a customer, I have no problem with Amazon upselling me items they think I may be interested in. I shop from them knowing full well that my sales data may be used to target me for future purchases. But US libraries are held to a higher standard. According to the ALA, “Libraries, librarians, and library workers have an ethical obligation, expressed in the ALA Code of Ethics, to preserve users’ right to privacy and prevent any unauthorized use or disclosure of users’ personally identifiable information or the data associated with their use of the library’s resources.”
This is just another reason, among very many, to reject this ludicrous idea from Mr. Mourdoukoutas.