The problem with ivory towers is that they’re often so far off the ground that it’s hard to see anything going on down there. Locked safely away from the real world, academics are free to dream up crazy ideas—like the notion that we should do away with public libraries in favor of for-profit institutions like Amazon Books. Economist Panos Mourdoukotas has an op-ed to that effect in Forbes right now.
Do you know what Poe’s Law is? It’s an observation that it can be really hard to tell satire apart from genuinely extreme opinions, in the absence of smileys or other context to make the meaning clear. (For example, any time I see President Trump appear in the news, lately, I have to check the news source to be absolutely sure I’m not reading a satire site.) I got that feeling reading this article. Even after I read it over twice, I still mentioned it to David with the disclaimer, “Not sure if tongue-in-cheek satire…” The idea that a for-profit bookstore and associated services could stand in for libraries is just so bizarre.
But, as David then pointed out to me, this isn’t the first time a Forbes contributor has suggested doing away with libraries in favor of an Amazon service. So the odds seem pretty good that the piece is entirely serious.
Mourdoukotas seems to feel that the rise of Internet technology, ebook subscription services, and video streaming services, all the media services libraries provide are no longer as valuable anymore. He thinks that bookstores like Amazon Books, in conjunction with ebook subscription services like Kindle Unlimted, could provide similar services, and save communities a bunch of taxpayer money that they don’t need to pay to support their local libraries. “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services,” he writes.
Has this alleged economist actually done any economic research? People need to be pretty well off to be able to afford to use online subscription services, not least because they need to buy moderately expensive technological devices to make use of such services. Libraries can provide services to anyone of any level of income who walks in the door, no money required.
And where does he get the idea that physical books are “collector’s items,” or that libraries of them aren’t needed anymore? I’m as keen on ebooks as the next guy, but paper books are easy to check out, easy to read, and don’t require electricity or expensive hardware to enjoy. And their sales figures show that they clearly aren’t going anywhere, as plenty of people do still continue to buy them.
And media checkout and meeting spaces are only some of the things libraries do for their communities. Plenty of libraries are adding access to new technologies, such as 3D printing or augmented reality, to serve as “sandboxes” where patrons can use and play with devices they could never afford on their own. That’s not something that an Amazon Books store is going to do for them!
I’m not as big of a library booster as David is, but I am the son of two librarians and nephew of another, and I know that libraries are important bastions of knowledge, free speech, and community services. Their taxpayer funding means they are not beholden to the wishes of shareholders or the need to make a profit, and they’re free to concentrate on serving their patrons and their community as best they can. Amazon Books may very well be a great bookstore, and the streaming services Amazon offers have a lot to recommend them—but they’re never going to be able to fill in for a good, taxpayer-funded public library. Nor should they have to.
And apparently a number of people agree with me. Mourdoukoutas’s book, The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership, linked at the bottom of the Forbes article, has picked up a number of angry one-star reviews in the last couple of days—specifically directed at the content of the Forbes article. Clearly, he’s touched a nerve.
Fortunately, for all that articles like this get published from time to time, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that anyone’s likely to take heed. I haven’t seen any other clamor to defund libraries in favor of bookstores, so I imagine they’re probably okay for the time being. Still, it’s worth calling out any proposal so obviously wrong-headed in any case.
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