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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This guy does seem to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Examples:
Quote: 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.
Has he ever visited an Amazon bookstore? About 10,000 currently popular books isn’t a library replacement. And yeah, I think that remark should close with “enhancing the value of MY stock.” The guy really does have a thing about Amazon’s stock value. Oh, and Amazon is not stupid. They’d never open “bookstores in all local communities.” They’re only going where there’s a profit to be made.
Quote: There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians.
And they don’t now? Mine stays quite busy and has plenty of seating. And does this idiot know that Amazon’s stores deliberately don’t offer places to sit and read? They want quick in-and-out customers to maximize the value of their rented real estate. Ah, but that would require an ability to observe and think.
Quote: There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money.
Was? Mine still does, as do virtually all the others.
Quote: At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.
Oh my gosh. All these years and I didn’t realize that Amazon offered books from free. Here I am giving it my credit card, when all I’d needed to do is check off a box that says, “Make it free like my local library.” Silly me!
This is, of course, where this “Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at LIU Post” (a part of Long Island University) gets it wrong. When it comes to reading, public libraries level the playing field. Everyone in the community, rich or poor, gets equal access to their books. Not so Amazon. For the well-to-do, the cost of purchasing books is almost nil. For a young mother with several eager-to-read children buying would be an almost intolerable burden. It says much about this economist that he fails to see that—or perhaps doesn’t care.
When I lived in Seattle, I’d occasionally meet a software developer who worked at Amazon. Often, I’d ask them if they could “set the superbit” on my books. I’d then explain that was a software flag that would move my books to near the top of any search result that was remotely relevant. I was amused that I never had one tell me “Amazon would never do anything like that.” None had a high opinion of their company’s search-result integrity. I wonder if this Panos Mourdoukoutas is making a desperate bid for Amazon to set the superbit on his book.
Finally, I suspect that the editors at Forbes knew this guy is an idiot but also knew that articles by such people draw lots of attention —as indeed this one has. I looked at the reviews. He has librarians as angry as a stirred-up nest of hornets.
–Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (a YA historical novel about the KKK and a brave girl who rides through the night to warn her dad that his life is in danger)