Public Libraries and Corporate Greed Don’t Mix

public libraries

Last week, a misguided professor of economics posted a piece on Forbes about how Amazon should take over for public libraries. Amazon, he argued, could open more physical stores to provide places to get books! Amazon is the best place to acquire books because they have everything! The Great and Mighty Amazon can provide everything that libraries do!

Of course, it’s not like the author was hawking some utopian vision: He had a mission and an axe to grind. The main thrust of the article was that the author resents paying taxes for something that benefits others. He has the money to buy stuff, so he should only have to pay tax when he makes a purchase, not because it helps other people obtain desirable and useful services. Not because it’s part of being a citizen to help others. Let Amazon take over the library business and then we’d all be better off because we’d only have to pay tax on the things we buy, but yet we could still get all the stuff libraries offer. (His argument, not mine.)

(I cannot post a link to this stupid story because, mercifully, Forbes took it down saying that the author was writing about something outside of his experience. Yeah, like the experience of being a contributing member of society, I suppose. Still, I’m sure you can find it if you look hard enough.)

The uproar was immediate. As most of us know, libraries provide way more than books. They provide plenty of services for people and they don’t discriminate. Rich or poor, young or old, all races and creeds… Everyone is welcome at the library. The resources are there for everyone to use. In most cases, for free. Yes, paid for by your tax dollars, but still… That’s a deal that no corporation will ever be able to beat. Corporations are about money. Libraries are about learning, access, and knowledge. Big difference.

Corporations always act in the best interest of shareholders. This may mean (in the Amazon as library example) not carrying certain books because they are not money makers. Or because they conflict with the interests of the board. Or because someone in the buying department doesn’t like it. A library carries books for everyone, based on the public interest, not what “sells.”

Libraries have a public mandate to curate a diverse collection that supports the interests of the communities they serve. This means carrying titles that are often controversial, unpopular, and obscure. (In addition to the big sellers, of course.) They are also tasked with providing many of the resources needed by that community, whether it be books, classes, access to computers, or a host of other things. Corporations have no such mandate. They don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. (Or that isn’t profitable for them.)

You cannot give the role of a library, a public institution, to a corporation and expect anything good to come of it. Full stop, the two are not interchangeable.

But the worst part of this author’s argument was that he refuses to see or even acknowledge that libraries exist, at least in part, because we do not all share the same experience.

It’s fine that Mr. Author has the money to buy books, rent meeting space, and pay for internet access and a home computer. Good for him. (Being employed at a university doesn’t hurt, either. He likely has access to more books and resources through the university system than he’ll ever use.) But the reality is that many, many people do not share his experience. Many people cannot afford books. They can’t afford to have internet access at home and so they rely on public outlets for service. Home computers are out of reach for many, as well. They can’t call up a specialized database at the touch of a button because they can’t afford the subscription.

What are these people supposed to do? Live without access to the information and resources many of us (Mr. Author included, apparently) take for granted every single day? Are they supposed to let their kids struggle through school because they couldn’t afford a private tutor (when the library provides free tutoring), or they couldn’t afford supplementary materials? Some school systems don’t have enough money to provide materials and rely on libraries to make up the difference. Is the government going to step up and give them more money so they won’t have to rely on libraries in this Amazon-is-everything world of the author’s imagining?

Should kids and adults be denied access to information that may help them better themselves in life? Are they supposed to stop hunting for jobs because they can’t get online to look at listings? What if you want to learn a new skill so you can move up at work (or learn to DIY so you can save more money) but can’t afford training? Is everyone just supposed to miraculously find the money to go to Amazon and buy all this stuff?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Libraries exist, in part, to help bridge the gaps in society. A corporation may make some effort towards inclusiveness as part of their charitable mandate, but it will never serve all. A corporation will never provide things for free, and it will never ask itself if the information it’s providing serves everyone.

Yes, some libraries exhibit bias in their collections, refusing to carry certain religious or controversial books, but most resist the call of censorship. Most hold firm when the calls for book banning begin, or when certain groups complain that other groups shouldn’t have access to information. They acknowledge that their collection and services must serve the community at large, not just the most vocal/numerous/wealthy members of that community. A corporation has no such responsibility. They can and will cave to public pressure if they think the bottom line is being impacted.

In this fractured world of bias, fake news, and skewed statistics, access to a large swath of information from all sides remains essential. Sure, you can get that from the internet, if you know where to look and how to think critically about what you read, but a library provides it all on one shelf, right in front of you. They also have access to academic databases that the public at large cannot access, many of which provide the full text and cited resources used in studies. If you want to know what really lies at the root of a news story, the library can help you decipher it.

Which brings me to the next point… A library is staffed by people who actually know stuff. They know where to find certain resources. They can point you to journals and databases you didn’t know existed. Well-trained library staff can teach you technology, show you where to find classes, help with homework, and answer a bazillion questions. I saw someone once refer to a librarian as Google with a face. It’s true.

By contrast, employees at a chain store are likely to be… Less informed. Sure, some will be very helpful and some will be more knowledgeable than others. But generally they will only be able to point you to things that exist within that store. (There’s no incentive for recommending things outside the store, after all. Why drive away customers?) They have no interest in teaching you anything, unless it’s their job. They’re not going to help you dig deeply into a topic. They’ll point you to the shelf that holds the books about your topic and then walk away. They won’t sit with you while you comb through the books, and they won’t help you search other places for more information. If it ain’t on the shelf, it doesn’t exist.

Amazon can’t replace a library and to think it can is, well, asinine. People who complain about having to pay for libraries have clearly never given much thought to the services they really provide. A library is more than just books on a shelf. It’s a whole ecosystem of resources and staff, connected around the country, each assisting others to provide information to patrons. It is not self-interested. The library exists for others, not for itself. Amazon, clearly, exists only for itself.

(Photo courtesy of Oldiefan)


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