In Defense of Libraries -- And Why Amazon Can Never Compare

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An economics professor suggested we replace libraries with Amazon bookstores "to save taxpayers money" and the Internet went wild, with good reason.

The Internet of booklovers was set alight this past weekend when a Long Island University professor named Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote an astonishingly dreadful op-ed titled "Amazon should replace local libraries to save taxpayers money." I say awful for a couple reasons -- first, because the writing left much to be desired, as did some of the grammar and formatting, and secondly, because the idea is so ludicrous.

Mourdoukoutas opened his article by saying, "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." The benefits that libraries once provided to communities are no longer relevant, he argued. Community events can be held in school auditoriums and elsewhere. Comfortable places in which to meet friends can be replaced by Starbucks. Online streaming services have replaced the borrowing model on which libraries are based. And technology "has turned physical books into collector's items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services." Amazon Books, he suggested, is the perfect replacement:

"It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks. And expanding into the local library space will be an opportunity for the technology giant."

Why Amazon needs further opportunities for expansion, I do not know; it's already one of the richest companies in the world and has done a sickeningly fine job at eviscerating local bookshops and main streets around the globe. I feel no personal obligation whatsoever to support and promote its growth even further.

But most baffling of all is Mourdoukoutas' logic, which I fail to follow, despite several readings of his article. Amazon is not an "online library," as he called it. It is a store. Its online search is a search of its own catalog of titles available for sale -- "not for the general searching of the internet by the public or accessing library-linked projects like Overdrive, Kanopy, and Hoopla that allow free digital borrowing" (via Gizmodo). It is another way to spend money that I do not wish to spend.

In her New Yorker review of Amazon's new brick-and-mortar store in New York City earlier this spring, Jia Tolentino said, "The store’s biggest shortcoming, though, is that it is so clearly not intended for people who read regularly." There were no surprises, just limited bestsellers based on -- you guessed it -- Amazon reviews.

"There were no wild cards, no deep cuts, no oddballs—just books that were already best-sellers, pieces of clothing I knew wouldn’t fit me or that I already owned."

"Saving taxpayers money" is the crux of his argument, but even that makes little sense. He harps on about having paid $495 in taxes that went to support libraries, but apparently this is not always the case; funding for libraries changes according to different jurisdictions and could be state-, local-, or property-tax supported. In the province of Ontario, where I live, I've never heard of my tax dollars being earmarked specifically for libraries.

But let's say they were. $495 a year works out to $41/month, which isn't bad at all, considering how many books my family checks out. I read 4-5 books per month, and my kids easily bring home 5-10 every two weeks. (When they were younger it was more like 10 per week.) A book habit like that, if purchased from Amazon, would be utterly unsustainable, $375/month at an average price of $15 per book -- and why would I want that many books piling up around the house? Most of them I'd never reread.

Plus, who the heck doesn't want to fork out to help libraries, of all things? Gizmodo says it best:

"Do any of us really want to pay taxes? Duh, no. Do most reasonable people agree that to fund communal services that benefit the entire public, the government should pool a slice of their income and wealth every year? Yes. For example, we have generally agreed that fires should be put out by government-provisioned and -trained professional and volunteer firefighters instead of whoever happened to be standing nearby with a bucket."

I use my library to borrow books, cookbooks, children's literature, travel books, and expensive design magazines. I use it to photocopy and scan documents (that saves me a ton of money, to having to own and maintain those machines), to borrow fishing gear for my kids, to check out day passes to the local museum, to let my kids play with new toys, to attend the toddler story and craft hour, to meet visiting authors for book-signings, to have a place to hang out on rainy days with kids, to work on my laptop when I need to get out of the house, to look at and post on the community bulletin board, to watch movies on days when school is closed, to attend cheap book sales, for shade and a quick water break on hot sunny afternoons, and for bathroom emergencies when my kids can't hold it downtown.

The library is a social hub, a place that's always buzzing with energy and people. Mourdoukoutas is right in that it's similar to those 'third places' that have grown popular in recent years, but the suggestion that a trip to Starbucks is somehow cheaper than the library -- even at his $495/year tax rate -- is outrageous. A trip for my family of 5 to a coffee shop easily runs up a bill of $25. If we go to the local gymnastics club for an hour of play, it's $20 per kid. If we go to the local indoor playground in winter, it's $12 per child. The movie theatre is $8 per kid. In other words, these family-friendly activities, if done weekly, are far more expensive than the library. And that's precisely why we don't do those things very often: we go to the library instead.

Mourdoukoutas got skewered on Twitter, as you can imagine. Some of the brilliant responses are below. They must have resonated with the editors at Forbes because, by the time I sat down to post this story, the original had been pulled from the website.