This past weekend, Forbes published an op-ed that advocated for libraries being shut down and replaced by Amazon bookstores, all in the name of saving people tax money. Due to widespread public outrage, the piece has apparently been pulled, though it is still preserved on the Wayback Machine. I wrote this response while the article was still on Forbes’s website, and we are still posting it because we want to educate people about the role of public libraries and their very real value to their communities.
As someone who has spent the last 10 years working for the Berryville Public Library and is currently a member of our Friends of the Library board, I was horrified by the measures the Forbes editorial recommended. But I was also disturbed by the number of misconceptions that Panos Mourdoukoutas, the author of the piece, seems to have about what libraries actually do and the services they provide their communities.
He notes that in the past libraries provided resources like books, magazines, and journals, as well as quiet research places, comfortable places to enjoy books, space for community events, video rentals, and free internet access. However, according to his reasoning, these things can all be sought elsewhere, including Starbucks and Amazon bookstores.
I have been hearing these doom-and-gloom pronouncements about how outdated libraries are and how they are shortly on their way toward the fate of dinosaurs and dodos since I was first hired by a library. Inevitably, I have always found that they are perpetuated by people who have outdated ideas of what libraries do.
Do libraries face challenges? You bet!
One of the primary problems libraries face isn’t a rapidly modernizing society, though that seems to be what Mr. Mourdoukoutas believes is the primary problem. He also suggests that libraries are not up to the task of keeping up. However, a perusal of the history of libraries shows us that libraries have been adapting to modern technology and changing societies since the beginning.
No, in my experience, libraries face two primary challenges: people not understanding the vital work they perform for all members of the community and a lack of funds to do this work.
Mr. Mourdoukoutas unwittingly provides a pretty good synopsis of all the misconceptions about libraries, so I would like to take the time to respond to his points, one by one.
Local community libraries still provide patrons with books, magazines, and journals free of charge. At Berryville, we also throw in a lot of local and national newspapers. Our community is rural and low income. Not everyone can afford to buy all the books, magazines, journals, and newspapers that interest them. Some could afford to make these purchases but worry about the waste of buying a book to read once and then throw away. E-books are also not for everyone. In fact, as Forbes itself reported, print books remain by far the most popular format for all ages but particularly Millennials. With our selection at the library, no one has to buy a book or magazine if they don’t want to.
Local community libraries still provide people with comfortable places to enjoy books. Not everyone has the convenience of a Starbucks nearby—or the desire to use one. Our Berryville residents have a good hour-long drive to the nearest Starbucks, and there’s no reason to expect them to make such a trip when they have a book-friendly place to hang out right in their hometown.
Local community libraries still provide people with research resources and assistance. We provide access to databases that people cannot use elsewhere. We provide free genealogy resources that our patrons may not be able to or want to pay for on their own. We have patrons who do not know how to use computers whom we are more than happy to provide reference services to, regardless of whether it’s finding out which Western was on TV today, what local social services are available to them, or how many resources we have in the library about salt. We also have patrons who do know how to use the internet but recognize that the librarian is going to find the information they are looking for a lot faster.
Local community libraries still provide residents with places to hold community functions. I can assure Mr. Mourdoukoutas that in rural areas, like where I live, there are not a lot of options for holding events or meetings. I know. I’ve helped plan them. 😊
Local community libraries still provide people with videos. Mr. Mourdoukoutas seems to think that Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced the need for DVDs and Blu-Rays entirely, and he conflates the free movies that libraries provide with the service provided by now outdated rental stores. But the library’s movies are not rentals because they are entirely free. We have a very nice selection of current and classic films, as well as entire seasons of television shows and documentaries. In our rural community, many patrons do not have internet at home, either due to the remoteness of their homes or their income situation. Without the library, they wouldn’t be watching anything because they don’t have access to streaming services.
Local community libraries still provide people with free internet access. As I mentioned above, a lot of people in our area do not have internet at home or do not have access to high-speed internet at any price at their home. The Berryville Public library is where they go to check their email, place orders, and submit school assignments. Without us, they wouldn’t have many options in our increasingly digital world.
Those are all the tasks that Mr. Mourdoukoutas credits libraries with doing, but he seems quite unaware of the many other services we provide.
For instance, local community libraries provide e-books, free of charge. Not everyone can afford e-books, but they can with us. We’ll even help you set it up on whatever device you have.
Local community libraries provide the latest music CDs, as well as classics. We have a great selection that spans numerous genres.
Local community libraries provide out-of-print and difficult-to-find books through interlibrary loan (ILL). In fact, ILL lets you find books that even Amazon doesn’t offer for sale anymore.
Local community libraries provide a wide range of free enrichment programming for all ages. Our area may be “poor,” but our kids have access to storytimes, educational Minecraft software, Lego programs, book clubs, movie nights, game nights, science programs, and guest musicians and performers from all over the country, courtesy of our programs. Our adults also benefit from many of these programs, as well as special events just for them, including presentations by local authors and hands-on crafting workshops. Our seniors and disabled community members benefit from our regular visits to the nursing home and our books on wheels program. We do our part in making sure there is always something that is truly both fun and educational going on in town.
Many of the people who attend our programs are folks who I have come to know well and grown fond of in my time at the Berryville Library. A lot of them don’t have money and struggle to make ends meet. If the library were replaced by an Amazon Bookstore, they simply would not have the resources to pay for the books we provide for free. (Never mind all the other services we provide that such a store would not). I am dismayed at the notion that they are somehow undeserving of the benefits the library offers, simply because they do not have disposable income.
Likewise, I know there’s a good chance that if libraries are suddenly replaced by Amazon Bookstores around the country, our rural area likely wouldn’t get one. We all have a wish list of businesses we would like to see move into the area—stores and restaurants—but they won’t come because we’re too small to merit attention. (We know. We’ve tried.) I am equally dismayed at the notion that our residents are somehow undeserving of the benefits the library offers, simply because they live in a rural area.
I would like to believe that Mr. Mourdoukoutas does not think that people without money or access to large metropolitan areas are not worthy of consideration and has just not thought through the implications of his suggestion, but that is the assumption that underpins his argument.
This perception of people is the absolute antithesis of what a library stands for and is all the more reason why we need them. Libraries do not just exist for the sake of the poor in the community. They are for everyone.
Libraries are for kids looking for something to do after school. Libraries are for business people needing to print a few copies. Libraries are for college students needing to take a proctored exam. Libraries are for employees needing to scan and send a time sheet to their company’s offices 50 miles away so that they can get paid. Libraries are for people searching for jobs. Libraries are for young moms looking for a little adult conversation. And, yes, libraries are for people looking for something good to read or fun to watch.
Local community libraries, even more than anything else, provide a safe, welcoming place for everyone in the community. We are a point of contact for some of our community’s most vulnerable members, and we are a trusted one. People who may mistrust a well-meaning “authority” figure in the schools, hospitals, or law enforcement are usually okay with the library staff. We provide a much-needed source of human interaction for people who may not get that anywhere else in their lives.
A big part of why we can provide this is because the library is free-of-charge. We don’t have a loitering ordinance. You don’t have to buy something to be allowed to enjoy the library. You can stay there all day without spending a dime, for all we care.
Lack of funding doesn’t stop libraries from doing tremendous work. I have friends who work in libraries across the country, so I know that we at the Berryville Public Library are not unusual in our devotion to helping our patrons and our residents.
However, a lack of money makes our work a lot harder. Yes, defunding us would save the local county some money but at what cost to the quality of life for the citizens of our county?
The Berryville Public Library desperately needs money for a new building. We long ago outgrew our current facilities. Sometimes, it’s a real struggle to juggle all the things we need to do with the tiny space we have.
Instead of exploring ways to defund libraries like ours and end the good work libraries do for their communities, we should be working on finding ways to help libraries do their work even better.
If Mr. Mourdoukoutas were really serious about helping communities, he’d be advocating for Amazon to donate more money and resources to local libraries and making a donation of his own. We at the Berryville Public Library could sure use the help, as could libraries across the country. 😊
What do you think of the Forbes article? What role does the library play in your community? What suggestions do you have for helping libraries? Do you want to donate to our building fund? 😊 Tell us in the comments!