A Response to Forbes’ Misinformed Library Article

We’re taking a break from Recipe Review Wednesday to bring you this important news bulletin.

I don’t know if you keep up with the news or anything (trust me, there are many days where I wish I didn’t read the news), but a few days ago Forbes published an op-ed by someone who claimed that libraries were worthless and should instead be replaced by Amazon/Starbucks hybrids. The op-ed has since been deleted, with Forbes commenting:

“Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson says in a statement. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.” Quartz

You can still read a cached version of it thanks to Google (which I’ve linked above), so the Internet will never truly forget about Panos Mourdoukoutas and his ignorant statements.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and figure out who Panos is. According to his Forbes biography,

I’m Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at LIU Post in New York. I also teach at Columbia University. 

Okay, so obviously the dude is educated, and yet he can’t see the value that libraries have in this world? He doesn’t remember the wonder of visiting the library in school once a week (or two weeks, or month…)? It’s apparent that he does not, because he spends about 600 words spewing ignorant and, frankly, classist hatred about our beloved local libraries.

Yes, classist. If you get rid of libraries in local communities and replace them with bookstore/coffee house hybrids, you are removing a significant portion of your client base from being able to even step foot through those doors. Libraries are free (although some may require a small fee to apply for a library card) and are funded through state and local taxes. How much would people save if libraries were cut, you ask?

Across the country, if public libraries were to be cut and all funding were to be divided up among Americans, each person would get $36 back, says Richard Auxier, a researcher at the Tax Policy Center think tankQuartz

A measly $36 per person? I’m pretty sure everyone can contribute that, just a few dollars a month, to keep libraries running.

A word of warning: This is going to be long. Although the original op-ed is less than 600 words, I’m now fired up about this and will probably manage to stretch this into several thousand words. (Edit: 2425 words, if you want to be specific.)

In the beginning, P.M. (which is how I’m going to refer to him from now on because his name is too long to continually type out) started out okay. He talks about all the benefits of libraries, such as:

There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.

They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.

Guess what, P.M.? Libraries still do this. They provide a place where people can access the internet for free (because internet is expensive and those in lower-income brackets may not have access to it at home) in order to do homework, apply for jobs, or continue their education. They still have books, journals, and magazines, and have added videos, games, audio books, and so many more for the enjoyment of the masses. They still have comfy chairs for people to sit and read it — so what is your problem?

Also, how big are your school auditoriums? The auditorium in my high school couldn’t hold the entire school by the time I graduated in 2012. I graduated with 202 people in my class, and my sister came in as a freshman in 2012 with 350 people in her class. The school is pushing 2000-2500 last time I checked, in a facility only built for a thousand.

Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.

Okay, I’m still not seeing how this is a bad thing. This is obvious value here: you’re getting things for free. Do you know how much internet costs? It’s like $60 a month for just basic internet in my area, and video rentals are $1 apiece from RedBox, or anywhere from $20 – $40 if you were to buy them outright. I feel like this is a lot of value, particularly if you’re renting multiple movies a week, like a lot of families do who don’t have Netflix (because, again, internet is expensive).

If you continue on with the article, he states:

One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.

On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals. They provide TV and movie content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual video rental services like Blockbuster have gone completely out of business.

Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.

Guess what, my dude? All of those things you just listed — they not only cost money but also require access to the internet. Netflix and Amazon Prime have streaming video, yes, but how are you going to stream it when you don’t have internet at your house? Instead, you go to the library and pick up a movie or two as a treat. As for Blockbuster, there is actually still one out there, located in Alaska. You know, where people don’t have easy access to internet, etc.

Starbucks has free wifi, yes, but there’s also the stigma that you need to buy something (not to mention get to the place) in order to stay there. Their drinks are hella expensive, too. I used to date a guy who worked at Starbucks, and that was literally the only time I’ve had Starbucks, because I don’t want to pay $5-10 a drink, plus more if you want actual food or a snack.

Guess what? Digital books are a thing, yes, but libraries also have a digital book-borrowing system now. However, this also requires that you purchase a Kindle or other e-reading device (and with Kindles starting at like $80 on the low end, that’s still expensive), plus you’ve gotta have an Amazon account (albeit not a prime one) and access to the internet to download those books, at anywhere from $1-$40 apiece. Which, you know, you can do at the library for free.

Physical books are not dying the way e-reader companies thought they were going to a few short years ago. I don’t even see any Nook displays when I go into Barnes & Noble any more, and when I worked at Books-a-Million, we got rid of our Nook displays about two months in because they weren’t selling. People go into bookstores to buy physical books, and as long as people are doing that, physical books are going to be a thing.

Personally, I do own a Kindle and I enjoy reading on it when I can, but nothing can compare to the actual feel of a physical book in my hands.

Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.

My dude, do you know what Amazon is? It’s a bookstore, store being the key word in that sentence. Do you know what you do at a bookstore? You buy books. What you’re describing is already out there, available as Barnes & Noble, which has a Starbucks inside of it. People come in and browse, enjoy their overpriced caffeinated beverage, and then they buy a book or a magazine and go on their way. Total cost? Anywhere from $10-$300, depending on how much of a bibliophile (or coffee-drinker, I guess) you are.

Do you know what you would spend at a library doing the same thing? Nothing. I don’t understand what you’ve got against libraries (did one of them hurt you when you were little?), but it’s amazing that you can’t get it through your head that libraries and bookstores are two separate entities that provide two entirely separate services.

A bookstore is a store, a library is a service.

P.M. closes out his argument with this statement:

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.

Tell me, why do we want to increase the stockholder value of Amazon? The owner is already the richest person in the world (surpassing Bill Gates), and what does he do with his money? He sits on it and preens, like some sort of dragon guarding its hoard. I mean, I’m as addicted to Amazon as the next person, although I really wish I wasn’t. While Amazon may not be facing bankruptcy any time soon, I’m pretty sure that having your entire economy monopolized by one company is not a smart financial move to make. As far as taxes go…

Public benefit aside, would cutting public libraries save taxpayers a significant amount? The majority of a public library’s funding comes from state and local governments, not federal. According to a report(pdf) from the Ohio Library Council published last year, the state’s average library levy from 2013 to 2017 was 1.39 mills, a rate used in taxes that means $1.39 for every $1,000 in assessed property value. That’s around 2.5% (pdf) of Ohio’s average property tax rate, the eighth highest in the country last year. For the average homeowner in the state, that would have come to around $65 last year.  -Quartz

P.M. wants to take a free system that gives so many benefits to the community and replace it with a pay-to-play system, cutting out hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people from being able to participate. It would not only cut them off from free entertainment, but would prevent them from job-searching or bettering/educating themselves. (Isn’t that what the ruling class wants, though? Dumb little worker bees.)

This may hit me a little harder than it would anybody else, because I used to volunteer at my local library and my mother is currently a librarian at that same local library. They recently moved from a small building off the main road to the main road, in a large two-story building (and she almost broke her ankle going down the stairs, but that’s beside the point). They usually would do maybe 100 new cards a year at the old location. Since they’ve opened up in the new location (May 2018), they have had over 400 new library cards issued. I think that was the last number she said.

That’s four hundred (400) new people that never visited the library before, signing up to take out a book here, a DVD there, maybe even a new video game for their kid. Do you know how much that contributes to the local community?

They hold Tot-Spots every Wednesday morning, and the group has now gotten so large (from the 15 or so that used to go there in the old building to over 60 kids plus parents in the new place) that they are having to split it into two different groups.

There are coding classes offered. Resume workshops. Book sales (for 25 cents for a paperback and 50 cents for a hardback). Technology classes. When was the last time a bookstore or a Starbucks offered one of those?

Their summer reading programs are always extremely well attended. I used to do one of the program days myself, when I was a member of my church’s puppet team. (I’ve since quit puppetry because the team was disbanded due to lack of involvement, since all the original puppeteers aged out and went to college and the parents of the younger generation didn’t want to drive them to meetings.)

You will be happy to know that this story has a happy ending: not only has Forbes deleted this article (and basically throwing P.M. under the proverbial bus by saying he didn’t know what he was talking about), but people have completely bombarded P.M. on Twitter with their stories of how much their local libraries provide to the community. If you want to see a nice chart with a breakdown of how much money these non-libraries would cost, Medium has done so. 

In fact, there are so many websites who have come to mock P.M. and wonder how Forbes even allowed such an article to be published in the first place.

(And yes, every single word of that previous sentence is a link to a different article.)

To make a long story short, people love their local libraries and the amount of fury that has come from this article, the staggering cacophony of backlash, is something that I don’t think either Forbes or P.M. ever realized would happen, and I am so very glad that it did. I will never stop using my local library, and I know how much value it provides to the community.

What do you think about this? Is P.M. correct in stating that libraries have nothing of value to add to the current economy and that we’re better off replacing them with Amazon? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading (especially if you support your local library by doing it!).

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