WHY PUBLIC LIBRARIES ARE AMAZING
They may not exactly be socialism, but they’re a model of good publicly-run institutions.
f you wanted a single article to demonstrate why millennials object to the prevailing “neoliberal” economic ideology, it would be this piece in Forbes: “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” In it, economics professor Panos Mourdoukoutas argues that libraries have outlived their usefulness, and that their function should be privatized. Technology, he says “has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services,” and the community-center function of libraries has been replaced by Starbucks franchises, which “provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink.” With its vast online bookstore, he writes, “Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees,” and while he admits that there is data showing that nearly half of adults use their public libraries (and millennials do so more than any other age group) he says that “the opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains.”
Librarians, naturally, were horrified. They pointed out that Mourdoukoutas sounded like a man who had never actually been in a public library. (Indeed, women, poor people, and people of color are more likely to see the benefits from libraries.) They stepped forward with data showing how much people benefit from libraries compared with the tax expenditure. (Though even these numbers grossly underestimate the value of libraries because they can only quantify the quantifiable, and many good things in life are not measurable.) Library users talked about the phenomenal valuethey get out of their libraries: “Cost to individually buy the six books I have on hold this week: $70 — Amount the Altadena Library Special Parcel Tax cost me this week: 75¢.” And the Harris County Public Library and the San Francisco Public Library taunted Forbes on their social media accounts, with the SFPL reminding the public that the library offers free access to every issue of Forbes.
It was exciting to see librarians defend their institutions so forcefully, and encouraging to see just how negative the reaction to Mourdoukoutas was. (“Behold This Disastrously Bad Op-Ed Calling for Amazon to Replace Libraries.”) It’s important to realize, though, that this is not just an individual bad opinion on Mourdoukoutas’ part. It’s an extreme form of an ideology that is widely shared by political and economic elites. Every part of this ideology is in the article: the conflation of corporate well-being with public well-being, the privatization of everything, the obsessive stripping of every public service from the poor. In a way, I’m even glad Forbespublished this, because it shows what we’re up against.
Public libraries make the world fairer, and they make life easier. In fact, the biggest problem with them is that we don’t put nearly enough resources into them.
It’s simple to show why Mourdoukoutas’ article is ill-informed, poorly-argued propaganda. He mostly downplays or ignores the data showing that libraries very much aren’t obsolete, that people use them a lot, and that technology hasn’t replaced their function. He leaves out the fact that Americans overwhelmingly think library closures significantly damage their communities, and that libraries contribute a range of useful services. He doesn’t even try to show how privatized corporate libraries would keep up the same level of service to poor people. (Because they wouldn’t.) Once he does concede that young people seem to like libraries an awful lot, he reiterates that “the opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains,” essentially admitting that he is far more concerned with providing Amazon a new business opportunity than advancing the public interest. (I’m not sure why the rest of us are supposed to be think that “increasing Amazon’s share prices and Jeff Bezos’ personal fortune” is a compelling argument for having them replace our libraries.)
And yet: extreme as this article may seem, it’s worryingly close to the political mainstream. Larry Summers said in 2006 that “any honest Democrat will admit that we are now all Friedmanites,” meaning followers of the radical free-market economist Milton Friedman, who disliked having a public postal service. Three years after Summers said that, Barack Obama made him the head of the National Economic Council. Democrats from Nancy Pelosi to Elizabeth Warren have proudly declared themselves “capitalists.” And while it’s unclear what they mean by that, exactly, the supposedly “economically progressive” Warren has even flirted with school privatization schemes, saying that “an all-voucher school system” might be “just what the system needs.” (Her comments earned her praise from the American Enterprise Institute.)
Public libraries are actually a radical departure from the economic consensus. We can see this by thinking about what it would sound like to propose them today, or to advocate the “library model” in any other sphere. If someone proposed that food should be provided at government restaurants, or that there should be free state hospitals all over the country where everyone could come and receive medical treatment at no cost, they would be advocating something truly radical. Barack Obama never even considered the possibility of proposing single-payer healthcare, let alone a full national health service, and the Affordable Care Act used government subsidies to help people buy private insurance, without a “public option.” If libraries didn’t exist, and today’s Democratic party wanted to increase public access to information, they’d never suggest the government actually build spaces full of books where people could come and learn. They’d probably offer a tax credit for book purchases, or subsidize the Amazon library. It’s only because we’re so used to public libraries, and everyone loves them, that privatization seems such a radical and horrifying notion. But Mourdoukoutas was just proposing the application of market logic to yet one more sphere of life.
It’s worth appreciating just how extraordinary libraries are, why they matter, and what they can tell us about the kinds of institutions we should build. They’re spaces of absolute equality, where anyone can come, regardless of financial resources, to study, learn, and hang out. You don’t have to purchase anything in order to get to sit in them, you don’t have to be means-tested or background-checked. They give the same things to everybody, and there’s something beautiful (and increasingly rare) about that. Privatization generally involves the elimination of that kind of place. Economist Noah Smith has explained what the results of that can be: when everything costs money, life becomes far more stressful (though that stress is distributed unequally). He discusses the situation in Japan:
What would it really feel like to live in a society where almost every single thing is privately owned and priced? Walking around urban Japan, I feel like I am seeing a society that is several steps closer to that ideal than the United States. You may have heard that Japan is a government-directed society, and in many ways it is. But in terms of the constituents of daily life being privately owned and marginally priced, it is a libertarian’s dream world. For example, there are relatively few free city parks. Many green spaces are private and gated off (admission is usually around $5). On the streets, there are very few trashcans; people respond to this in the way libertarians would want, by exercising personal responsibility and carrying their trash home with them in little baggies. There are also very few public benches. In cafes, each customer must order something promptly or be kicked out; outside your house or office, there is basically nowhere to sit down that will not cost you a little bit of money. Public buildings generally have no drinking fountains; you must buy or bring your own water. Free wireless? Good luck finding that! Does all this private property make me feel free? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite—the lack of a “commons” makes me feel constrained. It forces me to expend a constant stream of mental effort, calculating whether it’s worth it to spend $4 to sit and rest for 10 minutes, whether it’s worth $2 to get a drink.
I get the same feeling walking around New York City, actually. Sitting down or using the restroom can cost money, because you have to do them in a cafe, where you likely need to buy something. I find this experience extremely taxing; I just wish there were lots of big public restrooms, and big public sitting-places, free for everyone to use. This is, first and foremost, because the poor deserve to be able to sit down or pee, and obviously those things should be basic human rights. But it’s also because even non-poor people should get to be free to move around the world without constantly having to weigh their choices the way Smith discusses: can I afford this extra 10 minutes? Do I want to sit down so badly that it’s worth $2? The book comparison here is useful. When I’m doing research, I want to just be able to access “all the books,” to look through them without thinking “Is this source so valuable that I am willing to pay X amount for it?” The privatization of knowledge, with lots of important information stored in academic journals or newspaper archives or legal documents that cost significant amounts of money to access, makes it difficult to do open-ended research.
The “Amazon library” concept also highlights one of the major problems of private control: the absence of any democracy. When an institution is controlled by a community, or a local government, the residents of that community have democratic control over it. Corporations, on the other hand, operate like totalitarian dictatorships: Jeff Bezos was never elected, yet he has almost absolute power within the enterprise. Every privatized institution is removed from democratic oversight. Amazon decides what books it wants in its library, what services it will provide, and at what price. Community members must suck it up and take what they’re given. (This is why, by the way, there would be something deeply off-putting about having a community meeting at an Amazon Community Space. Everyone knows, on some level, that it’s a lie: the community didn’t make the space, and it doesn’t control the space. Ultimately, people know that those in charge of the space don’t care about them, and see them only as means to an end.)
Public libraries make the world fairer, and they make life easier. In fact, the biggest problem with them is that we don’t put nearly enough resources into them. Local libraries often have very limited selections of books, periodicals, and database access. Well-resourced libraries can offer incredible things to their communities; one person responding to the Forbes article bragged that that week, their library was offering “a genealogy workshop, indigenous writers conference, puppet show, tai chi class and travel craft in one location.” And the individual was paying all of 37 cents in taxes for it. But so many libraries around the country are falling short of what they could do, and we even have places like the tragically shuttered beautiful McGregor Public Library in Highland Park, Michigan, which could not keep open because the local government was too poor to sustain it.
Libraries are not socialism, exactly, but they show what socialized institutions can look like, and provide a model for the left way of satisfying human needs. The conservative argument against left policies is often some variation on “Do you want your healthcare to run like the post office?” And everyone usually thinks “Oh god, no,” because the post office is slow and loses packages. (One time they literally sold my mail at auction instead of delivering it.) Of course, that could be fixed if the elected federal government actually cared about improving the post office, which they don’t. But more importantly, public libraries offer a clear counterpoint. Do you want your healthcare to be like the public library, where you can show up and get whatever you like for free and we pay a little in taxes but get more than that back in services? Of course. People love libraries.
The American public library is a model of what a community-run, not-for-profit, public service ought to and can look like. Not only should we fight like hell to keep parasitic corporations from turning them into Amazon subsidiaries, but we should be bringing the spirit and model of the public library to every domain of economic life.
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