Forbes Dick Talks Shit About Libraries, Is MURRRRDERED By Vicious Readers Of Books

Culture Wars
Main Branch, Boise Public Library!

Everyone makes mistakes. But to truly screw things up, you need to be a free-market economist with a libertarian bent, as this weekend's best online kerfuffle demonstrated. On Saturday morning, Long Island University professor and Forbes columnist Panos Mourdoukoutas took to the Twitter Machine to plug his latest piece at Forbes, with the provocative title, "Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money." Not surprisingly, the internet was not pleased.

This morning, the article vanished from the web briefly before returning with three new paragraphs tacked on at the end, and then disappearing from Forbes again, resurfacing only just before Yr Wonkette finished this post. Happily, you can still find the first version archived here (and the second here), because like a really bad meal, some things just can't be purged. The argument -- made without reference to research -- is really quite simple: Nobody needs public libraries anymore, so why not just shut all the libraries down, let the private sector open brick-n-mortar bookstores and coffee shops in every community, save ourselves a bundle in taxes, and watch the profits roll in?

Mourdoukoutas doesn't deny that public libraries once served a purpose -- he acknowledges they "would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system," and that they made for a nice place to sit and read or to do "research in peace with the help of friendly librarians." Also, they had meeting rooms, but jeez, you can have public meetings at schools and other places, so that was already a duplicated, inefficient use of tax dollars.

You see, it's not that libraries have no value, it's just that the services they provide "don't have the same value they used to," because now we have nifty "third places" like Starbucks where anyone who has the money has

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.

Nobody needs the library anymore to check out videos or music, since streaming services have that covered, too. Heavens, just look at the fact that Blockbuster has gone out of business, and you'll see that public libraries' AV services are unneeded because nobody rents physical copies of videos anymore. As for books, they're mere curious antiquities, but if you have to have a book, they're all online or available to buy (which of course they aren't, but shut up):

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.

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.

Mourdoukoutas sums up with the confidence of a bright tenth-grader who's just finished reading Atlas Shrugged,

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.

Not surprisingly, people immediately fell to pointing out that a bookstore and a library have slightly different functions. One is a commercial venture aimed at profits, while the other is a public good aimed at bringing literacy and the wider world to the entire community, not to mention the essential point of libraries: They're one place where knowledge, help with finding a job, homework assistance, Mother Goose Story Hour, and plain ol' escapist entertainment are available to all comers, regardless of whether they can afford a Prime account or own their own laptop.

And also oh my god, the number of heartbreaking posts from people recalling how their own families were inhospitable or even dangerous, so the local library was a place where they could be safe and find the voices of other people who could offer a different perspective. More than one reply said their public library had quite literally saved their life. Starbucks, not so much a place where people will nurture your love of books.

And then there were the more upbeat, less dramatic, but nonetheless community-affirming notes like this one:

Oh, wait -- her parents could have bought that robotics kit on Amazon, if they had the money, so that too is a pointless example, because nice things are only for those who pay the admission fee. Clearly upset that people were having a knee-jerk reaction to his piece's title, Mourdoukoutas just wanted to know:

This brought another outpouring of people saying yes, we read it, and it perfectly summed up the worldview of a guy who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. At no point in the discussion could anyone persuade Mourdoukoutas to address the basic fact that while libraries do indeed cost tax dollars, they serve everyone, including those who might be able to buy their own books (but not at the prodigious rate some people read them!) but more importantly, those who can't afford to buy any books at all, but who can get help with a résumé at a library.

In that update, Mourdoukoutas conceded, somewhat grudgingly, that public libraries remain perplexingly popular, but aha! Fewer people are using them, maybe, so he WINS, maybe:

To be fair, library surveys do not seem to confirm the idea that public libraries don't have the value they used to. A Pew Research Center survey finds that Millennials are the most likely generations to use public libraries. Though it isn't clear whether "public libraries" are community libraries or school libraries. And what the trend is among this group.

The survey also finds that "In-person library use in the US remains fairly stable" for the period 2012-16. At least that's the title of one of their charts. But a reading of the chart is different: Library usage dropped from 53% to 46% over the same period.

Apparently, more data are needed to confirm a trend. But the opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains.

Because everyone on the internet continued not to realize libraries simply aren't free, the professor tried one last tweet yesterday:

Some folks disputed that tax assessment, although it does appear that Nassau County, New York, where he appears to live, does indeed have fucked-up taxing priorities and lots of wealthy residents. To make matters worse, the county applies library taxes only to residential taxes instead of also taxing businesses. And say, shouldn't an economist know better than to assume his own high library taxes are in any way typical? Yr Editrix noted this morning, before taking Wonkette Preschooler off to Story Hour, that the amount of her own property taxes (which were slightly more than $2000, which is fine and reasonable) distributed to the public library was 49 cents for 2017. And it shows: While the librarians themselves are wonderful (DUH), the place, quote, "DOESN'T HAVE ANY FUCKING BOOKS."

Still, some good came out of this stupid libertarian fuckery. It gave all of us the chance to reflect on what libraries are worth -- and while their economic bang for the buck is considerable, with an excellent return on investment, we also had the chance to reflect on the many, many intangibles of community value they provide, well beyond The Cold Equations. Which is an excellent story that's now in the public domain, so you can read it online. Or find in an anthology at the library.

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[Forbes (archived version here) / Pew Research Center]

Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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