When US business site Forbes ran an article about libraries, they probably weren’t expecting it to be contentious. Obviously, they didn’t know library Twitter very well. Now they do. The article was taken down by Forbes two days after publication following an outpouring of Twitter rage from librarians and library lovers. Lesson: if you want to start a Twitter pile on, trash libraries.
In the piece, Panos Mourdoukoutas, an economist and academic from Long Island University, suggests that public libraries ought to be replaced by Amazon stores, as this would save tax dollars. Mourdoukoutas says libraries were valuable to communities once upon a time because they had free books, videos and DVDs, were a comfortable place to read and hold events, and because you could get help from ‘friendly librarians’. His view is that these functions have now lost their value. Libraries are obsolete because there’s Starbucks if you want to read a book, use the internet, meet friends and have a coffee, and there’s Netflix if you want to stream movies. In any case, Mourdoukoutas argues that ‘technology has turned physical books into collector’s items’.
I swear I felt the earth tilt as the collective weight of librarians’ fingers around the world fell on their keyboards to bash out responses to this think piece. It would be easy to dismiss it as clickbait, or uninformed trash; it was terribly written. But the problem is deeper than that. The piece shows a total disregard, not only to libraries and the important work they do for their communities, but more importantly to the great many people who rely on them, particularly the under-privileged, marginalised and disenfranchised. This is nowhere starker than in Trump’s America right now.
Being an economist, you might expect that the author would recognize that wealth and access to all of its attendant privileges, particularly in his home country, is not equally distributed. At some level, he does recognise that there are actual people who exist in the world—some large amorphous body that he condescendingly calls ‘the masses’ throughout his piece.
Mourdoukoutas says: ‘Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries’. The upside being not only that it would save tax money, but it would ‘enhance stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop’. Fair point, with a net worth of 143 billion dollars, we should all be concerned about fattening the coffers of Jeff Bezos; slashing local libraries and their community services seems like a reasonable way to do that. Wait . . . What?
In a small concession, Mourdoukoutas recognizes that ‘library surveys do not seem to confirm the idea that public libraries don’t have the value they used to’. No kidding. The US think tank, The Pew Research Center, publishes regular surveys on the use and perceived value of public libraries in the United States. They say that library use is steady and the group using them the most are millennials. Their research shows that people value libraries for a whole range of reasons including (yes, Mourdoukoutas) books and reading spaces, but also for access to education, computers, digital technology and Wi-Fi, for a safe place to hang out, and for sparking creativity. 66% of the people they surveyed say ‘the closing of their local public library would have a major impact on their community’, that’s even if they are not library users themselves, clearly more far-sighted than Mourdoukoutas.
The other significant value people derive from libraries is help identifying reliable, trustworthy news and information online, help sifting through ‘fake news’. Good quality information assists people to make important life decisions. Libraries train people (for free) to use technology and increase their digital literacy. I wonder if Mourdoukoutas has ever considered the digital divide—not everyone can afford a computer or internet access—and the fact that as more transactions with government move online, this further excludes people who are already marginalised: the poor, the homeless, people with a disability or mental illness, refugees. When the Australian government moved the Census online, our public libraries filled with people asking for help.
Back in the US, in the wake of natural disasters and major community upheaval, libraries are often the first public space to re-open, offering basic services and shelter to a ravaged community. After Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and following the 2017 race riots, libraries threw open their doors and jump-started community healing and renewal.
Libraries are constantly evolving to respond to the needs of their communities, but at their core they stay true to their founding ideals. The public library system in the US was bankrolled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie financed the building of over 2,500 libraries, many in the US and also in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and other countries. He believed in supporting the ‘industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.’ In the South of the US, where segregation meant black people could not access public libraries, he funded separate libraries for African Americans.
Closer to home, Sir Redmond Barry founded the State Library Victoria (declaration: my employer) as the ‘people’s university’ in 1854. It was free and open to anyone over the age of 14, including women, who at that time, were excluded from access to university. Along with schools, courts and parliament, libraries are arguably one of the bedrock institutions in a democracy. They are free and egalitarian; they preserve anonymity; they filter ‘fake news’; they welcome everyone equally.
Maybe all of these arguments I’m making for the social value of libraries are too soft for an economist like Mourdoukoutas; perhaps he is not concerned about the welfare of the ‘the masses’ as he calls them. We can take a purely economic view of libraries. Libraries help educate people; this improves their chances of getting a job and contributing to the economy. Libraries also directly assist people in job searches through interview training, assistance with resumes and cover letters, and access to computers.
Let me put my neo-liberal hat on for a moment and assign a direct dollar value to libraries. A 2018 independent report by SGS Economics and Planning (declaration: commissioned by the State Library Victoria and Public Libraries Victoria Network) shows that in Victoria, every dollar invested in Victorian public libraries generates $4.30 of benefits to the local community. Additionally, public libraries generate $328 million in economic activity in the state. This will only increase as we see innovative programs like the Foundry658 accelerator (declaration: I work on this project) kicking off at the State Library Victoria (in partnership with ACMI) which will directly support the financial sustainability and revenue generation of creative industries practitioners, and the State Library’s StartSpace program (declaration: I lead this project) which will take early stage entrepreneurs and small businesses from across the state and from a range of sectors from the seed of a bright idea right through to financial success.
Should Mourdoukoutas wish to find a model for effective decimation of a public library system, he need only look to the crippling disaster of recent public libraries shut downs in the United Kingdom, the value of which is best summed up by UK writer, Caitlin Moran:
A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination … they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff.’ A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.
After pulling their trash piece on libraries, Forbes has since posted a love letter to libraries written by an astrophysicist who grew up in the US Midwest. It’s a more fitting view; libraries are better appreciated by star-gazers than the cold, dead eyes of bean counters.
You can find the redacted Forbes article here perma.cc/CBZ6-SKLV
Justine Hyde is Director, Library Services and Experience at the State Library Victoria and a freelance writer. @justine_hyde