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What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books

Those predicting the demise of public libraries aren't reading closely enough.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 30, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 9:01 pm CDT

Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wants us to close public libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle with an unlimited subscription. “Why wouldn’t we simply junk the physical libraries and purchase an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription for the entire country?” he asks. Worstall points to substantial savings on public funds, arguing that people would have access to a much larger collection of books through a Kindle Unlimited subscription than they could get through any public library and that the government would spend far less on a bulk subscription for all residents than it ever would on funding libraries.

Is he right? Are libraries obsolete? He might be correct—but only if libraries were just about books, which they are not. Libraries are actually an invaluable public and social resource that provide so much more than simple shelves of books (or, for those in rural areas, a Bookmobile like the one this author grew up with). A world without public libraries is a grim one indeed, and the assault on public libraries should be viewed as alarming.

Humans have been curating libraries for as long as they’ve been creating written materials, whether they be tablets, scrolls, handwritten books, or printed mass-media. They’ve become archives not just of books on a variety of subjects, but also newspapers, genealogical materials, art, and more. Notably, early libraries were primarily private, with only wealthy individuals maintaining stocks of printed materials due to their expense.

That’s what made the Great Library at Alexandria such an impressive, and important, resource. It wasn’t just the huge volume of material on site, but the fact that any member of the public could take advantage of its resources (by demonstrating an interest and relevant skills). It hosted scores of scholars at any given time and was a critical location for research and cultural exchange.

It marked a key turning point in the history of libraries, presenting the idea that knowledge could become a public resource, and that a library could turn into a public gathering space. The ideology of the library as a place of free exchange waxed and waned over the centuries, but by the 1800s, the idea that public libraries were an important part of a free society was firmly enshrined, and numerous nations, including the U.S., made public libraries an important part of their culture.

The popular myth about the Library at Alexandria is that it was sacked and burned, but in fact, the truth of it is more complicated. It was in fact subjected to multiple raids and burnings at various points in history, after which its collections were rebuilt time and time again. What ultimately killed the Library was budget cuts.

The American Library Association has identified funding as one of the most pressing concerns for modern libraries, noting that in a nation embroiled in foreign wars and the creation of a massive security state, libraries and other public domestic resources are getting short shrift: “Libraries have seen cuts to the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), and many other programs that benefit libraries have been severely cut or in some cases terminated. We follow these other programs as well, because libraries are just one part of a much bigger picture that includes education, the humanities, the arts, and many other important social functions.”

In addition to federal funding cuts, libraries have also faced state funding shortages. Earlier this year, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested slashing library funding in New York. In Vermont, the state government offers no funding assistance to libraries. In Oregon, the Pendleton Library was forced to beg for funds from the public, and it’s not the only one; the Sharpsburg Community Library barely managed to meet a fundraising goal, while in Ohio, legislators are fighting to defend libraries.

Libraries are also being hit by privatization, with firms promising to cut costs for library services. Such companies actually tend to cost more for regional libraries, thanks to their incredibly high administrative costs.

Why are libraries so important? If the Kindle can provide immeasurable books at a fraction of the cost, why not simply turn to this option?

Setting aside the fact that the Kindle is laden with problematic Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology, which limits individual freedoms, people don’t just go to libraries for books, and technology isn’t the solution to every problem. The library is a social gathering place, used to conduct classes and provide people with public resources—including computers and wireless networks for those who can’t access them at home, and struggle to find their footing in a world dominated by technology.

Librarians also provide highly unique and specialized services, benefiting from years of training to learn to serve patrons. It’s not just that a library provides access to books, but that it also offers access to brilliant individuals who provide research assistance, guidance, book recommendations, and tools to help people empower themselves when it comes to researching and locating information. Giving everyone a Kindle doesn’t solve that problem.

The library has historically been and is today a resource for low-income people, including members of the homeless community, who can’t afford individual access to what libraries have to offer. It’s not just tangible things like books, magazines, and research materials such as old newspapers and property records, but the intangible: The experienced librarian, the tax preparer who provides advice, the community lectures. These are things that cannot be replaced by mere technology—not even with Kindle Fire’s much-vaunted Mayday Button.

Writing in defense of libraries in 1921, George Bernard Shaw said:

The debt of British literature, and indeed every department of British culture, to the British Museum Library is incalculable. I myself worked in its reading-room daily for about eight years at the beginning of my literary career; and oh (if I may quote Wordsworth) the difference to me! And that difference was a difference to all the readers of my books and of my contributions to journalism, as well as to all the spectators of my plays: say, to be excessively cautious, not less than a million people.

He spoke to the great democratizing influence of libraries. Today, facing a yawning class and culture gap, and a shrinkage of public gathering places and public resources, library patrons need libraries more than ever before—especially since many libraries are embracing the digital revolution and becoming so much more than repositories of dead tree books. Libraries are offering computer classes, access to digital resources, and so much more.

These aren’t things that a Kindle can provide, and they aren’t things Amazon will ever be able to offer. Rather than giving Amazon even more power over the publishing world, we should be sinking funds into libraries to shore up society and culture—and we should give thanks for all the amazing things libraries have brought us as a public resource with a value that truly can’t be estimated.

Photo Smath/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 30, 2014, 8:00 am CDT