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The Magic of Libraries

Libraries have a history going back thousands of years. One of the most famous libraries, the Library of Alexandria, is believed to have been founded in 295 B.C.E. and was supposed to have held the greatest collection of ancient literature ever gathered. Thinking more modernly, the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. is the largest library in the world, with over 168 million items in its collection. The first library supported by taxes and opened to the public was in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833, free for everyone in the town.

Now, not every library will hold records like that, but they can still be life changing to the average person. Some of my earliest memories are of libraries. I used to walk to my local public library every day during the summer and stay for hours reading. For anyone who likes books, it is a haven; a quiet place to go where you can check out as many books as you’d like. Not only that, but libraries offer services that, were they to be proposed today, would never get put into practice. Where else can you have free access to wifi without having to buy anything? They even have computers for patrons to use if they don’t own one themselves. In a world that is quickly moving towards a digital empire, this can be crucial for families who may not afford internet in their own homes.

Other services to their communities include events for children to encourage literacy, like different summer reading programs that offer kids prizes for reading a certain number of books, or English as a second language classes. Many also offer tutoring for kids who may struggle in school. These things work towards the pursuit of knowledge. Not to mention everything that libraries do to fight censorship, a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that libraries helped Americans decide what information they can trust.

Not everyone shares the same views as I do, though. About a year ago an op-ed was published (then taken down) in Forbes magazine titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” What it was about is all in the title: an economist named Panos Mourdoukoutas, who does not work for Forbes, published an article saying that libraries cost more than they are worth. Though the article was deleted off of Forbes’ website, it is still available in PDF form online, having been catalogued by the American Library Association, what wonderful irony.

What baffles me the most about this article is that Mourdoukoutas builds a strong case against himself, obviously in hopes of refuting it, and fails. He mentions what I have, that libraries give people places to meet and to relax and read, but then says that these are services that are no longer needed; this is just not true. According to the ALA, the number of public programs offered per capita has jumped 27.5% in 2019. Libraries around the country have focused on creating programs that assist marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ+ community.

The evidence he cites in his favor is sometimes even false, like when he said that “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services,” which was debunked by author Thu-Huong Ha in a response article published in Quartz. She pointed out that print book sales remained steady, which is something still true a year later, in fact evidence shows that sales have increased.

Mourdoukoutas’ true motivations can be summed up in his final line: “The opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains.” He is not concerned with the taxpayers, his thoughts are with the shareholders. What Panos does not understand is that libraries are not for the “consumer;” their appeal is so much more than the books and therefore cannot be replaced by a corporation. A majority of the benefits that libraries provide are on the community level, things that will help those who cannot afford it themselves. These benefits are ones that are often invisible to people like Mourdoukoutas, whose only thought is about potential profits, so it is up to the rest of us to prove libraries’ worth.