Why Amazon will never replace libraries

You might have read – and been duly incensed by – a recent article in Forbes (since deleted) which suggested that Amazon bookshops should usurp local libraries. The latter, posited Forbes contributor Panos Mourdoukoutas, are of waning value; a waste of resources.

 “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money,” came the divisive headline on Saturday morning. Even before delving into the copy, you got a sense that this was the kind of rage-bait that’s become de rigueur in the incendiary world of op-eds.

Predictably, the article elicited an outpouring of fury from librarians, readers and community activists alike, who slated Forbes for its unhelpful, unpopular and, as Quartz put it, “deeply misinformed” opinion piece.

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“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¢,” came one Twitter user’s response, going on to implore sardonically, “Someone help me budget this, I’m not the chair of an economics department.”

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The latter comment came as a thinly veiled dig at Mourdoukoutas, who is Professor and Chair of Economics at LIU Post in New York. Mourdoukoutas remained steadfast in his argument, despite Forbes’ decision to pull the piece, stating: “Let me clarify something. Local libraries aren’t free. Homeowners must pay a local library tax. My bill is $495/year”.

Meanwhile, library supporters sung the institutions’ praises, swatting away Mourdoukoutas’ assertion that libraries “don’t have the same value they used to” with indignant aplomb.

One user, defending the Los Angeles Public Library, asserted, “Today we offered a genealogy workshop, indigenous writers conference, puppet show, tai chi class and travel craft in one location. My cost in taxes, 37 CENTS.”

Meanwhile, librarian Amanda Oliver made an impassioned appeal for people to “Visit your local library for one day. Sit and watch who comes in to use the services – it’s not just people checking out free books. It’s one of few places in our society where the underserved can be treated with dignity and respect. It’s WiFi. It’s translators. It’s kindness.”

Indeed. Libraries are a safe haven: For those looking to write up CVs, escape the cold, or indulge in the escapism of novels and poetry and science. Libraries are where local ads go up for trumpet teachers, and karate classes. Where people who have lost children can find support groups. Where you can learn German on the cheap. Where the elderly can congregate over book clubs and biscuits. They’re kaleidoscopic communities of joy.

Libraries are where people find purpose. It’s where they find like-minded individuals. Where they find people to help, and where people can help them. Libraries can be, forgive the mawkishness, where people find themselves.

And that’s something an ecommerce giant will never be able to offer.

Lead image: Wojtek Gurak, used under Creative Commons 

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