Foreword Reviews

Library Splainin’: What are They Good For?


On a recent Saturday, a writer for Forbes, Panos Mourdoukoutas, suggested something that only sounds good if you have money: that libraries are a taxpayer drain. Forbes took down the article over the backlash, but that’s OK. I’m a librarian. I know the secrets of Google Cache.

I’m not going to tear into this dude. He’s clearly got a pretty limited scope of experience. If I had to take a blind guess, I’d say he’s never had to print out his Uber earnings for tax purposes. Nor, I think, has he ever stepped out of his homeless shelter and said to himself, “well, guess I’d better find something to do for ten hours.” So I think it’s a safe bet that he didn’t know what the library was really for before the backlash hit on Sunday. Honestly, he’d have stopped halfway if he just thought it through. If Amazon is “better than a local library without the tax fees,” then I hereby rename my Prime membership an “Amazon Tax.”

Clearly the idea that everyone could just go to Starbucks for wifi is inane. I’m not even going to argue against it. What we need to talk about is the fact that Panos isn’t the only person who’s ever had the brilliant idea that libraries are a waste of money. In fact, at least one other Forbes writer has breathlessly presented this concept before. Every few years, someone publishes an article that advocates, indirectly, for the removal of Internet and test prep from low-income communities. My question is this: why do people keep hitting upon this plan like it’s a brilliant new way of saving tax dollars? Why do Forbes writers want libraries to go away?

After all, we do dumber things with our tax money. Sometimes we have huge stupid parades with it. Sometimes we let politicians fund their own campaigns with it. The difference between these tax projects and public libraries is twofold.

  1. A library looks like a soft target—because libraries are nice, my friends. They’re altruistic. Some people think that a nice organization is automatically a pushover, an easy win. A politician might get scrappy; a librarian would probably just cry. So the intrepid writer sits down at their keyboard and they rant a little about this egregious waste, the library. Maybe all they want are the clicks and shares. In an age that rewards bullies, this is a strategy that should work.

  2. But it doesn’t. Military parades are the offspring of an ego trip and a money well. Funding your re-election with Social Security is an admission that nobody actually wants you in power badly enough to donate to you. People don’t necessarily shout about that stuff, but the public kind of knows that it’s not in their interest. The library, on the other hand, works for the people and only for the people. There’s no commercial, military, or political gain involved. Trust me: nobody gets rich being a librarian. So there’s backlash. As much as the average American has accepted that we’re going to have pointless show of force, they refuse to accept that Children’s Room Storytime might someday go away.

Maybe self-interest is the ultimate reason why Forbes keeps suggesting that libraries disappear. There’s no immediate profit in sharing, especially in sharing knowledge. It must baffle the average financial writer that someone would dedicate their life to helping an endless line of jobseekers with the same five resume formatting problems. Or pointing an eternal parade of middle schoolers to the same shelf of summer reading material.

But there are Americans who still know that knowledge is worth more than money, that privilege can be shared, that equality depends on open access. And for every Panos who dismissively suggests a better membership model, there are a hundred thousand other voices who demand that we be soft and kind and share our books. It’s a sign that we’re still the country that wants everyone to succeed, the country of cooperation and fairness. The country of hope.

Anna Call

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