Why Privatization of Libraries is a Really #$*$@(*@ Idea

Making libraries into ‘Amazon Stores’ would degrade society.

Earlier this week, in a column on Forbes, professor Panos Mourdoukoutas advocated for the privatization of public libraries. In order to save taxpayers money, he argued, these temples to knowledge and learning should be replaced with… Amazon Stores.

If you felt a slight tilting in the Earth’s axis this weekend, a sense of being somewhat displaced — that was Benjamin Franklin, advocate of the importance of libraries to a functioning society, spinning in his grave.

In his zeal to assault society’s ready access to services and information in order to save himself a couple of bucks come tax time, Mourdoukoutas made several key mistakes that even a seventh-grader would have avoided. First, he failed to back up his argument with any evidence that libraries are indeed in need of urgent replacement. Instead of data and facts, we get such pithy statements as: “Some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.” Where are his citations? Where does he call out facts and data — any facts and data — about the actual health of libraries in this country?

Libraries provide more than just books, of course. At my local library, just down the block, kids use the computers (and free Web access) to do schoolwork; adults consult with librarians to find out information about city services; people check out books and videos they might not be able to otherwise afford. It is a shining example of what we might call “street level democracy,” or the ability of the collective to access what it needs to survive and prosper.

But none of that matters to Mourdoukoutas; he cares first and foremost about his tax burden:

Of course (one gently explains), libraries aren’t free. Nor are roads, infrastructure, salaries of public employees, or any of the thousand other facets of a society. Whether or not you feel the money is being used efficiently (and I’m the first to argue that cash is often utilized inefficiently), your taxes go to the common good. If the professor doesn’t feel like he wants to contribute materially to society, he’s absolutely more than welcome to build himself a rough-hewn cabin in the woods, make himself a bow-and-arrow, and live entirely off the grid.

Anyway, let’s move on to the next part of his argument: that libraries should be replaced specifically with Amazon Stores. Here is his quote to that effect:

“Of course, there’s Amazon Books to consider. Amazon have created their own online library that has made it easy for the masses to access both physical and digital copies of books. Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks.”

And therein lies the issue: A library is meant as an impartial repository of accumulated knowledge. Librarians are famous for resisting the occasional public outcries to ban certain books; they will quit rather than submit to an order to strip knowledge from their stacks and databases. Defending such a line is key to maintaining a society in which information passes freely.

But a corporation has no such interest, or concern. Why would it? A corporation cares only about profit. Let’s say Amazon (or a similar bookseller) really did take over a library’s function in society — and some mid-level executive decided to ban a list of controversial books, or exclude the classics simply because he didn’t understand them, or refuse to include a particular reference material because it wasn’t an “Amazon branded” version. Amazon did once delete Orwell, if you remember.

A corporation in this position might choose to delete other books, and society would be infinitely poorer for it — but hey, society wouldn’t have to pay so much every year for its three-bedroom split-level!

This debate over libraries reminds me of the tempest-in-a-teapot that erupted a few years ago over “Citizenville,” a nonfiction book by former San Francisco mayor (and current gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom. In that book, he argued that government should make better use of “social media, networks, peer-to-peer engagement, and other technological tools.” In order to accomplish that aim, he suggested, government should open up its databases to third-party developers and engineers.

Newsom wasn’t the first (and he won’t be the last) public figure to advocate for the privatization of some public resource (in his case, data). But the idea of remaking at least some aspect of government in the image of a private corporation — or giving that department or agency over to a corporation to run — has some incredible drawbacks.

Key among them: The needs and pace of corporations are antithetical to government. Around when Newsom offered his ideas, Evgeny Morozov composed a lengthy essay in The Baffler in which he questioned the whole concept of making government more responsive — in a compound word, more corporate-like.

“One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency,” Morozov wrote in that essay, “but because other considerations — like fairness and equity of access — come into play.”

At its extremity, advocating excessive corporate intervention pushes an “economic-innovative dimension” that all but ensures “the private sector always emerges victorious.” This echoes what I just wrote about the danger of letting a corporation determine which books or resources are present in a library-like setup; economics intrudes where they should not belong.

In essence, government and private enterprise are different animals with vastly different goals, and the best practices developed by one might not necessarily apply to the other. If Mourdoukoutas realized that, maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to advocate for the demolition of a core aspect of society — something that has sustained the collective knowledge for centuries.