An economics professor sparked widespread online outrage and ridicule over the weekend after writing an op-ed piece for Forbes titled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” As of this writing, the piece had been removed from Forbes' website.
In the piece, Panos Mourdoukoutas of Long Island University argues that recent changes in the worlds of technology and commerce have rendered libraries mostly obsolete. The ubiquity of “third places” such as neighborhood coffee shops, for instance, has diminished libraries' use as a community gathering space, Mourdoukoutas says. Streaming services have eliminated the need for library-based TV and movie rentals, and e-books have “turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.”
Since public libraries are financed with public dollars, Mourdoukoutas argues that replacing them with brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstores would save taxpayers money. (The founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post).
Mourdoukoutas’s piece is notable less for the arguments it contains than for sparking a backlash that was loud and fierce, two traits not typically associated with libraries or their patrons. Much of it is unsuitable for publication in a family newspaper.
It’s worth considering why so many people reacted to Mourdoukoutas’s op-ed the way they did. Fortunately, data from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) offers some clues.
As it turns out, lots and lots of people use their local libraries. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, “more than 171 million registered users, representing over half of the nearly 311 million Americans who lived within a public library service area, visited public libraries over 1.35 billion times,” the IMLS reports. For the typical library, that works out to about 4.4 visits for every single man, woman and child living in the region served by the library.
Over the long term, library visitation is up, although it has trended down in recent years. In 1995, for instance, there were only 3.9 library visits per capita in the United States. That figure peaked at 5.4 in 2009 and has declined moderately since then.
The IMLS recommends interpreting year-over-year changes with caution. It noted in a report last year that it doesn’t track virtual visits to libraries, when patrons visit their local library website to, say, download an e-book to their reader. Those virtual visits may account for some of the decline in library traffic since 2009.
The IMLS notes that in 2016 about 171 million people — more than half the total U.S. population — were registered library users with a library card. It’s little wonder that a suggestion to render those cards worthless would inspire raucous backlash.
Beyond that, Amazon is working in tandem with local libraries in at least one realm. The retailer notes that “more than 11,000 libraries in the United States offer Public Library Books for Kindle.”
This isn’t particularly surprising. Libraries have coexisted peacefully with brick-and-mortar bookstores, big and small, for decades. There’s no obvious reason a physical Amazon bookstore would change that relationship.