In an opinion column published on Forbes on Saturday, a professor of economics argued that local public libraries should be replaced by Amazon. The essay, which sparked so much controversy that Forbes removed it from its website on Monday, argued, “At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.”
As someone who has worked in libraries for seven years, the suggestion that Amazon could be a better provider than a library is unfathomable. Amazon charges people who want access to art and entertainment. By offering anybody free access to a massive collection of books, music, and movies, libraries fundamentally advance the idea that culture is a public good that everybody has a right to enjoy, regardless of their income. For anyone who believes in the power of art to change and enhance our lives, the idea that it should only be available to people who can pay for it is horrifying.
But libraries are not just a place to find books — they’re one of the few places that provide a number of free services to the American public. They offer a safe public space for people to gather, computer and internet access to those who don’t have it, story time for children, a safe space for teens, resources for the unemployed and homeless. Writer Panos Mourdoukoutas seemed to grossly underestimate just how much libraries and librarians provide to the public.
Some two-thirds of my patrons are homeless or struggling with addiction
I work as a librarian in downtown Washington, DC, in a branch that serves nearly 100,000 visitors each year. My location is a “single-service desk,” meaning we only have one circulation desk that serves all visitors. Some two-thirds of our regular patrons fall into one of three categories: homeless, struggling with addiction, or recovering from addiction.
Our library provides a space where they can use free computers and wifi, as well as access a climate-controlled environment with clean bathrooms and water. Many of our patrons arrive first thing in the morning from a homeless shelter and stay until a shuttle picks them up to take them back in the evening.
We know their names. We speak to the shelters or outreach programs when we haven’t seen them in a while. We ask other patrons about them to make sure they’re okay. We help them fill out free or low-income housing forms, which are often complicated and overwhelming. Sometimes this means showing them how to access and fill out an online PDF, sitting with them at a table for an hour to sort through the various documents they need, helping them use our free scanner to upload documents, and ensuring they’ve submitted everything correctly.
We keep a four-page packet at the desk to hand out to our patrons experiencing homelessness — it’s a list we’ve put together of local shelters, food sources, open bathrooms and showers, and free legal services.
We help them find secure employment by offering free résumé building and editing services and walking them through the job hunting and application process. We provide the computers and free printing they need to go on interviews.
There are new immigrants who ask about visas. We show them the correct websites to go to, we help them translate the pages, and we teach them how to scan and email the necessary documents. We also provide an invaluable translation service: Any library patron who speaks a language other than English can access a free live translator through a phone service to communicate with us.
There are mothers and fathers and grandparents and foster parents and nannies and children and schools who attend twice-weekly story times I lead. Many of them acknowledge this as some of the only time they spend out of the house socializing. It’s a rare place that creates a sense of community that bridges socioeconomic gaps.
Libraries are one of the few public goods we’ve got left
I’ve often heard the argument, “That’s not the library’s job. There are agencies for that.”
But where are people without access to computers or internet supposed to go to find the agencies that will help them job-search or secure low-income housing? Where can they go to sit down and figure out their next steps, with knowledgeable help close by?
We search for the correct offices. We print Google maps with walking or bus instructions. We give them a running start in helping improve their lives. In a world heavily skewed toward people who can pay for access to resources, we do what we can to provide equity.
Just this week, a woman stopped by our desk because she needed to be taught how to open a new tab in an internet browser. She returned a few minutes later and said, “Please write ‘stomach ache’ on this piece of paper for me. I don’t know to spell it.” The man waiting behind her had no idea how to open an internet browser to begin his first job search in years. I walked him through the process and helped him get to a job site. This was a few minutes of a 40-hour workweek.
I can’t imagine where this woman and this man would go without the library. Would Amazon really be willing to help them with all of their needs free of charge?
The last thing libraries need is Silicon Valley “disruption”
Amazon is a corporation. Profit is at the center of its ethos. Fundamentally, it is not here to provide a public good: It exists to make money. Even when presenting a charitable front, like Amazon’s Smile campaign, which donates only around 10 cents per $20 spent, it still benefits from the majority of its profits. At its core, Amazon is about providing services to people who can pay for them.
Libraries and librarians fill in the significant gaps created by what I would argue is our society’s pandemic of ignoring our impoverished, underserved, and most vulnerable populations. Our government continues to take away from our public services — national parks, arts programs, museums funding, aid for children with disabilities.
I refuse to accept that everything must be “disrupted” and turned into a moneymaking machine for tech elites. It’s absurd to suggest that Silicon Valley look to profit from one of the few institutions available across the entire country that doesn’t exist to make money for someone else.
Libraries are irreplaceable. Either discuss providing more funding for the invaluable work we do, or leave them alone.
Amanda Oliver is a writer and librarian. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at UC Riverside. You can find more of her writing at AmandaOliver.com or subscribe to her Tinyletter email newsletter, where she often writes about being a librarian.