This week, I was hoping to talk about Prime Day or my social media class. However, something a bit more urgent came up: some guy who thinks Amazon should replace libraries.
For those of you who hadn’t heard over the weekend, an economics professor named Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote an article on Forbes welcoming the idea of Amazon replacing libraries. Needless to say, the article started a gigantic backlash from pretty much anyone on Earth who isn’t named Panos Mourdoukoutas.
The backfire was so bad, Forbes took it down.
Don’t worry, Panos ole buddy! I’ve got a copy here but I’ll also post it in its entirety to save everyone the trouble. We librarians like to provide information like that.
“Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities. They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.
There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.
They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians. Libraries served as a place where residents could hold their community events, but this was a function they shared with school auditoriums. There’s no shortage of places to hold community events.
Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they aren’t for free. Homeowners have to be financed by taxpayers in form of a “library tax.” It is usually added to school taxes, which in some communities are already high.
Meanwhile, they don’t have the same value they used to. The reasons why are obvious.
One such reason is the rise of “third places” such as Starbucks. They provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card.
On top of this, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have replaced video rentals. They provide TV and movie content to the masses at an affordable rate. Actual video rental services like Blockbuster have gone completely out of business.
Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.
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 expanding into the local library space will be an opportunity for the technology giant. At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.”
Shortly before Forbes took this dumpster fire of an article down, he added the following:
“To be fair, library surveys do not seem to confirm the idea that public libraries don’t have the value they used to. A Pew Research Center survey finds that Millennials are the most likely generations to use public libraries. Though it isn’t clear whether “public libraries” are community libraries or school libraries. And what the trend is among this group.
The survey also finds that “In-person library use in the US remains fairly stable” for the period 2012-16. At least that’s the title of one of their charts. But a reading of the chart is different: Library usage dropped from 53% to 46% over the same period.
Apparently, more data are needed to confirm a trend. But the opportunity for Amazon to enhance shareholder value remains.”
Oh, hey! I wasn’t the only one who noticed while he tried to use bogus numbers.
Mr. Mourdoukoutas just kept digging himself a bigger and bigger hole.
Aww, come on, just a few more tweets? I know y’all are enjoying this.
You know it’s bad when even actual libraries step in.
Or, you know…The American Library Association.
Who is Panos Mourdoukoutas?
According to his bio on Forbes, he is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at Long Island University Post in New York while also teaching at Columbia University. Apparently, he’s been published in Barron’s, The New York Times, Japan Times, European Management Review, Management International Review, and Journal of Risk and Insurance, and a couple of others that have nothing to do with libraries.
He also claims he’s published several books, including:
- Collective Entrepreneurship
- The Ten Golden Rules
- WOM and Buzz Marketing
- Business Strategy in a Semiglobal Economy
- China’s Challenge: Imitation or Innovation in International Business
- New Emerging Japanese Economy: Opportunity and Strategy for World Business
Correct me if I’m wrong, but none of those sound like library-related books. Mourdoukoutas also writes “I’ve traveled extensively throughout the world giving lectures and seminars for private and government organizations, including Beijing Academy of Social Science, Nagoya University, Tokyo Science University” and half a dozen other colleges. Did you tell these schools that they could save their students tuition if they replaced their academic libraries with Amazon?
Should we work for Amazon?
Maybe you don’t see the problems just yet with letting a corporation run a library, but that’s why you’re here today. Let’s look at Amazon’s track record, shall we?
- Amazon keeps most of their employees on food stamps. The Intercept submitted public records requests to five states for a list of their top employers of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, “Amazon cracked the top 20 in four”. For a company that makes so much money, why can’t they pay living wages?Do they pay too many taxes to do that? (Spoiler: nope)
- Amazon paid ZERO taxes in 2017. Not only did Amazon avoid all taxes in 2017, but the new Trump tax laws will put an extra $789 million dollars in their pocket. So…they have the money to pay their people, but don’t do it? Maybe they have a really awesome work environment like Google does. FYI, Google will pick you up for work on a bus, has a cafeteria and gym on site, and they’ll even do your laundry.
- The working conditions are so bad at Amazon, they won’t even let them use the bathroom. I’m going to say that again, because it sounds vaguely important: Amazon employees cannot go to the bathroom. An undercover investigation in April showed that employees feared being punished for being sick, pregnant, or even taking bathroom breaks. The investigation politely calls it a “bottle system”, but euphemisms do not make it any more humane. Amazon denies this, but come on – if I’m rated on speed and the nearest bathroom is down four flights of stairs, how am I supposed to use it?
- Amazon really doesn’t like it when people try to fight back, especially unions. Amazon has hired law firms that specialize in “fighting off organized labor” so they can pay less to get away with more.
Who would lose?
The Homeless and Underprivileged
Those who can’t afford computers, internet, or books would be helpless. The homeless who have nowhere else to go certainly wouldn’t be welcome. If Amazon is willing to make their own people urinate in bottles to keep their jobs, what makes you think they’re going to care about the community?
Many parents home school their children these days. More often than not, these families are part of cooperatives where the kids come together and learn in a classroom setting. Where do you think these families get the books they use for projects and homework? Where do you think they get their e-books and movies? Surely, you don’t think they buy every single book and movie. Replacing a library with Amazon will destroy home schooling – as a professor, how can you support destroying education systems?
While I would really like to not be replaced by Amazon, this part isn’t just about self preservation. It’s about the quality of information. The minimum wage worker isn’t going to provide you the same quality of information that an actual librarian will. I know you believe that Google can replace librarians, but who’s going to tell them which search results are accurate and not just an ad? As the famed author Neil Gaiman says, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” With the amount of misinformation out there, we’re pretty much the only chance you have. My friend Yaika Sabat’s recent article used an analogy of using WebMD to replace doctors that seemed fairly apropos.
When hurricane Harvey hit Houston, our library was packed with people. Every computer was being used to file with FEMA, dealing with insurance companies, arranging places to stay until they return home (if they had a home to go back to), we were a digital disaster relief station. We even had FEMA workers come in and help people file. On a more day-to-day basis, I’ve helped countless people find the paperwork to divorce their abusive spouse, get custody of their kids again, report their crooked boss or unfair apartment complex…who is going to help them if we are not there? Chuck gets it.
The public in general
People in general use the library for more than just books. Need to use a computer but can’t afford one? Library computer. Got a laptop but can’t afford internet? Library wi-fi. Want to print something out, but can’t afford a printer? Library printer. Faxing? Scanning? It’s hard to see at first, but there’s an oh-so-subtle pattern. How about DVDs and Blu-Rays? I pay pennies on the dollar to watch the new Avengers movie, or any other film. We could even have a movie night with those big public spaces we have…or some of our programming.
What would we lose?
Let’s think of just some of the programs offered at libraries:
- Children’s programs (Story Time, Baby & Me, all that fun stuff that exposes children to books, other kids and cultures)
- Classes (art, coding, film, GED, 3D printing, computers, knitting, quilting, baking, acting, hair braiding, this one could go forever)
- After school programs for children and teens
- Adult programs
- Senior programs
- Outside presentations (like if a professor wanted to give a lecture, for example)
Just this past week, we lunar scientists bring their mobile planetarium over. Where else are you going that kind of stuff besides going to a planetarium?
People like using the library as a “third place”.
Exposure to technology
Computers, books, e-books, tablets, there’s so much techie goodness I can pull from a library! What about more advanced or niche stuff? Virtual reality, coding, Raspberry Pi computers, robotics, 3D printing – you ain’t going to find this stuff at Office Depot.
If dolla bills is your language, then I will speak your language. First, we got those handy computers people use to apply for jobs. Where else you can walk in without a job and walk out an employed (and tax paying) citizen? Aside from a few select places, we’re the only game in town. What about the return on your investment (ROI) with a library? Back in Florida, one of the library systems I worked with calculated their library system produced $8.32 in value for every dollar they received. How much is your stock portfolio’s ROI, Mr. Mourdoukoutas? 3% on average, maybe? How about an investment with an 832% return? Amazon can’t promise you that.
Companies that privatize libraries exist on a simply formula:
- Fire everyone in the library
- Hire back only the few you want to keep
- Pay them much less than before you fired them.
Often times, they’ll hire them on as an independent contractor so they don’t have to pay benefits. How would you like it if LIU Post fired you, rehired you at 40% lower than what you were making, and give you zero benefits?
Mark Ritson, “If you really want to support your community, pay your f**king taxes.”
I only have one. In the event that Mr. Mourdoukoutas himself is reading this, you’ve probably established that we’re really good at finding information. You know what else we can find?
The guy who lives in Long Island with over a million dollars in assets can’t be bothered to pay $495? You don’t know where that $495 is going. Most of it probably isn’t going to books, more likely to the salaries of people trying to keep communities literate. I’m trying to find the right word to suit this. Out of touch? Tone deaf? Snobbish? Elite? Inhuman? Sociopath? Entitled? Misinformed? Maybe I’ll just stick with “dangerous”, because ideas like this threaten everyone. You probably dropped $495 on dinner last Saturday night, don’t pretend like this is a giant chunk of money for you.
My overall note would be to take a good, hard look in the mirror and understand that the public needs libraries more than you want Amazon.
Alright, I’m done for now. Comments? Questions? Share all and let me know your thoughts.
Justin Brasher, Brash Librarian
There have been a lot of excellent clapbacks to that article, but I found this one particularly satisfying.
Thank you, Valerie! I certainly try inform and entertain my readers to satisfaction.
I didn’t see his update referencing the Pew Research Center data, but I am confused that he says that it “isn’t clear” if public libraries are “community libraries or school libraries.” Public libraries are specifically not academic libraries and the survey explicitly states that it is referring to public libraries: “(It is worth noting that the question wording specifically focused on use of public libraries, not on-campus academic libraries.)”. Does he think Millenials don’t know what the public library is when asked if they use it? It really just seems like he’s trying to pretend that the data isn’t legitimate because he doesn’t want it to undermine his argument.
However, I could easily see a large number of Millenials using the public library since many have struggled financially since the recession or may be using it if they have children. Because, yes, some Millenials are in their 30s or otherwise presumably past traditional school age. I wonder if Mourdoukoutas was thinking of Generation Z here when he opined that those silly Millenials really meant they go to their “school libraries”?!
Also, I’m glad you mentioned how awful Amazon is. I try not to buy any books there because their business practices hurt authors and publishers. Still, it seems that a lot of people are too enticed by the low prices to boycott. (My public library actually buys some of their books from Amazon.)
It’s like his wording is designed to sidestep as much data as possible (while also assuming that Millennials are stupid). I’ve seen too many professors assume that young adults don’t know anything are complete iPhone zombies, oblivious to information and unable to use libraries, or that libraries are hopelessly outdated and have no way of helping people. I’ve seen some libraries that use Amazon as a last-ditch resort when items aren’t available anywhere else.
Golf. F*cking. Clap.
Thank you, good sir!
Great reading your blogg
Thank you, Arthur!