Forbes opinion piece stirs outrage among library advocates

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by Steve Zalusky

An op-ed piece by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas on the Forbes magazine website Ignited a firestorm among library advocates, who eagerly offered overwhelming evidence countering his contention that, as the headline put it, “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.”

American Library Association President Loida Garcia-Febo vigorously denounced the Forbes piece, commenting that Mourdoukoutas could have benefited from the assistance of a librarian who might have pointed him to various economic impact studies demonstrating that our nation’s libraries are a sound investment.

But Garcia-Febo, in an article in Publishers Weekly, elaborated on the economic benefit libraries provide taxpayers.  She wrote, “Dozens of economic impact studies from across the country show libraries are a viable asset for the communities they serve. Libraries fuel job creation, opportunities for business development and resources that empower users to seek and sustain employment. Taxpayers are investing in education and lifelong learning, and every dollar builds equity within their community and state and yields a tremendous return on Investment (ROI).”

She noted that in Ohio, taxpayers enjoy an economic return of $5.48 per dollar of taxpayer support. Texas public libraries were found to provide $2.628 billion in benefits while costing $566 million, a return on investment of $4.64 for each dollar.  “Library staff are committed stewards of our public dollars, and I don’t know many others able to extract more value from the roughly $35 average annual investment in local tax funding,” she wrote.

The Forbes piece has since disappeared from the web, but its aftertaste has lingered.  The reason for its removal, Forbes explained, was that the article “was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise.”  That was putting it mildly, as is clearly shown by its reaction not only on social media but in official communication from the American Library Association, as the library community felt the need to set the record straight for the public.

In addition to Garcia-Febo’s piece, ALA’s Public Programs Office also weighed in on the controversy.

Speaking to the issue of public perception in an article on I Love Libraries, Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD, and Rebecca Joy Norlander, PhD, senior researchers at New Knowledge Organization, a social science think tank, and Deb Robertson, director of the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office, wrote, “(W)e know that the public image of libraries is lagging behind.”

They wrote, “For us to fully appreciate the value of libraries, our public discourse needs to move beyond that image and recognize the full spectrum of services and programs that libraries provide.”  Libraries are about more than collections, they wrote – “they are also centers for lifelong experiential learning, hubs for civic and cultural gatherings, and partners in community-wide innovation.”

On its blog, the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) featured a piece by YALSA President Crystle Martin, brought up another aspect of the public’s need for library services.

She wrote, “But perhaps what is most disturbing about his suggestion is that he completely ignores the fact that there are millions of Americans living in poverty who cannot afford to purchase books and other materials, and who do not have access in their homes to current digital tools or high speed Internet.”

She cited data from the National Center for Children in Poverty that shows that 21 percent of youth live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. She noted, “Libraries bridge this gap for low income youth, providing access not only to digital tools and the Internet, but trained adults and peers who can help them learn how to use these tools efficiently, ethically and effectively.”

The bottom line is that library services, although not free to property taxpayers, provide their communities with the biggest bang for their buck, as well as a public benefit rooted in a sense of responsibility that one doesn’t necessarily find from corporations such as Amazon.