Stop Pretending that Libraries are a Business. They’re not!

Stop Pretending that Libraries are a Business. They’re not!

Like clockwork, every few months, someone out in the world publishes an article in the national press about how libraries should be replaced by X company. The argument is usually pretty simplistic: Thingamabob Inc. does this one function of a library really well, so libraries are on their way out. Obviously, when reduced to its bare essentials, it sounds so silly! Libraries do a lot of things very well, producing value for their communities in ways that are fundamentally different than any business.

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For one thing, a library’s stakeholders are a whole community, not a cadre of shareholders or a few business owners. Libraries exist for the public good, not to make a profit for investors. That means they do things in a unique way — materials are purchased for the common good using public funds, science programs, storytimes, concerts and cultural lectures, and comfortable space to work and think does not require the purchase of a cup of coffee or anything else. Actually, I’ve never heard of a person being kicked out of a library because they haven’t paid their taxes.

In that way, the idea of a library as a public good is a lot like a road. Taxpayers support the construction and upkeep of highways regardless of who drives on them. No one but the most addled anti-tax fundamentalist argues that they shouldn’t pay for fixing a pothole on a public road because they haven’t driven there lately. That kind of thinking is the ultimate example of selfishness!

No knock on business here. I have great respect for hard-working and ingenious business owners and workers who provide useful services to the public. What I’m saying is that there’s a fundamental difference between the purpose of the private and public sectors. While libraries do take in some (usually scant) revenue through overdue fines and services like passport processing, copy & fax, notary, and others, their goal is not to make a profit, or even break even.

The motivation for most public libraries is, first and foremost, to provide essential services like access to information and education, preservation of heritage, and research assistance. Whereas a business may wisely decide not to open a branch in a neighborhood with less population density since they won’t be able to sell enough of their product there, a library branch will remain open there because it’s services are vital to the community. Even if that community is small and poor. In fact, that’s even more of a reason to have a library there.

As a public sector institution, the library is more resilient to economic downturns than private sector entities, which is very important because when the economy tanks, library use skyrockets. The reason for this increased use is not a single function, it’s many of the library’s regular services: Internet access, resume help, job search and skills training, literacy classes, circulation of materials, a place for freelancers to work and budding entrepreneurs to get advice on business plans and conduct market research. And these are only some of the normal services libraries provide.

So next time you see someone comparing public libraries with some corporation, tell them how ludicrous their comparison is. Tell them that libraries and businesses don’t drive in the same lane, that there will never be a killer app that will replace libraries, that no flashy start-up will appear to disrupt the “library industry” because libraries are not an industry. Tax-supported municipal libraries are a public sector institution invented to furnish essential services to the communities they serve. The only argument concerning them should be whether to support them a lot, or a whole lot. Period.