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MCPL Director: Why Amazon Cannot Replace Libraries

steve potter

July 24, 2018

This past weekend, most of my friends were reading an online post on Forbes’ website entitled “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” Although the editorial has since been taken down (as it was deemed to be deeply misinformed), I wanted to take a moment to dissect the writer’s arguments, which are not new or unique.

There always seems to be two commonalities with articles like these:

  1. The author always confuses an information service (a library) with an information delivery or media service (the internet, Netflix, or 
  2. The author never interviews a librarian, reviews the Pew studies, or appears to have ventured into a library in years.

My friends at EveryLibrary wrote a very direct and detailed response to the author’s somewhat capricious editorial. I think the most important point from their response is that an Amazon Prime account, with add-ons to allow for music, magazine, and eBook borrowing as well as streaming movies, would cost about $150 per month. The average adult in the U.S. pays about $4.50 per month for library service and gets all these services and much, much more. I would encourage you to read EveryLibrary’s response and to learn more about how they are changing the narrative around the exaggerated obsolescence of the public library.  

Something I have been saying for years is that average library users receive much more in service than they pay in taxes. Every year, Mid-Continent Public Library creates a conservative calculation of the value of the services we provide compared to what it would cost someone to buy those services themselves. Most years, we provide between $3.50 and $4.00 in service for every $1 we receive in revenue. But don’t take my word for it—try it out yourself. Go to our Library Value Calculator, and see how much it would cost you to buy the same service each month if you did not receive it from the Library. 

People often consider “costs” but fail to realize the important work that libraries do that cannot be easily quantified. Our Library, for example, focuses heavily on early literacy and making sure that children enter school ready to learn and that they are reading at grade level by third grade. How do we do this? Through our Grow A Reader initiative, which focuses on providing in-person, interactive learning opportunities like our storytimes and our Summer Learning Program.

Grade level reading is important and cannot be easily replaced with a website. Studies show that if children are not reading at grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely to graduate high school, and high school dropouts are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated. What costs more? Supporting the public library or building jails and housing inmates?

Our Library also focuses on helping people participate in the economy by building their own small businesses, learning skills to gain the next job, and even by earning accredited high school diplomas with job training. What costs more? Supporting your public library that helps create jobs and an employable workforce? Or the full funding of public assistance programs like welfare and unemployment compensation? The sum of library service is much more valuable than the actual price one pays to support the library, and online merchants like Amazon do not replicate these services or outcomes.

This editorial on Forbes was not the first—nor will it be the last—to proclaim that libraries are dead and to suggest that some other service could easily replace us. Every time I read an article like this, I’m reminded of the quote from Mark Twain who said, “the reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated.”

Libraries are not warehouses for materials. We are institutions that are committed to building and supporting our communities. And don’t worry; we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Steven V. Potter
MCPL Director & CEO


Well said Steve, thank you!

From Roberta Phillips (not verified)
Thu, 07/26/2018 - 08:22am

Thank you, Director Potter! Your"reply" to the Forbes op/ed is well thought out, documented, and concise! I am a retired librarian, both school and public. I continue to serve my profession and community as a member of the board of trustees for my local, rural library in northeast Kansas, just west of St. Joseph, MO. While not as varied or "gifted" as MCPL, we offer services, space, and materials to our patrons as you do. Doniphan County receives a "big bang for their buck" just as your patrons do! My granddaughter in Lee's Summit uses the branch off Oldham Parkway. She has been taught, naturally, to see the Library as a multi-use place of wonder! Evidently our critic in Forbes must have missed that lesson! Again thanks for a well reasoned rebuttal!

From Greg Bevis (not verified)
Thu, 07/26/2018 - 08:27pm

Steve Potter knocks it out of the park with his editorial rebutting the specious argument that Amazon could replace libraries and save tax payer dollars.

No public institution is more trusted than the public library (critical in a time run rampant with “fake news”). And no taxpayer institution is more efficient at returning an ROI to the public.

Thanks Steve for setting the record straight!

From Ron J Stefanski (not verified)
Sat, 07/28/2018 - 09:10am

You are Spot on what t
Great key points why the published op piece in Forbes was sorely lacking. Thanks for putting a logical spin that libraries are evolving to the cultural influences in the community while staying relevant and maintain curated collection sets. Clap clap !! Good job .


From Kelly Clifton (not verified)
Tue, 08/07/2018 - 11:04pm

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