Tom Hurst writes on liberty, free markets, private property rights, government and the Constitution from Nevada, USA
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Are Libraries Necessary?

By Tom Hurst, 8 September 2009

Public libraries are nearly everywhere in America, from the smallest town to the largest city, and they have been for several hundred years. Though the first town "library" of sorts was purportedly established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1636, most authorities consider none other than Benjamin Franklin to have founded both the first "subscription library" (The Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1731), and, in a round-about way, the first truly "public" town library (the Franklin, Massachusetts, Public Library). The subscription library, purportedly started so that Franklin and his friends could have access to information to settle arguments, allowed individuals to become "members" through buying "shares", the money from which was used to purchase books which members were then allowed to borrow. As for the Franklin, Massachusetts Public Library, it arose when the town became the namesake of Benjamin Franklin. In return he was asked to donate a bell for the town's church steeple, but instead ended up donating books because, the story goes, he preferred "sense" to "sound". From those humble beginnings, there are now over 9200 public libraries in America, including some 1700 provided by Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900's on the de facto condition that local governments would tax citizens for funds to run the libraries in perpetuity. Now, having established a little background, let's get on to the issue at hand.

History aside, though such institutions are thought to be an essential part of American life - and certainly essential to have an informed electorate - I'm going to go out on a limb here and gore this sacred cow. Now, lest you think I'm some sort of illiterate moron, what with wanting to eliminate something so obviously good, important and educational as libraries, I like to think I'm a relatively educated and enlightened person, and I completely read or at least substantially browse through hundreds of books each year. So, it's not that I dislike education and the educated - quite the opposite - but I do have (as we all should) the common sense to observe and think about our surroundings, in this case public library buildings, the books and such within them, the people who work there, the people who use them, and their effect on society. And, importantly, to then ask the "radical" questions that may defy the norms, the main one here being, "Are public libraries necessary?" As I'll explain below, libraries are indeed necessary and will continue to exist, but for many and varied reasons the government types you're probably imagining are definitely NOT the ones we should want.

To begin - and I've said this before in other contexts - the first thing to know for certain about "public libraries" is that they are really "government libraries", that is, they are owned by, and run by and for the government, not you or I. This is an important distinction, for in the end it determines what libraries do. For instance, do they really exist to provide deep knowledge - knowledge available nowhere else - for all in an unbiased and efficient manner? Or is their primary function instead to propagandize for the State, that is, to censor and tailor our ideas and attitudes, and entertain us into future drone-dom, wherein we will all be, first and foremost, pliable, docile slaves of the State? Well, as the very nature of all government is to want a nation of dependent, compliant sheeple, and not one of independent free-thinking people, it's clear that one should expect to find a strong element of propaganda in every aspect of government libraries, and indeed one does. Beyond that, what of their function of providing highly paid government jobs for the annointed - jobs that serve to create a royal government employee class that in a practical sense rules the serfs (us)? Well, more on that below. In any case, one should remember to always call "public libraries" what they truly are: "government libraries".

Let's begin, now, by comparing the history of the availibility of books to current reality. In the days of olde, books were to some degree expensive and difficult to come by. Indeed, certain knowledge was as scarce as it was cherished. Nevertheless, as technology, prosperity and mass markets developed, books became ever more common and ever more affordable. Indeed, for the past 100 years or so we've been at the point that books of any and all sorts can be easily had by anyone, anywhere. Currently, bookstores and online vendors offer a surprising variety of new books (approximately 2.5 million titles in print, including 200,000 or so new titles each year), mostly at prices affordable to the average American. And used bookstores, both online and off, offer far more (mostly out-of-print) titles for a tiny fraction of what even inexpensive new books would cost. So, it would seem to me that ALL Americans could easily afford to buy books if they value them and thus choose to do so, for America is clearly not a third world country where we all are spending every cent just to get enough to eat every day. That being the case, do we really need - or, more importantly, should we even want - the almighty State to choose what books we might read, buy them, and store them for us? I think the answer to that question is beyond obvious, and government control of information is my first argument against the existence government libraries.

To continue, what about the types of materials that modern government libraries stock? Now, I'm not a rich man by any means, but between my liking books and their being affordable even to those of modest incomes, I've accumulated quite a large personal library. And, on topics that I'm interested in, I'm confident that my collection is far superior to any run-of-the-mill government library I've been in, and better even than many university libraries. Even on general knowledge topics I think I'd stack up well against any government library, for these days most government libraries are hardly what most people would consider true "libraries" as defined by history and common sense. Take the government libraries here in Clark County, Nevada (from where I write this). Do they offer a comprehensive collection of knowledge basic to man? Absolutely not, for in recent decades their intellectual offerings have become as pathetic and watered-down - and even censored - as our horrible government schools. As proof, note that these days a typical Nevada library for the most part offers to loan people such things as popular music CD's that can be had at a reasonable price at one's local 24-hour Walmart (or, better yet, heard for free on the radio), DVD's of movies that one could easily rent for $1 or so (or, better yet, watch for free on broadcast TV), computers with internet access, and even framed paintings and posters! Indeed, of the $15 million Nevada libraries annually spend on collections, only 51% is spent on printed material, while 15% is spent on electronic media, and 34% on "other" (CD's, DVD's and paintings, I presume). [UPDATE, 2017: Since this article was written, "fake" government libraries have done nothing but acclerate their taxpayer-funded descent into ignorance and irrelevance. According to a Wall Street Journal article of 18 March 2017, libraries throughout the nation - in a degenerate pandering to tax-dollar-parasites and the lowest common denominator among us - now offer to check out, for "free", the following items (in no particular order): beach chairs, sand pails, karaoke machines, commercial-sized popcorn machines, cotton-candy makers, bubble machines, sewing machines, spinning wheels, gold panning kits, metal detectors, fishing poles and tackle boxes, telescopes, snowshoes, chimney-cleaning brushes, pruning shears, weed/root removers and other gardening tools, flower and vegetable seeds, and - finally - bongo drums, theremins, banjos, ukuleles and many other musical instruments. They even have "Collections Development Librarians" to sit around and dream up such inappropriate, insipid drivel. Need I say more? I mean, really, how can it be that there are actually lots of people that think that mother government should provide these items to them "for free" (though, of course, government pays for them by taking from others)?]

Beyond that, government libraries have become de facto baby-sitters by offering after-school programs, storytelling, and homework help - all the proper job of parents or government schools, not libraries. And let's not forget that the cultural set are parasites, too, for "free" lectures and subsidized cultural performances abound. Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that government libraries offer tax-subsidized performance venues for rent, conveniently putting private venues out of business. As for books, the ostensible bread and butter of libraries that proclaim their fundamental mission is to disseminate knowledge, modern government libraries only offer a pathetic lot of drivel and propaganda, consisting mostly of the latest crime and romance novels to entertain the commoners to death. Do government libraries even have any books that I would consider placing in my library? Well, perhaps a good set of encyclopedias, but little more as most of their non-fiction offerings are atrocious to say the least. So, again, libraries fail the litmus test of necessity, for anyone who cares to can cheaply and easily accumulate good books (and CD's and DVD's) that they value. Even the internet access argument fails, as new computers cost but a few hundred dollars (used ones far less), and internet access can be had for less than $10/month (never mind that most of us could easily get by without internet access). Again, anyone who truly wants or needs such things can easily afford to buy them with their own money. Indeed, the few people who use libraries have government take my money and give it to them in the form of libraries only because they CAN via the essential coercive force of the government gun that I'd face if I didn't pay my taxes in full - they are classic parasites to the core.

Finally, government libraries, like all other socialist schemes, cost a great deal of money - money that for the most part comes out of the pockets of people who probably have not even set foot in a government library. To each his own, of course, but only if they pay for it themselves, is the rule according to the principles of liberty. Again, I'm just a middle class guy, but I estimate that I pay nearly $200 per year to support the government libraries in Nevada. Interesting since I've not set foot in them for decades, eh? In any case, multiply Nevada's $40 per capita average library cost across the entire state and you have operating costs on the order of $120 million per year spread across 22 libraries; Clark County alone spends nearly $70 million per year just on operations. Further, hidden in other budgets, or even somehow "off-budget" (and thus not counted as real costs), are capital costs (buildings and land), future pension and healthcare obligations, and collections. So, who benefits from all of that money stolen from taxpayers? The first and most obvious beneficiaries are the employees of the library - about 1200 in Nevada - for they take the lion's share of the $120 million per year operating budget. Indeed, there is a library employee for every 230 citizens or so. I'm guessing that means that my small neighborhood - most of whom never go to the library - somewhere has its own dozing librarian collecting a paycheck for doing nothing? Hardly necessary by any standard. In any case, don't let the small number of employees fool you, as government employees typically make shockingly high salaries - total compensation for Clark County, Nevada workers averages over $90,000 per year - for doing precious little work. And on top of that, these parasites will retire with full health care and a lavish pension that pretty much equals their salary at the time they retire. So, in the end, the effective cost to taxpayers for each government employee is probably on the order of $200,000 per year of "work" that we get out of them. At that rate, they'd better be extremely vital and critical, eh?

To continue the list of financial affronts, if one were to visit and observe any library at any time, it's pretty clear that the next major beneficiaries of the stolen taxes are the homeless, for they lounge about the libraries from opening time until they get kicked out at night. They, of course, don't have the time restrictions that those of us who work have. Beyond that, since my own informal surveys indicate that very, very few typical people use the libraries on a regular or even occasional basis (though the national Public Libraries Survey of 2007 preposterously claims 4.9 visits per capita per year nationally), the bottom line is that each real user of government libraries annually gets many thousands of dollars of subsidies courtesy of those who are charged library taxes, yet don't use the libraries. Is that morally right, especially considering that most of the users are just checking out fluff items like music recordings, movies, and crime novels that could be easily had at the local Walmart for just a few dollars or, better yet, for pocket change from the local used book or CD/DVD store? And to add insult to injury, they are enjoying the benefits of money that I would otherwise spend to enlarge my own, much higher quality personal library. Don't my wants and needs matter, of is it just those of the "village" that rule the day? Socialists all, the government bureaucrats, government employees, and pathetic folks that depend on government to provide everything for them, care not and are more than happy to steal my money because they are certain they have a right to it and know far better than I how to spend it. Indeed, though they would deny it, there are definite social classes in their warped socialist morality: in their minds they fancy themselves common folk, yet the reality is that they belong to the class of masters who decide what we will read, and the rest of us to the class of slaves who serve them. So much for *my* library! As noted economist Walter E. Williams so succinctly summarizes, "Take a 'free' library; is it really free? The answer is no. Had the library not been built, that $50 million could have purchased something else. That something else sacrificed is the cost of the library. While users of the library might pay a zero price, zero price and free are not one and the same."

So, having shown that government libraries are unnecessary, expensive and even evil, what to do about them? While some might say that the internet will be the library of the future, I would argue that private libraries (even small ones like mine) containing real paper books are the ones that will (and must) survive, just as private property is best maintained by its owners. A recent incident with Amazon's Kindle electronic reader wherein digital copies of a "book" (ironically, Orwell's "1984") were remotely and without permission removed from the machines of people who had paid for the text, shows the very dark side of technology as it concerns "preserving" and disseminating books. When government libraries come to control such systems (as they necessarily will), imagine how easily they would control what books we have access to, and how easily they could simply change certain facts on certain pages of everyone's digital book machines. What is truth would then be determined by the government, and what we know and hence believe would be only what they allow us. If nothing else, in a digital future, government will know what books you read, and even when you read them - so much for the First Amendment at that point. Frightful future-tech aside, though, whether paper or electronic, government libraries are clearly the ones we shouldn't want to survive in that capacity. If for nothing else than their propaganda peddling - let alone their wasteful ways, legions of expensive government workers, and outrageous mission creep into irrelevancy - they should go the way of the dodo.

Now, this brings us full circle, and here I might bring up Ben Franklin again, for his idea of a "subscription library", fully supported by members who choose to pay for the privilege of borrowing books is one that I would applaud because it would easily pass the litmus test of liberty and hence the test of time. And I would guess that such libraries would exist in abundance were it not for heavily subsidized government libraries crowding them out of the market. Even so, there are some, such as the Henry Huntington Library in California, proudly providing access by charging entrance fees instead of taking government money stolen from citizens. Indeed, it seems clear to me that (excepting personal libraries) private subscription libraries are the only possible true libraries of the future, providing on condition of payment a necessary service in the spirit of liberty. And like all things in free markets, their quality would continually increase and their fees continually decrease as they did their best to give us what we want and need at a price we could afford.

By the way, though Ben Franklin more or less brought libraries to America, I'm quite sure that if he could comment on government libraries of the 21st century he'd give them a very big thumbs down both for the cheerleaders of government that they've become, and for providing an overpriced service that is clearly no longer necessary. After all, above all, he loved liberty and knew that governments do not have the best interests of the people at heart. In the final analysis, the demise of government libraries would not just allow taxpayers to spend the fruits of their labor as they wish and allow readers to choose (and preserve) what they read - both true basic values of a free society - but current library employees would be forced into the private sector where they would have to get jobs generating society's wealth instead of diminishing it. So, by eliminating government libraries, everyone would win in every way! No more government propaganda, no more fluff masquerading as knowledge and culture, no more parasites using or employed by libraries, no more government subsidized (unfair) competition to private libraries, and no more government stealing one's wealth. I like all of these benefits, as should every patriot!

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Tom Hurst - Defender of liberty, free markets, private property rights, and the Constitution