Why libraries are an economic lifeline for millions of Americans

Some social commentators say corporations should replace these public institutions.

  • By Jacob Passy,
  • MarketWatch
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Ron Baron’s local library was a critical lifeline when he was unemployed.

The 20-year-old resident of Grand Junction, Colo., often found himself hanging out at the library when he was jobless. “It’s one of the only places I could go to without the expectation of spending money,” Baron said.

But the library was more than just a place to relax indoors. Baron also used resources at his library to apply for a job. And when he found out that the job he initially wanted was already filled, library staff helped connect him with a workforce center that helps unemployed individuals find jobs free of charge. “I would have never learned about it otherwise,” he said.

Thanks to that recommendation, Baron now works in housekeeping at a hotel. When he’s not working, he reads books — from his local library — about computer programming in preparation for coursework he plans to complete at the local community college.

Baron is just one of the millions of people nationwide who benefit extensively from the resources libraries provide. Meanwhile, libraries around the country have been in dire straits in recent years as budget cuts everywhere from New York City to Wichita have forced the closure of these beloved community fixtures. Those that have remained open have often had their belts tightened courtesy of city and state lawmakers — even while most have witnessed a noted uptick in visits.

Among libraries’ detractors is Forbes contributor and Long Island University economics professor Panos Mourdoukoutas. In an article for Forbes posted Saturday, Mourdoukoutas argued that libraries “don’t have the same value they used to.” He wrote that companies like Amazon), Netflix, and Starbucks offer better alternatives to some of the various services libraries provide.

And on Twitter Mourdoukoutas doubled-down by noting that for many libraries aren’t actually free, since homeowners often pay additional taxes to fund them. Mourdoukoutas’ take triggered a swift backlash from library supporters and advocates, with many tweeting about the ways in which they benefited from their local libraries. He wrote on Twitter: “Let me clarify something. Local libraries aren’t free. Home owners must pay a local library tax. My bill is $495/year.”

(Forbes has since removed Mourdoukoutas’ article from its website. “Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson wrote in an email to MarketWatch. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.” Mourdoukoutas did not respond to a request for comment.)

Libraries are very popular—with good reason

Americans still love their local libraries. A staggering 94% of Americans ages 16 and older said that have a public library is beneficial to the quality of life in a community, according to a 2013 study from Pew Research Center. Additionally, 90% said that the closing of the local public library would have a negative impact on their community if it were to happen, even though 52% of people said they need their libraries less these days.

Fines can reduce the benefits of libraries

While most agree that libraries having a significantly positive impact on the communities they serve, some argue that certain policies can bar lower-income individuals from accessing those benefits.

The vast majority (92%) of public libraries collect fines when customers returned borrowed materials late. The average daily fine for late books was 17 cents for adults and 14 cents for children. Most libraries capped the fines at an average of $5 for print materials. The fines were much higher for DVDs, games and devices.

Those fines quickly add up: New York City’s three independent library systems collected $5.5 million in fines in 2015.

Fines can cause people who need libraries the most—lower-income families—to steer clear. While these fees may seem small, for families with little disposable income they can become impediments. In an op-ed for Quartz, New York Public Library CEO Anthony Marx detailed how a homeless family was barred from using a library’s Wi-Fi because of a fine they inadvertently accrued when they lost library materials while moving to a new shelter.

The New York Public Library in 2017 automatically forgave fines for all children under the age of 18 and high school students over the age of 18 to avoid situations like these in a one-off fine amnesty initiative. Other library systems have gone a step further and gotten rid of late fines altogether, instead charging fees for services such as copy machines or replacing library cards to bring in revenue.

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