Sunday, January 11, 2009

Libraries are lame

Reason number 8,402 why the Howard County Library royally sucks: they don't have any South Park DVDs. WTF! South Park is obviously a very popular show, so the reason for this lack of South Park in the public library is almost certainly political. Strangely, the Library does carry DVDs of Family Guy which is just as godless and irreverent as South Park. I am curious as to why Family Guy made the library's cut, but South Park did not.

Libraries are dinosaurs. Between and the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, libraries are not even needed. Even if there was a benefit to society from subsidizing books, it would make much more sense for the county to do so by handing out gift cards (which are basically book vouchers) every year instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate libraries. At least that way we could read or watch what we want and not be subject to the ridiculous moralizing of the library system.


Trevor-Peter said...

I never used to do much with libraries, but when I was in grad school I figured out that I could save a lot of money by using library books to complete my required reading for classes. If the book looked like something I'd want to read again or need in a future career or whatever, I could buy it later (and watch for a good deal). I've maintained the same practice with books that look interesting. If I can find them in the library first, I read them before buying.

Most of what I read is worth a once-over but would only collect dust on a shelf if I owned it. I freely loan my books to friends, but they don't get much circulation that way. Matching available inventory with interested readers works much better with some centralization. I also sell books from time to time, but even with the relative ease of sites like and, it's still not a very effective means of clearing out clutter. Some books sell pretty rapidly, others can take a lot longer. My own listings have stagnated. I still have probably 2/3 of what I first listed, and I haven't seen activity in months. Some of them were quite expensive to obtain. I'm already losing a lot on the investment by trying to re-sell them; if I have to give them away to a thrift store just so they're not taking up space in my house, it will be even worse.

And speaking of expensive books, there are many that would never see the light of day without libraries. In particular, labor-intensive reference books are too expensive for all but the most serious individual readers to buy, and it's not because the authors are making money off of them either. Most of them never see a dime of royalties, though I suppose it serves their careers to list the publication on a c.v. The only reason the publishers even bother with these projects is because they know they can sell enough to libraries to make something off of them.

Maybe there's a better way to do libraries, but I don't think their time is gone. I suppose you'd have to look at the actual cost to each taxpayer, but for my money, it would have to be pretty expensive to offset the cost and hassle of buying and selling all the books I've read. Add to that the way that a person could get by without paying for their own internet connection (for a lot of people, this is the only way they get on the internet) or paying for TV (if you don't mind watching stuff a year behind schedule, you can even pretend you have cable), and it turns out to be a pretty good return.

About the only serious replacement I can see is a place that rents books. The weight of books vs. that of a DVD probably makes shipping costs too much to follow a model like Netflix, but on a more local level, you could have people pay a membership fee of some sort and come to pick up their books on-site. But at that point, you're talking about essentially the same thing as a library, just that it's paid for directly by the patrons instead of the whole community. So the difference is that a library is available to everyone, including those who can afford it but don't choose to use it, and those who can't afford it but do.

Freemarket said...

Trevor, I don’t think that you have made a serious defense of libraries. Looking at the actual cost to the taxpayer, over $100 million is going to be spent to build and operate libraries over the next 5 years, so the cost to the taxpayer is MASSIVE. Imagine all the other stuff that could be done with the resources poured into the library system.

If libraries were not subsidized, who knows what kind of creative and cool place would fill their gap? Probably something like Netflix, except for books, would arise. Maybe books would be rented in MP3 format, or some other electronic format to save on shipping costs. The market is much more creative and adaptive than you think. If anything, the libraries should be making themselves more like Borders or B&N if they want to remain relevant.

I am getting a little tired of the argument that because some people in the community may not be able to afford luxury item ‘X’, then the government should subsidize luxury item ‘X’. Ultimately, this is why the library is subsidized. If people see value in renting books, then should do it with their own money and not with the money of others. Libraries don’t lend books for free- we pay dearly in taxes for them.

Trevor-Peter said...

I wasn't trying to make a serious defense--only to point out that I think your case here is overstated. Your suggestion that libraries be replaced with gift cards to Amazon suggests what I think is a fairly flippant consideration of what purpose libraries really serve. Their function is not to make it easier to buy books as individuals; on the contrary, they exist so that people don't have to buy books for themselves.

I realize that we pay for their services through our taxes. Assuming your figure of over $100 million in five years, I guess that amounts to something like $100 annually per capita in HoCo. Considering that a bare-bones Netflix plan costs as much or more, it doesn't seem too unreasonable on an individual level, at least for those of us who use them. And knowing that those who can't afford to pay for it also get to use the service makes it that much better.

I'm not too concerned about the full range of what could be done with the money otherwise. All I know is that I'd be spending a lot more than $400 in books and videos each year for my family of four if we weren't using the library. So it's not a bad return on our investment.

Electronic books are fine to a point, but most people admit that reading a printed codex has its advantages. I'm probably exceptional in this respect, but even I prefer an actual book for some things.

And again, your suggestions don't instill a lot of confidence. Suggesting Borders or B&N as the model is hard for me to comment on politely. I personally can't stand such places. I will occasionally browse them if it's later than better stores close and I can't think of anything else to do. But the most I ever hope to get from such visits is an idea for something to go find at the library. They are consistently overpriced in comparison with online sources, and their selection is too shallow to be of much use to me.

As far as I'm concerned, if the market were going to produce something better, it would look mostly like a library--the ability to browse stacks of actual books if that's your thing, but also to "shop" online; local accessibility; a good program for re-use of books, whether through coordinated re-sale or borrowing. Maybe the market could produce something better than a library, but based on what I've seen it produce and what you suggest, I don't have much hope that it would come close.

Freemarket said...

Again, I don’t think that you are making a good case against my argument, nor are you making a case for libraries. I think it is very cavalier and arrogant to pretend that there is nothing wrong with stealing money from others and using it to purchase books and other media that are lent out for “free”.

You stated that you cannot stand Borders or B&N. The beauty of the free market is that you don’t have to financially support those stores if you don’t like them. I cannot stand the library, but my money is stolen from me by the local government to support libraries.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you hear..The director is making all the libraries like bookstores and not libraries. I have noticed lots of book displays and even at Miller no information desks. What a dumb idea.