Loving libraries 

Over the weekend, Forbes published an article from Panos Mourdoukoutas, the chairman of the Department of Economics of Long Island University and a frequent columnist, calling for all public libraries to be replaced by bookstores. Specifically, Amazon bookstores. Outraged librarians immediately took to social media to extol the obvious and not so obvious benefits the library provides. The backlash was so swift and brutal that Forbes took down the piece with little comment except to say the writing was outside the author's expertise. Seems like a polite way of saying that the article was so dumb, the magazine would rather give up the heavy web traffic than be further associated with it.

The reasons Mourdoukoutas gives for closing public libraries are poorly researched and flat-out wrong. They include the notion that library patrons would rather go to Starbucks for coffee, physical books are "collector's items" and have been abandoned for digital books, and taxpayers would save money by purchasing books. He completely downplays and dismisses the community benefit provided by local libraries. To most, it would defy common sense to do away with a place that helps children, families and the disadvantaged by providing books, classes, children's programming, computer access and other types of assistance to all regardless of the ability to pay, but I have a suspicion Mourdoukoutas' article hit the spot for those who can't wait to rid the world of public entities, such as public schools, libraries, and housing, to hand everything over to the private sector, where profit is king.

The attack on the public library is intensely personal to me. My daughters and I frequently walk to the Fayetteville Public Library where we read, use the computers, play with puzzles, watch jugglers and musicians on Saturday mornings, and admire the giant metal dragon sculpture that their dad played on as a kid. I still have my very first library card I got on a summer visit to my Granny Cook's house in Walnut Ridge. She and I went every afternoon, picked out a book, read it and returned it the next day for new ones. She taught me the joy of reading for pleasure. As a young teenager, nothing made me happier than being dropped off at the Craighead County Library. I discovered microfilm and realized the entire world was there for me to find.

I also found at a young age that not everyone supports the idea of the free exchange of ideas a library provides. Whether they believe the idea is based on socialism or some other fear, there seems to always be someone who wants to censor the books in the library. In elementary school, I once checked out a science book only to get it home and discover several pages had been completely marked out with black ink and a note added in fancy cursive stating that the book was not consistent with scripture and the word of God. I never showed it to anyone. I just dropped it in the book return and hoped nobody would think I made those edits.

In the mid-2000s, my former eighth-grade English teacher and vocal tea partier, Debbie Pelley, put herself front and center in the battle over censorship in the Fayetteville Public School library. The main complaints of Pelley and her fellow censors were that the library had LGBTQ books and also carried what Pelley described as "witches fiction." Thank goodness they soon turned their attention to fighting bike trails and other socialist evils and left the library alone.

The attacks on public libraries come from government, too. The Patriot Act received pushback from librarians across the country for its provisions requiring libraries to turn over reading lists in secret. Here in Arkansas, we have our own shameful history with library funding. In 2016, the Arkansas legislature approved a budget that cut approximately 18 percent of the state money provided to public libraries to provide a capital gains tax cut for the richest Arkansans. Later, rainy day money restored the funding, but the damage was done and the message was sent. Cutting library budgets in a state as poor as Arkansas, where many are without computer and internet access, is a sure way to keep us at the bottom in education and opportunities, but who ever said our reverse-Robin Hood elected officials really have the people's best interests at heart? Why invest in the future when tax cuts and privatization is the quickest way to put money in the hands of their cronies and donors? Why change the policy of rewarding the haves and screwing the have-nots?

I once read that maybe President George W. Bush wasn't that bad after all because first lady Laura Bush, a librarian, married him. Well, he is that bad, and despite her choice to marry down, she is part of a group of men and women who consistently stand up for families, the homeless, the young, the old and the curious and against those who would dare argue that a for-profit business could ever replace our beloved public library. Thank goodness for our librarians.


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