It’s often amusing to read big bold statements about libraries from people who don’t know anything about libraries. It’s even more amusing when the statements are ludicrous.
Ah, but what can one expect from a fellow from someplace called the Adam Smith Institute, which bills itself as “one of the world’s leading think tanks,” but which you’ve probably never heard of unless you live in the UK.
The latest ridiculous suggestion is to close all the British libraries and have the government buy everyone a Kindle “Unlimited” subscription, because the writer knows even less about Kindle Unlimited than he does about libraries, apparently having never used either.
He does try to qualify his bizarre opinion by claiming that it’s a “little, not entirely and wholly serious, thought on public policy.” I’m not even sure it can be considered a little thought. More like a little irritable mental gesture that vaguely resembles a thought. A “modest proposal” it’s not.
After that, it gets a little weird. For example, he writes that he’ll “use the numbers from my native UK here simply because I have a better grasp of them,” but a little later claims that “as with most numbers I use, there’s a lot of rounding here, the numbers are not meant to be accurate, just informative as to magnitude and so on.”
I guess it’s easier to have a better grasp of inaccurate numbers than accurate ones.
The inaccurate figure he cites is that the British government could afford to close all libraries and use the money to give 20 British pounds per year to Amazon for a Kindle Unlimited subscription, which with the exchange rate is about 28% of what Amazon is asking for a year’s subscription.
However, we can “be sure” that Amazon will accept, because not that many people actually read books. Then we get some more inaccurate numbers, just for fun, something about how many people buy books, and how that somehow is correlated with how many people check books out from libraries. As Wikipedia would say, .
And then there’s a claim about how many more Kindle books will be available than physical books available in the library system of his hometown, although the numbers are “a guess.” You’d think someone writing for Forbes who works at an economics think tank would have a better grasp of numbers.
Since our erstwhile pundit is basing his argument on numbers he admits are inaccurate guesswork, let’s make up some more numbers that he didn’t think about.
For one thing, lots of books aren’t available on Kindle Unlimited. Time Magazine notes 10 great books that aren’t on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, “because a number of major publishers, including Penguin, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster have not made their books available on the service.”
Hmm. Those are some pretty big publishers. So there are 600,000 books available, but not really books people would want to read.
Then there’s the enormous elephant in the room ready to defecate all over this “little thought.”
Let’s take a look at the attempt to use an historical argument first. You see, this is supposed to be a good idea partly because “WH Smith’s and Boot’s used to run lending libraries. For a fee one had unlimited access to the stock of that profit making private sector enterprise.” That’s “how lending libraries started out.”
I don’t know when that was exactly, but I’m assuming the 19th century sometime. Libraries have changed just a little bit since then.
The elephant that has just sat down and made itself comfortable on top of this little thought it that lending books is only a part of what libraries do, and has been for decades. Pointing to some 19th century historical predecessor of public libraries is like pointing to buggies and saying, “that’s how cars got their start!”
Often, we see stupid articles about libraries from people who haven’t set foot in one since they were in high school. This guy seems never to have visited a public library ever. Could anyone have walked into any public library for the last fifty years and thought it was only a place to distribute books?
Or perhaps he’ll also suggest that the 20 pounds a year also cover subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify. And maybe someone to run online programs for children’s literacy stuff.
That 20 pounds is starting to look pretty small.
But wait, there’s more! A Kindle Unlimited subscription, as limited as it is, is useless unless one has a device upon which to read the books. Will that 20 pounds also serve to buy everyone a Kindle?
Wait, hold on a moment, I’m trying to think like this Forbes guy. Okay, I’m channeling him now.
We can “be sure” that Amazon will just give all the citizens Kindles, because they’re more interested in making money from selling books.
Only they won’t be selling many books, but in Fantasy Land real economics don’t matter. What matters for Thatcherite guys like this is that governments get out of the business of providing services. It doesn’t matter if the arguments are stupid or smart or if the new services suck as long as the end result is the same.
It would be a refreshing change if the anti-government types who hate libraries so much would ever make a coherent argument about them, just so intelligent conversation about libraries wouldn’t be so one-sided.
I’m not holding my breath on that one.