Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

More Advice from the Clueless

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, [citation needed].

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.



  1. The problem is they don’t have to be coherent to get other clueless government types to buy in. The facts don’t bother them either.

  2. I took a look at some of this guy’s other Forbes column – your basic fantasy libertarian/corporatist economics and using “Adam Smith” to totally distort what Adam Smith actually said and wrote.

  3. I did the math for my library; ignoring all other factors, doing the math as ONLY amazon unlimited replacing the library, it would cost my town 4.5 times as much to do that then to fund the library.

    • The library I work at is insanely well funded (by far the best funded library I’ve ever worked at by a significant margin) and it would still be about 1.5x more expensive to give KU to all residents ignoring the other factors.

  4. Here is my email to the gentleman, and his response:
    “Admittedly, what you are about to read is more than a bit biased toward the existence and funding of lending libraries. For full disclosure, I am employed by a Public Library in Texas so I fully understand the potential for accusations of promoting self interest above all with these arguments. To counter these arguments I will deal only with facts and keep a completely objective stance as I refute the notion that libraries can be replaced with universal “Kindle Unlimited.” Mr. Worstall’s math simply doesn’t add up.
    The town I work for is approximately 30,000 people (and growing, but I’ll use the same round, general type of figures as Mr. Worstall). To fulfill the same mission as a Public Library it would require my town to purchase a kindle for every citizen. For example’s sake, let’s use the Kindle Fire 7 inch- 8gb with “special offers” advertising- at $119 each. That would cost my town approximately $3,500,000. Don’t worry, I double checked the math, it’s right. And we’re just getting started. Next, we would need to provide each person with an Amazon Prime account, plus “Kindle Unlimited”. This would get the user movies, music, and books- all of which are available at their local library. This would cost the town an additional $99 per citizen every year, or another approximate $3,000,000 annually. That’s $6.5mm if you’re keeping tally. Let’s also not forget to think about how our citizens will access this material. That would require some high bandwidth that could allow for all this downloading and streaming. The town would need to create this infrastructure to allow this multimillion dollar expenditure to be used. I cannot even fathom the ongoing cost of such a network.
    Let’s stop a minute here to admit that this is a worst case scenario for my town. Theoretically we could get away with 1 prime membership per household, lowering that $3mm to $750,000 annually. However, we could not make the same argument for tablets- since the entire family can read different books from the library at the same time without having to pass a device around or schedule reading times. So, for the sake of argument and fairness, we’re down to $4.25mm in costs for the first year. We must then assume that the average lifespan of these tablets will be 4 years- a general number meant to cover all new citizens, loss and damage. So, that would incur a subsequent cost of $1,625,000 each year after that to ensure the services are delivered and devices are replaced to ensure delivery of service. That equates to approximately $54 per capita per annum funding level for my library. Currently we are funded to less that 1/3 of that level- as is the average for the state of Texas. Replacing our library with “kindle unlimited”, as I have shown, would be a horrible financial decision.
    True, there are a lot of people who already have internet access, Amazon prime accounts, and kindles. There is no disputing this. What I can say to this fact is that any rational, self interested person who sees the chance to push the cost of such ownership onto the town and potentially lessens his financial burden would do so in a heartbeat. See, while everyone might not make use of the library on a regular basis, we are built and operated so that they can. To deny this is folly.
    It is also folly to deny that there are some benefits to the “Kindle Unlimited” plan. There would be no waiting for books or movies. They would be available 24/7 at your fingertips. That sounds great- but a library funded at $54 per capita per annum could do all that too- and all the intangible things librarians love to point out every time someone comes along with a notion like this. We help people find jobs, learn technology, have a safe place to study, read, learn, etc. All these points might be valid and have value- but none of them matter. We accomplish our core mission at a cost vastly less than that of the “Kindle Unlimited” plan- before we even get into any of the other services we offer. Libraries win. Mr. Worstall’s plan is blind to the actual cost of doing business- and that’s a shame. Were he to see this he would see public lending libraries are vastly superior at providing value to their citizens.
    Thank you,
    Spencer Smith

    “I did mention that I was being mischievous and possibly I should have gone on to say I was being provocative.

    but to carry the argument forward, I can see a time, only a few short years away, when simply everyone has some sort of mobile device. A smartphone of some kind. Ericsson is predicting 6 billion people connected to the internet in only 5 years time. ARM, the maker of he chips for smartphones thinks they will cost
    $20 next year or so. That’s for the entire phone, not the chip.
    Facebook keeps telling us that basic internet access should be a utility, something that is free to all.

    There does come a point when that sort of technology simply does away with hte need for the physical distribution of books from a building, no?


    Tim Worstall
    UK number: 0121 286 8851
    Portugal: 00351 282 332 589
    Mobile: 00351 916 174 947″

    • Hi Spencer,
      You’re actually underestimating the costs significantly. Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited are separate services. Prime would cost $99 per year (or $3 million for everyone). Kindle Unlimited is a separate service that costs $120 per year or $3.6 million. In addition KU is linked to the Amazon account so you wouldn’t be able to have the cost savings of one subscription per household for KU if users want to read simultaneously.

    • spencer says:

      You are correct. I was confusing it with the current prime book lending service. It’s even worse than I stated- but 1 family email could, theoretically, be tied to multiple devices- meaning we could still “get away” with providing a family account, as long as they were all cool knowing what each other was reading! But, the point is we would not because it’s a stupid idea that no one worth their financial salt would consider for a moment. This would push the per capita cost (assuming 1 family/household unlimited account too) to $87/capita.

      I believe I wrote AL a while back on this and thought $86/87 funding levels could neccessitate a push to such an outsourced service (though it might have been $68…) If there are libraries out there funded at that level and they aren’t blowing Amazon out of the water… well, that’s a different story.

    • Christina says:

      The collection is only 600K strong and most of the books are in the public domain anyways. There was a reviewer who said the current NY Times Best Sellers were not among the KU books. So this has a ways to go before it’s worth plunking down money for me as a consumer.

      I can understand the want to have it especially if you travel a lot and want to avoid wait lists from overdrive or something like that for any particular book. Right now this to me is still in it’s infancy and needs to grow more just like Prime did. Will it ever turn the majority of people from Public Libraries no. Because there are research tools and so much more that you can’t get through Amazon. When Amazon starts having access to scholarly subscriptions then we can talk about the end of the world.

    • Not everyone wants to (or can) read from a smartphone. And just b/c Facebook says it should be free, doesn’t mean it’s going to be free. Even FB has to get money from somewhere. But then there are those who actually know what’s going on, and those who just theorize about it.

  5. The Anonymous One says:

    I read the author’s comments. If this is what Forbes wants to be associated with, then I want nothing to do with the publication. I used to think it was a quality publication, but giving a voice to someone that is so biased and prejudiced tells me that Forbes has no qualms about insulting its readers. The author wrote a disclaimer somewhere in the comments that his views are not a reflection of Forbes, but I disagree. Forbes is a private business and is not required by law to provide a platform for the partisan, slanted and one-sided. The author suggested we write to Coates Bateman, which I believe we should so, along with writing to all of Forbes’ advertisers to inform them we will no longer be reading Forbes in either print or online.

    • spencer says:

      “biased and prejudiced” ? I could understand ignorant or unable to research- but I don’t think biased and prejudiced came off in the article. Now, he might very well be, but the article didn’t belie that fact, imo.

  6. The Anonymous One says:

    You need to read the comments.

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