What if We Never Had Libraries

I’m sure you remember a recent article on the Freakonomics series and it’s latest installment When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. 


The book is a collection of the most popular posts from the Freakonomics blog, which cover many different topics from sports to politics to buying a new car, all of which are somehow tied back to economics, as only Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner can do. One post that I found particularly interesting, though, had this title; “If Public Libraries Didn’t Exist, Could You Start One Today?”

The post is not long, but is quite informative and raises some excellent points that most people don’t often stop to consider. It’s a common theory today that many institutions were founded centuries ago wouldn’t be able to exist if they were started today as new concepts. Dubner applies this theory to libraries. He began by raising the point that no can really hate libraries…except for maybe publishers. 

Some of us love to buy books, but more often than not, if someone wants to read a certain book, they’ll probably borrow it from their local library. If they enjoy it, they’ll probably tell their friends to check it out of the library after them so that they too can read it. This is the way it’s always been. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but if everyone borrows a book from a library and no one even purchases a copy of the book, the author and publisher miss out on a considerable amount of money. Don’t get me wrong, I support love and support libraries, but everyone needs to eat. Writers and publishers are no exception. 

Dubner examines both sides of the argument. He acknowledges that libraries often help mold young people into prolific readers who grow up to be book-buying adults. Often, though, these adults are content to simply keep going to libraries, rarely buying books. Moreover, he concludes that if libraries had never existed until now, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to exist as to do now. His theory is that if the new concept of starting a library where people could borrow books for free was proposed, the publishing houses that dominate the industry would lobby and strongly protest against it.

After considering all the points raised in the article, I think it is safe to say that he is probably right. 

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