Turning Libraries into Amazon Stores Is Class Warfare

Public libraries incubate working-class brilliance, and privatizing them would be a terrible injustice.

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Jul 24 2018, 6:55pm

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Cyree Jarelle Johnson, MS is a writer and librarian finishing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. Cyree Jarelle's writing has appeared in The New York Times Opinion section, Rewire.News, and Boston Review this year. SLINGSHOT, his first collection of poetry, will be published by Nightboat Books in Fall/Winter 2019.

It’s easy to see how libraries save money, but never forget that libraries and librarians change lives.

Growing up as a black working-class queer latch-key kid with an autism spectrum disorder and an illness I would later learn was Systemic Lupus, I was bullied relentlessly in school—by students, teachers, and school administrators. My classroom hours were spent avoiding my peers who called me “faggot” or “gimp” and sometimes sexually assaulted me on the bus. Teachers and school administrators suspended me for using the school computer to do my homework without permission even though I didn’t have a working computer at home, or for fighting classmates who gleefully called me the n-word. Then I’d return home, where the abuse continued.

The library was my oasis, my port in the storm. I’d drag through its doors like Milo through the arch of his phantom tollbooth and find myself transported to somewhere where I was the protagonist. At the library, my curiosity was honored, and I was a guest rather than an interloper. Librarians, unlike almost all other adults during this period, saw me rather than viewed me. They asked me about my interests, listened to my problems, and gave me privacy to explore things that elsewhere would have led to my ostracization. Librarians recommended the work of radical poet librarian Audre Lorde, gave me all my first queer and trans books, and helped me submit college applications.

I believe in becoming the benevolence I’ve benefited from, so naturally I attended Drexel University for my MS in Library Science and became an archivist and public librarian. My first job out of iSchool was as an Instruction Librarian at The AIDS Library of Philadelphia FIGHT. My students and patrons reflected America in ways Congress has yet to rival: homeless veterans with photographic memories, long-incarcerated mothers learning to read in their late-30s, queer and trans youth of color newly diagnosed with HIV seeking resume help.

The AIDS Library in Philadelphia offered public services the government no longer saw fit to provide and helped locate available forms of assistance—from help finding housing or a shower, to a quiet place for a houseless person to read a book, watch a movie, and use the bathroom without anyone calling the cops on them for loitering.

None of these services would exist in the privatized libraries that Panos Mourdoukoutas’ advocates for in his poorly written and ill conceived article “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” It reads like a modern version “A Modest Proposal” if Jonathan Swift literally wanted to slake the English appetite with the bodies of Irish infants.

In Mourdoukoutas’ ideal America, local libraries would be taken over by Amazon, a known labor rights violator to save the very wealthy less than $500 per year by his own estimation. For the vast majority of Americans, this is a gross overestimate: According to Quartz, if libraries were abolished, the average American would get back roughly $36.

Read more: Amazon Will Never, Ever, Replace Libraries

Mourdoukoutas isn’t concerned with the consequences (beyond the ones that provide him a modest tax break) but there is little doubt that Amazon libraries would not serve the poor and working class. In Mourdoukoutas’ uninformed opinion (so uninformed, in fact, that Forbes deleted it), libraries are little more than Starbucks with books, and that’s exactly why it should embarrass both him and Forbes that he wasted his digital ink on this article.

I would have fallen through the cracks that always threatened to consume me like it devoured so many of my peers.

Libraries as a physical space are as important now as they have ever been. They are a haven for youth and the elderly, are a place where adults can acquire fundamental digital skills without judgement, and help job seekers bounce back in an economy that’s improving from the top down.

Beyond misunderstanding the purpose and continued usefulness of libraries, Mourdoukoutas seems to have been unable to find any statistics about public libraries that aren’t about his own taxes. Modern urban libraries are often overused and underfunded, not the other way around. Public libraries efficiently use what little money they are allotted, even seeing patronage increase in the face of flat budgets or very austere increases that don’t account for additional use.

Class, particularly as contained in the phrase “white working-class” has seen a marked resurgence. But privatizing libraries and stripping them bare of any services the wealthy find too helpful for poor people is class war. Such a decision would harm working class families like the one from which I hail. My mother worked retail or phone sales during my childhood, my stepfather worked nights in a steel factory—there was no extra money for books and no extra time in which to purchase them. Without the library and other benevolent social services, I would have fallen through the cracks that always threatened to consume me like it devoured so many of my peers.

My bookish temperament and the small, pedantic kindnesses of many librarians made me the writer and librarian I am today. I will fight to preserve and provide those same services for the next generation of bullied, weird, brilliant kids and adults who call the library home.