Libraries: Theory Versus Reality

By Jacob Pardo (‘23)

I’ll be honest: until the past few years, I never would’ve imagined myself writing an essay like this. I normally don’t concern myself with modern trends or fads, but, on this occasion, it has become somewhat unavoidable. With so many young people supporting the idea, it is unlikely that you haven’t heard of “libraries” in some form by now — this seemingly benevolent (if somewhat optimistic) idea would entail free access to hundreds of books, apparently making all knowledge open and free. It is certainly in line with other “generous” ideas thought up by the wide-eyed generation — and, unfortunately, just as unrealistic. I’m afraid that the youth have gotten so caught up in the theory behind libraries, they have failed to consider the practical side of the idea, and the many issues libraries would incur in practice. The issues addressed here may seem almost self-explanatory to the conservative among you; however, it seems that the young people need to face the facts, before they face disaster.

The foremost issue is that libraries would require total cooperation from everyone who used them — something that cannot be reliably counted upon from the general public. In theory, a person would check out a book for some pre-determined period of time, and return it for someone else to borrow. Of course, this would not play out in the real world; there is little to no barrier preventing someone from simply keeping a book, and no real incentive to return them. Even for those who do not wish to steal books, we cannot count on people willingly taking on extra work to return them — especially with no personal benefit. I’m afraid that, should a library actually open, it would be totally stripped of its books within the first week. Even if this borrow-and-return system did work as planned, what do you suppose the state of a book would be after passing through a dozen owners? Or a hundred owners? We cannot expect that each person will take personal care of the book, especially if he knows that he will not own it within a week’s time. While I am impressed with the faith that young people seem to show in the general public, I am afraid that this is an example of naivete rather than humanity.

Aside from the practical issues that libraries would raise, we must also consider the ethical and legal issues that they would incur. In essence, libraries would serve as a kind of sanctioned media piracy, allowing people to enjoy the fruits of authors’ work without paying anything in return. Additionally, the borrow-and-return system would mean that publishers could only sell a fraction of the number of books that they would otherwise. What publisher would allow their books to be held in a library, knowing that they lose a sale for each person who borrows them? And how do you suppose authors would feel when their fans began borrowing their series, rather than buying? In a world where libraries were commonplace, publishers would be pushed into bankruptcy, and authors would have no incentive to produce new material. I’m afraid that the first library would be sued out of existence before it could even have all of its books stolen!

While freedom of knowledge is a utopian goal, young people need to understand that every “free” service comes with a price, and we mustn’t be too hasty to implement “beneficial” systems that harm more than they help. Young liberal types may dream of an enlightened society that has moved beyond the need for money, but they need to wake up and face reality. We cannot expect the kind of idealistic cooperation that libraries would require, especially with no incentives to drive people to work without personal benefit. I’m afraid that the average person is just more selfish than our young friends can imagine — not to mention, they have failed to realize the untold damage that such an idea would bring to the publishing industry. If libraries do manage to open across the country, I’m afraid that a whole generation will be in for a rude awakening.

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