The public library was never just about books

On July 21, Forbes published a piece by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas arguing that Amazon stores should replace public libraries. The backlash was rapid and unforgiving; library-lovers from around the world responded with angry tweets, and Forbes removed the piece two days later. Yet the article highlights a concerning fact: Too many Americans misunderstand the role of the public library.

The library is not a warehouse of books like Amazon, a tech developer like Apple or a cafe like Starbucks. It is a public institution of learning predicated on the principle that all Americans should be able to access information, education and culture free of cost. In practice, the unique mission of the public library leads to a distinct set of services, ranging from book-lending to computer- and English- language classes. The growing diversity of library activities is not a means of compensating for the rise of the Internet or a decline in the number of library users. Libraries have been re-inventing their programs for over a century in an effort to advance the same old mission: information for all.

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