This is an old joke, so bear with me:
A conservative, a liberal, and a libertarian come across two people having sex on the steps of a public library. The conservative is shocked, shocked! at the carnal display, but admits that it would be cricket so long as the couple were married — and hetero! — but for goodness sakes at home, in the bedroom, with the shades drawn and the lights off!
The liberal is amused (and a bit concerned) at his stodgy friend’s “intolerance,” but admits that the couple should at least move downtown where kids can’t see, and they should be compelled — well, strongly urged — no, educated! — to use appropriate prophylaxis.
The libertarian, meanwhile, has rent his garments and fallen to his knees, face in hands, weeping bitterly. Concerned, his friends ask what is the matter, to which he replies, “Why must we live in a world so depraved as to have public libraries?!”
Eamonn Butler of the AdamSmith.org blog puts the same sentiment a bit more eloquently:
Those who criticize the public library service are of course branded as mean-spirited philistines. But it’s easy to be generous if you do it on someone else’s money. I don’t see why poor taxpayers should be forced, by threat of imprisonment, to pay for the entertainment of the middle classes.
— Eamonn Butler, “Rewriting the book on libraries”
Well, sure. Even though I have used (and loved) public libraries all my life, I can’t disagree that libraries are a medieval solution to a medieval problem. The world might actually be (imperceptibly) better off if people who wanted to read books simply bought them. Ye olden dayes when men were men and books were precious and rare are gone. The age of Amazon is at hand!
However, I suspect the idea that they exist mainly as “entertainment [for] the middle classes” (read: to loan romance novels to housewives) is not, strictly speaking, true. In my neck of the woods, the public library serves as meeting place, public archives, homeschooling curricula supplement, and educational outreach center. That, and a free internet cafe for those who can’t afford a home computer, or for that matter, a home. (Hey, people need to pay bills. And facebook.)
Perhaps those functions could be split out into leaner, meaner institutions, some public, some private. Or maybe there’s an economy of scale here, and the book lending part is a marginal cost. I don’t know, but surely there are bigger fish to fry? Of all the things to get worked up about governments doing with their (ahem our) money, libraries have to be pretty near the bottom of the list. Seriously, this sort of thinking is why I don’t call myself a libertarian (even though I probably am one). They’re just so ... cranky. Sometimes it’s as if they think the social contract consists entirely of “You kids get off my lawn!”
I’m sure Mr. Butler is right about one thing, though: The library as we know it will evolve into something more useful to contemporary society, or it will pass the way of all flesh. That’s what institutions, public or private, tend to do.
In the meantime: Happy thoughts, happy thoughts.