The Corner

Public Libraries: No Longer for the Literate

Yesterday, public-library officials in New York City made official what we all knew what was coming: They declared watching pornography on public-library computers to be permissible, protected by the First Amendment.*

Set aside for a moment the whole issue of whether people should be watching porn on public computers in public areas and turn to the broader issue: The mission of libraries has morphed into something completely unrecognizable.

In 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded the subscription-based Library Company of Philadelphia, which used the pooled subscription money to buy books (the company actually still exists). According to author William James Sidis, the public library as we know it originated in Boston in 1836. Public libraries were formed so that the public would have access to literature, no matter their income.

Libraries are now equipped with full multimedia capabilities and serve less as educational opportunities and more as neighborhood entertainment centers. Library patrons have expanded from those who need no-cost materials to free-riding wealthy people looking for some free entertainment. Get a library card and you now have full access to a wide variety of music CDs, DVD movies, and video games, all for free — which is to say all at taxpayer expense.

As American citizens, we approve of a portion of our tax dollars going to help the truly needy. Currently, they can be broken up into the following categories:

1. The Poor;

2. The Disabled;

3. The Elderly;

4. People who haven’t seen Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

Yes, your tax dollars are going to help those poor souls who are dangerously under-entertained, subsidizing your neighborhood Free Blockbuster, commonly known as the public library.

When we consider the proper scope of government, do we really think of free entertainment as a basic public service? Has anybody ever answered a citizen survey listing “ability to rent Superbad for free” among their top-ten government priorities? And wouldn’t the public be better served if people who could afford it went to a video store and paid for their DVDs? Wouldn’t that create jobs and economic activity? 

Modern-library apologists would point out that much of written literature is popular entertainment and that it would be impossible to draw a line between what is valuable and what is not. If those people can’t tell the difference between adultery in The Scarlet Letter and a character enjoying hot pastry in a nontraditional way in the movie American Pie, then they have been standing too near the book de-magnitizers for too long.

With local and state governments facing significant budget challenges, it might be time to take a closer look at the non-essential services they are providing. Nobody is facing imminent death because they haven’t seen season one of Who’s the Boss? on DVD. Yet local libraries might be soaking the taxpayers to make watching Alyssa Milano’s pre-teen years a reality for all.

*This paragraph was originally followed by the obligatory joke about how James Madison tried to write the name of an adult movie into the U.S. Constitution, but I couldn’t find any movie names that were within a mile of being appropriate. You can go to the library and look them up if you really want to.

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