A long thought, but insomnia leaves me with little else to do tonight. Let me make one thing clear: I love libraries. When I was a kid, my local library became a refuge for me - a place of peace (unlike my broken family) and learning (unlike my school, which was mostly a place of bullying and bad lunch). But as technology progresses, and also as municipal budgets shrink and every dollar starts to count, I really wonder if public libraries are generally necessary anymore, and certainly whether a hard-nosed cost/benefit analysis would reveal them to be worth the money spent on them. Public libraries came out of a certain era in which certain realities prevailed; but they do not prevail now, and never will again in all but the most gloomy and apocalyptic of future scenarios (those of Jim Kunstler, for example). They were based on a scarcity model for books - indeed for any information - that really no longer exists. Electronic books mean that any book is infinitely copyable, with the only limitation being that imposed by copyright laws. The idea of "borrowing" something becomes rather ridiculous when the scarcity model doesn't apply to it anymore. And as fewer and fewer people read (a problem that's been around for decades), and more and more of the people who do read do so on e-readers or tablets, the whole idea of libraries begins to look ridiculous. Even the argument of the barriers to the poor doesn't hold as much water as it did only a few years ago. When they first appeared on the market, Kindles were luxury items that cost $400 each, but five years later, an entry-level Kindle costs $70 brand new, a price well within the reach of all but the absolutely penniless, of whom there are relatively few in America (a country where the average "poor" person owns a car and multiple televisions). And even if we did want to make sure there was an absolutely free way to read available to the poor, why could the "public library" not be transformed into a window at your local municipal building where people could check out a Kindle for a week? They could be outfitted with some specialized software that would allow them to download and display copyrighted books via their 3G connections by special arrangement with publishing companies - how would this be different than libraries lending paper books now? Yes, there's the risk that some of the e-readers would disappear or get ruined, but we already take that risk with hardbound books that cost $30-40 new now - taking a chance with a $70 Kindle is not that much greater of a risk to take. But there's another scarcity model that no longer applies here, too - scarcity of information. It used to be hard to find things out. Now, not so. You used to have to go to a library - to dig through a card catalog, to find sections of books in Dewey decimal order, to pore through them until you found what you wanted. Now, a cheap device that's in everybody's pocket (especially the poor - smartphones have caught on among the poor in a way that PCs never quite did) and that works everywhere there's a cellular signal (meaning approximately everyplace except the Greenland Ice Cap and the bottom of the Marianas Trench) will give you the same information in seconds. Yes, there's the issue of being cagey enough to sort the wheat from the chaff as far as information found online goes, but that's a cognitive issue, not a scarcity issue. With one of the biggest public benefits of libraries superseded by cheap, universally-available technology, the case for spending any significant of public money on them becomes increasingly hard to make. Which brings us to the next point. As "The Great Recession" becomes "The New Normal", public budgets are under increasing pressure, and the likelihood is that this will get worse, not better - perhaps, in fact, a lot worse. Every dollar spent on an increasingly-obsolete institution like public libraries is a dollar that can't be spent on other priorities like schools, Meals on Wheels programs for shut-ins, heating assistance for the poor, homeless shelters, or drug treatment programs. At what point does spending money on something founded on no-longer-operative 19th century realities cross the line into the counterproductive, or even the inhumane? I ask this because a lot of people, especially those of an intellectual bent, have a strong emotional attachment to the idea of public libraries, but perhaps the time for that hard-nosed cost/benefit analysis of them that I mentioned really is here. I should also make clear that I'm not suggesting that all libraries should be closed - there will still be a need for big research libraries like the big New York Public Library on 42nd Street, and for libraries in universities, for a long time to come. But I am saying that it's getting to be time that public libraries as a mass-market kind of thing - something that there's one or two of in every town and urban neighborhood - be reassessed. At a time when libraries are resorting to giving pole dancing lessons as a way to attract people in the door, that's not an unreasonable thing to ask anymore. It may be time to admit that technology is a double-edged sword that can obsolete things we like just as well as it obsoletes things we don't.