Are Libraries Stacked Against the Free Market?

I was young. I don't recall the precise age. I do remember carefully inserting my first real adult piece of identification in my otherwise empty wallet. It was a San Francisco library card.

As I visited the white granite covered, Beaux Arts style San Francisco public library last weekend, the memory came racing back. I am 62 now, and renewed my library card.

Above the library card registration desk, a soaring skylight and central atrium floods the reading areas with natural light. Spiraling staircases and pedestrian bridges connect floors. A towering art installation by artist Nayland Blake lights up the names of more than a hundred authors, reminding us that art and literature are friends.

All around you, swarming learners paw through the books, magazines, newspapers and children's literature, pepper the librarians with questions, use the free computers, converse in languages from all corners of the world and enjoy the quiet. Judged by dress and demeanor, people of seemingly every income class are knowledge-seekers. It is not surprising to learn that 2 million consumers annually use the main branch library.

A library is a weird and wonderful public institution. Consider this:

Paid for by taxpayers to give away knowledge in the form of printed (mostly) materials, it competes directly with commercial bookstores. Even the used books on offer by the library's charitable fundraising unit undercut the tax-generating, rent-paying secondhand bookstores for which S.F. is renowned. No one complains.

For one dollar a citizen of San Francisco can purchase the local newspaper from a news shop directly across from the main library. More frugally, the same citizen, even without a library card, can read thousands of newspapers from around the country and around the world for free. No one even thinks to mention it.

Locate two bookstores in a shopping mall and it is applauded as an example of the competitive marketplace at work. One presumes greater merchandise selection, better service, lower prices, etc. Locate two public libraries near each other, and howls about government waste would be on the six o'clock news. The inconsistency is accepted.

In the form of relatively cheap computers, cell phones, television and radio, the internet, Google searches, Wikipedia and a myriad of other tools and e-devices, the depth and breadth of human information seems everywhere. In juxtaposition, libraries remain temples of public learning, sacred places for the storage and sharing of Humankind's accumulated knowledge and wisdom... ideas and dreams. The anachronism is remarked on, then ignored.

From Mexico to Malaysia, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates, a global natural experiment is underway. Social activists, public policy thinkers and business leaders of conscience are examining how to combine the innovation and spirit of the competitive marketplace with the more important social values of community solidarity.

For a practical solution, look to the libraries where pragmatic pluralism has achieved proof of concept. If you haven't been to the S.F. public library yet, it is an appealing demonstration of public institutions operating side-by-side with private sector social entrepreneurs. Complementary or competitive? Who cares? We need both.