I was surprised to learn that despite libraries being around for millennia, public libraries are a relatively new concept. Ben Franklin takes credit for starting the first “public” library in North America, but they charged a subscription. Libraries funded with public money were not widespread until the past century.

Public libraries are an amazing asset. Although people actually do pay for the resource with their tax dollars, there is no cost with each visit. Any time you want to learn something, you can obtain the knowledge for free. All it takes is an interest in learning and the effort to pursue it.

This characteristic is important. Compare a free public library to a paid subscription library. Subscriptions require intent (paying) far before the reward (learning). If you are not a member, there is a lot of friction each time you want to learn something. Until the Internet, public libraries had the lowest friction for accessing information.

The Internet and a Google search are now the fastest way to start learning about a topic, but libraries are still relevant due to copyright laws. And public libraries have kept up with the digital age. Overdrive makes it possible to access digital resources on Kindles, phones, and tablets. The convenience of pursuing knowledge has never been higher.

Using local libraries, I’ve checked out over 50 books in just the past two years. I could have afforded to buy each book, but there is little use for that. I do not touch books after I read them. Once read, physical books only serve as decoration; digital books don’t do anything. Their original purpose as a device to transfer knowledge has already played out.

Libraries are neat because the unit cost of the knowledge transfer becomes a smaller and smaller fraction with each person.