Charlie at CCPL

Charlie T. Riverdog, mascot of the Charleston RiverDogs, helps out with storytime at the Charleston County Public Library this summer. Provided/Charleston County Public Library

You can’t get this on Amazon.

Earlier this week, the Charleston County Public Library brought in legendary photographer Cecil Williams for a slide show and talk about his work chronicling the civil rights movement.

He recounted the city's 1969 Medical College hospital strike, and the time he followed Thurgood Marshall to Charleston in 1951 — when he was just 13. More than 125 people packed the downtown library’s auditorium to hear his stories and admire a new exhibit of never-before-seen photos in the lobby.

That is the very definition of bringing a community together, which is something libraries do naturally.

Forbes magazine recently published an opinion piece from a New York college professor who suggested shutting down all public libraries and letting Amazon take their place. He argued such a move would save taxpayers money and be a boon for Amazon shareholders.

Because, as SCE&G customers have learned, these days nothing matters more than dividends.

Library supporters around the country raised so much Cain that the internet melted down. Forbes sheepishly deleted the column within hours. Not long after that, the magazine issued an apology.

“It was awesome to see that kind of response,” says Nicolle Davies, executive director of the Charleston County Public Library.

Yes, and totally unsurprising.

Community centers

No dig at Amazon, but libraries serve a much more important function.

Davies notes that, aside from the obvious service of loaning out books and DVDs, libraries help folks find jobs, provide internet service, help people get technologically literate and prepare young children for school.

And, of course, they offer free programs — such as the Williams event on Monday. Which was open to any and all.

That’s the thing about libraries, they are a great equalizer. You had mayors and federal judges, regular citizens of all ages and background together in one room.

“We are a community center,” Davies says.

The 2016 Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year knows what she’s talking about. But anyone who ventures into one of the county’s libraries realizes the same thing.

That’s why Charleston County residents in 2014 voted overwhelmingly in favor of spending $108 million for five new libraries and renovations to 13 others. That’s a decent chunk of change, but still the proposal passed with 74 percent of the vote — an approval rate that would make any politician turn green.

Four years later, new libraries in northern Mount Pleasant and on James Island are under construction and will open within a year. A new West Ashley library and another in Hollywood will follow, along with a replacement library in North Charleston, which should open in the early months of 2019.

That’s nearly as good a turnaround as Amazon Prime shipping.

Come to think of it, we ought to let the library board build our roads.

Bang for the buck

There are always going to be people who feel the same as that college professor.

They’ll say libraries aren’t a core function of government, this should be left to the private sector.

That’s just wrong. It’s a matter of both dollars and sense.

Libraries provide books and other services for people who can’t afford to go online every time they need a resource and plunk down $15 or $20. And no store is going to offer the diverse holdings you can find in any branch of a public library. Or offer such a knowledgeable staff.

Those resources should be available to everyone. That’s the point.

Charleston County spends about 7 percent of its operating budget on libraries, which not only provide literature and programming to residents in every corner of this county but also serve as free meeting facilities for groups.

It costs about $40 per county resident annually to keep the libraries running — which works out to nearly 11 cents a day. That’s an even better bargain than Amazon Prime.

A number of states have done studies that say libraries are among local governments’ best investments. They provide jobs, improve quality of life and help local businesses.

The last time South Carolina did a survey, 13 years ago, it found libraries had a $222 million economic impact, for a state and local combined cost of $77 million.

In other words, libraries are already benefiting shareholders — that is, every resident of South Carolina.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.