What if public libraries didn't already exist?

As he did in Levitt and his 2005 book Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner poses yet another interesting question on the Freakonomics blog: "If public libraries didn’t exist, could you start one today?" The post actually produced so much interest that it crashed their site.

Dubner's basic contention is that book publishers would vehemently oppose creating public libraries today, if they didn't already exist. Their response would probably mirror the music recording industry's reaction to Napster and other such peer-to-peer filesharing sites. After all, libraries, with their booksharing tendencies, may very well contribute to lower sales for book publishers. According to NCES, libraries circulated over 2 billion items in 2004. Even if only a fraction of the people who check out books bought them, that's a big chunk of change.

So what do you think? In this age of copyright disputes, could we create public libraries if they weren't already around?