For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
January 4, 2007 - Libraries are Smart Investment
There are two kinds of people -- those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don't.
To put it another way, there is a peculiar psychological need for some people to see the world in black and white. Politically, in our divided nation, there are liberals and conservatives.
In that context, I've been thinking some more about "a national agenda for public libraries."
I believe there are two fundamental arguments for the public library: it is a public good, and it is a sound return on the investment.
"The public good" argument is immediately understood by liberals. Public libraries are social assets, available to, and benefiting, all.
Public libraries are "bootstrap" institutions -- places where ambitious people of any age or background can seek the education they need, rather than waiting for somebody else to deliver it to them. Or as my granddad used to say, "Education isn't something that's done to you; it's something you do for yourself." Providing, of course, the resources are accessible to you.
Surveys show that the poorest among us often have the greatest appreciation for education, and see public libraries as part of that continuum of services. They believe education is a means through which their children can achieve a better life than their parents, and is therefore worthy of shared financial support.
Another argument for the public good is a demonstration of the efficacy of the public sector. I remember, when I first understood as a child that I could use the public library for free, feeling a surge of wonder and respect for the grown-up world. It was a tangible sign of social benevolence.
For over a hundred years, America's libraries have maintained a tradition of openness to all, of frugality and good stewardship of local resources, of simple respect for the individual's right both of inquiry and privacy.
People trust libraries and librarians, and that's a rare achievement.
Finally, libraries are builders of community. Just lately, we see how often people come together and work out common aims in our buildings.
The second argument for libraries veers from social good to private gain. It is quickly grasped by conservatives. In brief: libraries give at least two dollars back for every tax dollar invested. (We're participating in a statewide study on the exact amount, which I'll report on later in 2007.)
You might be surprised to learn that much of the economic activity in our county begins at the library. For instance, developers often begin by researching past uses of land, and find our aerial maps from the 1930s invaluable.
Small business owners start by putting together a business plan to attract investors or borrow money. As part of that business plan, entrepreneurs investigate the competition or potential target market -- and discover that their library card unlocks literally tens of thousands of dollars of relevant data resources.
I've seen many business people use the library as both virtual office, and as business conference center. One of our small meeting rooms is an ideal location for a quick consultation or sales discussion: we have white boards, projection screens, plugs and connections for computers. Chambers of Commerce hold larger group meetings at libraries too, for leads groups, organizational business, and continuing education for people with little time, but a great need to stay current.
Too, libraries improve property values in a neighborhood, and as I mentioned last week, make great anchor stores.
On an individual basis, some people are driven to the library through a big change in life circumstance: pregnancy, career change, health problems, big consumer purchases. One visit to the library, for many people, saves far more money than they have ever paid in taxes. In the case of medical information, libraries have even saved people's lives.
The library is more than passive "resources," by the way -- the buildings, books, magazines, and databases. What makes a library is the staff, people trained to move swiftly and surely to the most salient information.
It's not hard to find data. What's hard is finding data that matters.
Public good or private gain -- which argument is "right?" Like most dualities, it's a false choice. Whichever you may privately hold is "better," it doesn't take much thinking to realize that both are necessary.
The public library: it's smart for the public, smart for the individual, and a good investment either way.