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.
February 21, 2008 - Ignorance is Not a Gift
After over half a century of life, study, intense social interaction, and careful thought, I have concluded ... that I don't know very much.
In my more optimistic moments, I think that might be good. Maybe I've finally UNlearned some things that were stopping me from seeing the world as it is.
In less optimistic moods, I think the truth is both simpler and scarier. The universe is a chaotic system. It CAN'T be understood.
But usually, I do think that learning is possible. I just don't think I'm a great example.
Take languages. I studied French for 3 years in high school. I got
pretty good, I thought. I could read magazine articles and novels.
But I've mostly lost it (although my wife and I are talking about
signing up for classes with the Alliance Francaise). When we went to
Quebec City last year, I was nearly illiterate. I didn't like that part, although I DID like Quebec City.
My wife, I'm sure, will quickly surpass me. She took 5 years of French, and then she majored in Russian (which took her only 3 years). And when I met her, she was cataloging books and microfilms in 5 languages.
But that's ok. If you don't study things because other people are
smarter than you, you never learn anything. There's always someone smarter.
Recently I got a call from a patron who accused me of working to make America a bilingual nation, by which he seemed to mean that the library has offered some Spanish language celebrations and classes over the years.
Let me make this perfectly clear: the library is overwhelmingly focused on the provision of American English materials and programs.
A tiny fraction of the over 150,000 items we added last year were in
languages other than English (just 246 items in our juvenile area).
Among our thousands of public programs are also a few that focus on
other languages. But the vast majority are about getting preschoolers ready to learn to read ... English.
So we are not engaged in some deep conspiracy to displace English from our shelves or our culture.
On the other hand, here's the plain truth: when it comes to global
competitiveness, Americans are doing a truly terrible job on the
language front. The public library strikes me as a logical place to try to turn that around.
There's good news in our society. Our public schools have an exciting new Chinese language program. Might it be worthwhile to learn about the language spoken by more other native speakers than any on the planet? (Particularly if you might want to explore Asian business opportunities?)
A lot of folks in Colorado have business dealings, or take vacations, in Mexico or South America. They want to speak the local language there.
A tenet of my faith as a librarian is that reading about other people's lives -- other ages, other times, other cultures, other tongues -- is precisely how we grow as both individuals and as nations. The strongest nations don't live in isolation. They talk to each other.
Our language itself has become the world's most popular SECOND language worldwide exactly because of that: we steal other people's words. We have the only language on the globe that has, or needs, a thesaurus.
The way to make English strong is not by refusing to speak anything
else. It's by enriching it with everything useful we can glean from
everyone else, and using those assets in new ways.
Ignorance is our natural condition. But we don't have to settle for it.