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 28, 2008 - Reading is Paying Attention
Hank Long, a buddy of mine who happens to be the director of the Englewood Public Library, sent me a provocative trio of articles about reading.
The articles included, "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading," by Howard Gardner; "Not Reading An Iota in America," by Randy Salzman; and "The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We're a Nation of Dunces," by Susan Jacoby. All appeared in the Washington Post on February 17, 2008 (and elsewhere).
Gardner notes that every time there's a big change in media, the leading lights of the day both celebrate the human gain, and mourn the human loss. Plato, for instance, arguably one of the masters of the trendy new art of writing, "feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar
side effects of 'Googling')."
Theologians also worried about literacy. Back in the 15th century, people started reading the Bible themselves, instead of asking priests to interpret it. One of the consequences of literacy was the Protestant revolution.
On the other hand, libraries preserved the stories, both myth and history, that would otherwise have been lost. Literacy encoded learning.
Salzman, meanwhile, wrote about sitting in a juvenile court waiting room, a place without books, where the dispirited parents and children sat staring, vacant. As for himself, Salzman had brought, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It was about Muslim women in Iran who read -- and by reading, faced being jailed, beaten or raped.
Salzman recalls "Charlottesville bookstore owner Kay Allison and her wonderful work in Virginia with 'Books Behind Bars,' a prison book-donation program. Allison says she gets about 20 letters every day from prisoners who write to her in awkward block letters, desperately seeking books. Every day. Using their literal 'down time,' they seek to recover reading and thinking and connecting to the world outside -- not unlike the women in 'Reading Lolita.'"
Finally, here's an arresting passage from Susan Jacoby:
"People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping 'I'm the decider' may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio 'fireside chat' so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president."
Here's the kicker: "According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it 'not at all important' to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it 'very important.'"
Jacoby's point is that Americans barely have any attention span left. She blames video.
She cites a Harvard study that "between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds."
I find myself more in agreement with Gardner. I don't think we're all getting dumber. I think we're still trying to wrap our neural networks around a host of inputs undreamnt of by our DNA.
We're smarter in some ways, not so smart in others.
But after pondering all this, it's hard not to agree with both Salzman and Jacoby: it can't hurt to pay more attention.