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 24, 1996 - Citizen Confidence in Government
Recently, national and local League of Women Voters groups have begun to talk about the need to restore faith in government.
Have people in fact LOST faith in government?
Yes. According to an article called "America Today" in the December, 1995 issue of Current, written by Seymour Martin Lipset, "Opinion surveys indicate that confidence in U.S. political institutions has declined precipitously and steadily since the mid-1960s. The Louis Harris Poll, which has investigated the subject since 1966, reported in 1994 the lowest level of confidence ever in political leaders."
This lack of confidence expresses itself in many ways, the most obvious being voter participation. Again according to Lipset, "At one time, the United States could boast that the overwhelming majority of eligible voters cast ballots. ... the United States now has the lowest rate of voter participation in national elections of all the established democracies except Switzerland" -- just over 50 percent.
What caused this sharp drop in democratic activity? Lipset links the decline of voter participation with the decline of newspaper readership and the ascendancy of television viewership. He writes, "Those looking at the tube for four hours or more each day climbed from 19 percent in 1964 to 28 percent in 1993. At the same time, the proportion reading a newspaper every day fell from 73 percent in 1967 to 46 percent in 1993." Too, political candidates now put about 60% of their campaign budgets into television (17% in 1950). These days, the average political sound bite is down to fewer than 10 seconds.
The lack of in-depth coverage, plus the tendency of the media to cover bad news (good news is dull), together tends toward a discouraging picture of public life.
One of my Board members thinks that another issue is the inflated promises of political candidates. To get the 10 second sound bite, the challenger promises to end welfare, generate jobs, educate all children, eradicate poverty, increase defense spending, AND reduce taxes. The probability of one person accomplishing all this is vanishingly small; disaffected voter cynicism is the result. Yet, more honest and modest politicians don't get the TV time they need to win.
There's another cause. Many people of my generation came to political consciousness just as even the highest public office -- Nixon's Presidency -- was in utter disgrace, exposed as a den of venality and self-serving dishonesty. Since then, the relentless scrutiny of public figures' private lives has made it even more difficult to maintain respect for elected officials -- and even less encouraging to consider public service as a career.
In many respects, an innate distrust of government is a distinctly American trait; it's the other side of the coin of a belief in individual liberty.
Yet "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Clearly, political vigilance in the 90's does NOT consist of spending more time watching TV, but of spending more time in front of a newspaper, magazine, or book, the better to form a less superficial and more mature view of the issues and people in the public eye.
The road to restoring confidence in government just might start at your local public library.