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.
March 13, 1996 - Zuni Librarian
Last week, I gave a talk on censorship to some New Mexico librarians. After the talk, I was approached by the librarian for the Zuni tribe -- one of the Pueblo peoples. The librarian (she was white) described a situation new to me.
The story starts a long time ago. Between the years of about 1870 and 1917, white photographers and anthropologists, fascinated by Native American religions, took many photographs of various ceremonies, artifacts, and places.
Over the past twenty years, many of these photographs have been re-released in various publications, most of them by university presses. They have sparked a fire storm of controversy.
Here's the perspective of the librarian. "Young people began coming into the library to ask for some of these books. I bought them. Almost immediately, the tribal elders complained. Some of the ceremonies described in the books were sacred, they said. Nobody was supposed to know about them unless they'd been initiated."
And yet, she went on, "the kids are desperate to find out about their history and their beliefs. None of the adults takes the time to talk to them."
On the plane back from the talk, I mentioned this to the person next to me. It turns out she knew someone who had worked with the Navajo Nation. She described a story of an anthropologist interviewing a tribal elder about some religious beliefs. Every now and then, the Native American would excuse himself, enter a small room, then return with an answer. Finally, the anthropologist asked him just whom he was consulting. Silently, the Navajo disappeared, then returned with a book -- published by the Oxford Press, and based on research from a century earlier. The point of the story was that if anthropologists hadn't documented that knowledge, it would have been lost altogether.
But there's another perspective. Clearly, the living chain of memory, an oral tradition from one generation to the next, has been broken. But it wasn't broken by Native Americans. Various white peoples -- from the Spanish to the English to the white Americans born on this soil -- completely overwhelmed, have all but decimated, many of the cultures that existed before theirs in this land.
To the people living on reservations, this latest round of publications -- even if published in the spirit of respect, and in some cases of frank admiration -- smacks of voyeurism and exploitation. There is something profoundly humiliating about having to learn about your past from the very people who destroyed it.
The question put to me by the New Mexico librarian was, "How should I respond to the elders?" I've given the question a lot of thought since then.
On the one hand, ignorance can't be the right choice. The white librarian may be right: these books may be the only way the young Zuni can learn about their heritage. It would be too ironic if any interested party EXCEPT the young people of the Zuni tribe had access to this information.
On the other hand, she might be wrong. It could be that a way of life can only survive if the chain is mended, if it becomes a living link, spoken at just the right time. It's hard for an outsider to judge that.
Here's the answer I gave her: I don't know.