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.
June 4, 1997 - The Value of Public Space
I jumped on a slow couple of days to catch up on my professional reading. Because of the way the pile got stacked (pure accident), I ran across two articles, back to back, that said more together than they would have separately.
The first was a piece called "Books, Bytes, and Buildings," published by the Benton Foundation, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. There were many findings about "the future of [public] libraries in the digital age," based on surveys, phone polls, and focus groups. Here are the two findings I'd like to focus on this week:
Like library leaders, Americans value library buildings. But Americans are less sure than library leaders that the library is a significant community meeting place. People between the ages of 18 and 24 have the least value for library buildings.
While many Americans are angry at government, libraries are thus far the exception. Libraries enjoy high marks (and strong support as a funding priority) from all Americans, again
My next piece of professional reading came from a book called The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream, by architect Peter Calthorpe.
Here's the quote that jumped out at me:
"Today the public world is shrunken and fractured. Parks, schools, libraries, post offices, town halls, and civic centers are dispersed, underutilized, and underfunded. Yet these civic elements determine the quality of our shared world and express the value we assign to community. The traditional Commons, which once centered our communities with convivial gathering and meeting places, is increasingly displaced by an exaggerated private domain: shopping malls, private clubs, and gated communities. Our basic public space, the street, is given over to the car and its accommodation, while our private world becomes more and more isolated behind garage doors and walled compounds. Our public space lacks identity and is largely anonymous, while our private space strains toward a narcissistic autonomy. Our communities are zoned black and white, private or public, my space or nobody".
"We must return meaning and stature to the physical expression of our public life."
These issues are more than academic to me. The Douglas Public Library District will be building or renovating a building every year for the next five years, all around the county. It matters to me how they will be seen and used.
After encouraging these ideas to stew in the back of my mind awhile, I formed two hypotheses:
One of the reasons there is so much anti-government sentiment these days (as evidenced by declining voter participation, anti-tax revolts, and at the extreme end, militias) is that our modern urban and suburban landscape pointedly removes public structures from public view. We have, as Calthorpe puts it, dispersed and fragmented the physical expression of our public life. For our youngest citizens -- those between the ages of 18 and 24 (the early voting years) -- that civic life is all but invisible. No wonder they don't value it.
One of the reasons that libraries have retained more public support than other governmental entities is that libraries try hard to build beautiful and inviting buildings that are a part of the public's life. Particularly during the design phase, we actively seek the involvement of the people who live in communities the libraries will serve. We attach a high priority to meeting those people's concerns. It pays off, literally and figuratively.
In short, Calthorpe is right. If we want people to see themselves as more than consumers, we have to make another dimension of their lives tangible in our shared environment. Library buildings are a good place to start. But libraries aren't enough.