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.
October 8, 1997 - Revaluing Libraries
If I grasp the historic and generational dynamics correctly, all of our public institutions are being "re-valued." That may sound impressive, but all it means is that society is taking a look at institutions that were unquestioned goods to a previous generation, to see if they still "work."
It probably started with LBJ's, then Nixon's Presidency, a mounting crisis in public confidence. Reagan's Presidency was an attempt to roll everything back to before the Viet Nam war, and it seemed to work, for awhile. But nowadays, nobody has much faith in either the Presidency or Congress. Regionally, and despite Colorado's clear history of fiscally conservative government, Douglas Bruce's "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" was mostly about a profound distrust of government.
More locally still -- although it's part of a national trend -- is the revaluing of public schools. Crystallizing in the much ballyhooed report, "A Nation at Risk," all public schools came under close scrutiny. At times, it was more like an attack. What it came down to was a suspicion that something at best inefficient, and at worst conspiratorial, was going on in and around our classrooms. Were the attacks justified? In part, probably so.
But where are we today? A nation with a crumbling public education infrastructure on the one hand, and home schooling, charter schools and vouchers on the other.
I think the public library is the next institution on the list. As a public librarian and as a public servant, it's important to me to stay ahead of this "re-valuing." What follows is my attempt to lay out the issues that I see as rallying points for public dissension and/or discourse. I'd be very interested in hearing from my readers about how close, or far off, you think I am about what may start to bother people about the library, and what kind of response makes sense.
These are the issues I think are key:
-The desire for quiet. This concern crosses conservative and liberal lines. More and more of our patrons believe that kids are too loud, parents don't control them, and librarians are too reluctant to shut people up. A growing number of people believe that libraries should be a more hushed and holy place, a little more like we used to be. We need to respond. But how? Signs and shushing? Or the establishment of sections of the library called "reading rooms," where silence is strictly enforced?
-Parental control. A small minority (at present) wants something like a grid of choices: none of the following types of materials can be checked out by my children. At present, our library doesn't offer that kind of prohibition of children's choices. But with our automated systems, the possibility exists that we COULD offer it, at least to some extent. Is that reasonable? Perhaps. We hold parents responsible for the items their children check out. How can we at the same time assert that children can check out what the parents expressly forbid? Yet I still believe libraries must hold to two tenets: (a) no automated system is perfect; mistakes will happen, and (b) kids can still read what they want in the library (because it is both inappropriate and unreasonable to force government employees to look over everybody's shoulders as they sit quietly in a public place).
-Advocacy. Some folks want libraries to accept the role of sponsorship. They believe we should be actively PROMOTING the "right" views, eschewing all others. On this one, we can not compromise. The answer must be, "Your views have a seat at the table of public discourse. But you do not have the right to silence everybody else at the table." We reflect the offerings of mainstream publishing, in due proportion. We do not, and should not, try to reject those offerings out of hand.
-Internet access. Some people believe that we should impose the standard of what's appropriate for children, on adults as well. Here again is an issue where I believe no compromise is possible. It's perfectly appropriate for libraries to have "filtered" workstations in the children's area - if they think it even makes sense to offer such a thing (I don't, frankly). But we should tell parents, "Our adult terminals are unfiltered, because filtering cripples them as research tools. If you don't want your children to use these terminals, tell them not to. If your children do anyhow, hold the child accountable, not the library."