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 1, 2000 - Content-Free TV
A while back, a list of gag book titles made its way to a librarian e-mail list. One of the titles was: "Living With Attention Deficit Disorder: Practical Strategies for Hey Look What's on TV!"
It's a provocative joke. As early as a generation ago, educators were noting the effect of Sesame Street on student concentration. Whereas once classroom instruction and curricular design tended to be fairly linear, TV changed that.
Kids were still smart -- smart is a fairly basic human characteristic -- but in order to hold their attention, educators started adopting a "mosaic" form of education. "Here's an interesting fact. Here's another one. And now ... a word from our sponsor.'
All of that was often very entertaining, particularly if accompanied by sounds and images. But it left to the child the task of forming a framework that tied all those facts together. Different children built different frameworks.
I'm thinking about all this because my 6 year old son, Perry, has suddenly taken to reading with a vengeance. After soaking up spelling rules and pronunciation solely by making me read him Calvin and Hobbes books, he recently bought something from a library booksale, a book, he noted proudly, totally without pictures. Each night, he now reads aloud to me, barely pausing over such words as "discharged," "accidental," "embarrassed," and "island."
He spends as much time on a couple of pages as he used to spend on whole educational videos, and he seems to be enjoying himself more.
One of the videos he used to love was the "Eyewitness" series, checked out from the library. This series has a generally scientific focus on nature, exploring the topics of sharks, weather, reptiles, and so on. They are very slick productions. But they jump around so much, with so little real context or exposition, that I find them bewildering. When it's over, I've just got a rapidly fading memory of little facts. Factlets.
My wife runs a book group. Recently they discussed "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden. The book is an absorbing look at the now almost vanished lifestyle of the traditional Japanese geisha. The book is full of rich detail, with fully realized characters and a deft portrayal of the times.
Closely following the success of Golden's book, the A and E channel aired a program called "The Secret Life of Geisha." The library has that too, and my wife and I watched it. This was no children's video. You could tell because it had a lot of sly allusions to sex and prostitution.
What it lacked, though, was anything like a storyline, or even a narrative logic. We kept thinking that there were so many things they left out: a description of who made kimono, how they were tied; who provided the geisha training, and what their background might be; why somebody might become a geisha to begin with; a glimpse at the content of some of the traditional stories or dances. Instead, it was all titillation and sound bites.
It was, in short, an almost content-free waste of 100 minutes. After a while, my wife and I got genuinely fascinated. How long can they keep this up? How long can they go without ever really saying anything? Answer: all the way to the end.
I wish I could tell you that every single item the library owns is first-rate, a model of comprehensive research, clear organization, and wise, witty delivery. But the truth is, what we've got is just what our culture produces. We reflect all its biases and blindness. We also reflect its few bright, shining moments of genuine insight (see Strauss and Howe's "The Fourth Turning," for instance).
But whatever the quality of the current crop, you can be sure that oh wait I've got e-mail!