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.
August 3, 2000 - Value of the Public Sector
I admit it. At the core of my soul is a contradiction. I am a libertarian who works for the government.
In general, I believe that that government is best which governs least. I believe in the value of the individual over the state. I believe, at a minimum, that any tax-supported institution should hold to the strictest standards of accountability and good stewardship.
But I also believe that the public library, and even more specifically, the public library district, is close to a perfect form of government.
For one thing, it is established democratically, and requires taxpayer approval for any increase in revenue -- and that was true way before TABOR.
For another, it has a clear and definable purpose. You know exactly what it costs, and exactly what you get for your expenditure. The charge is right there on the tax bill for your home. The value is right there on your bookshelves and VCR's and dashboards. It either evens out, or it doesn't.
Library expenses don't disappear into a morass of government overhead, or general funds. The driest accountant couldn't be more exacting about the purpose that each penny was put.
But there are other reasons.
The public library district is local. It doesn't seek to lobby remote bodies for vague purposes. It makes its pitch to a specific community. More to the point, it serves precisely the people it asks for the money.
It's hard to know, sometimes, just exactly what you get for the taxes you pay to the federal government. How are you supposed to check up on it -- roam the halls of the Pentagon?
But you can walk into your local library. You can judge the quality of the service and the people employed to deliver it.
The benefit of the institution is obvious. Public libraries pool small individual contributions to gain access to an incomparable resource of print, public space, and staff that no one, except the very wealthiest, could possibly hope to equal. The public library is the clearest possible example of intellectual collaboration, a cooperative purchasing agreement that leverages a surprisingly small down payment into a significant personal asset.
It's all true. Yet everything I've said isn't the real reason I support the public library district. My reason is as personal as it gets.
When I was a child, I walked into a library for the first time. I directly experienced something I never encountered in the private sector, not then, not since.
Library staff bent their efforts not to tell me what the state expected of me, what my parents wanted, what my school demanded, or what my pocketbook permitted. They wanted something simpler. They wanted to know what they could do to answer my questions.
MY questions. All that expertise arranged for my sole benefit.
The public library advanced the altogether radical notion that the individual -- even if he was 8 years old! -- had a perfect right to wonder about things. And that his community had marshaled the resources to see that he got a good answer.
I can imagine no clearer evidence of the essential goodwill, the openness and integrity of a society, than to offer such remarkable access to any one of its citizens. For FREE.
These days, I sense a peculiar inability of too many people to identify the value of the public sector. But I know it, I know it in my bones.
This fall, the ballot issue called Taxcut 2000 will, among other things, seek to arbitrarily reduce the local contribution to any property tax supported institution. This proceeds until the tax is gone. Who will vote for it? People who want to keep their money.
Fair enough. But the next question is, "What takes the library's place?" Another good question might be, "Will I get such extraordinary value for my next purchase?"