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 9, 2000 - Sturgeon's Law
I've been picking up a lot of old science fiction lately from library book sales. One of the greats is Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote many haunting stories. "More than Human" is probably the best known, about the emergence of a gestalt human being with mutant abilities. But Sturgeon is also the father of something called "Sturgeon's Law," which reads as follows: "Ninety percent of everything is crap."
That may sound cynical. But Sturgeon was not a cynical man. He was stating a statistical observation about the endurance of quality. Pick up a TV Guide sometime and apply your standards to the listings for any particular night, and you'll see what I mean.
I quoted Sturgeon's law the other day to a retired librarian, and said I thought it clearly applied to the World Wide Web. In the early days of the Internet, most of the content was supplied by research institutions. That meant that the quality tended to be very high.
But now anybody can put up a web page, and a good many anybodies have. Ninety percent of what's out there now, well, is crap. By that I mean it is ill-focused, rambling, often unattributed, erroneous, or content-free.
So this former librarian said, "What about our collections?" (meaning the books, movies, magazines, and other materials we buy for the public). He wanted to know whether I thought today's public library were a source of high, or low culture.
"Yes," I said.
You can find great books in the library. But they aren't the best used. You can find powerful and technically superior movies in the library. But the Barney videos are just as popular.
You can find thought-provoking and impeccably researched articles in our magazines. But they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by articles on how to get and hold a man, or the latest fashion in hair do-dads.
I gather all this used to make some librarians indignant. They felt that their job was to raise the moral tone of a community, and they could get a little huffy when the community didn't cooperate.
But today's librarians are, I think, both more honest, and less arrogant. As a consequence, our libraries are also far, far better used. Put baldly, we are not so powerful that anything we buy will be enthusiastically embraced by our patrons.
We don't direct the reading tastes of the public. We reflect them. We don't write the books on our shelves. We purchase them.
And the books that get published are the end result of a host of factors. Sometimes it's the topic itself that's interesting (the Titanic). Sometimes it's the approach that ensures popularity (kiss and tell). Sometimes it's the campaign to promote the book (the latest Harry Potter).
At any rate, many, many agents, authors, editors, book designers and distributors have a crack at a book long before they make it to the library. We're the last stop, not the first.
But I also wonder sometimes about the whole idea of "high" versus "low" culture. While I think I grasp the distinction between professional wrestling and the symphony, I can't help but remember that Shakespeare, in his day, was the treat of the peasants.
Ninety percent of what gets produced may well be crap. But that 10% that endures can be created in any age. And the surest test of its quality isn't necessarily who wrote it or approved of it at the time. There is only one test of cultural quality: endurance. And that 10% makes all the rest of it worthwhile.