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.
September 21, 2000 - Dr. Laura Redux
On September 14, 2000, the Denver Post ran an editorial I wrote about Dr. Laura Schlessinger. A similar piece -- based on the idea that children should be held accountable for their behavior -- ran in this paper back in January.
For the past several days, I've been at the annual conference of the Colorado Library Association. It happens that I had the opportunity, while there, to view Dr. Laura's September 15 program on "porn at the library." I watched it with the current President of the American Library Association, and had a frank discussion with her afterward.
When I got home, I reviewed my e-mail and phone messages. I had 15 comments about my editorial. The count, in case anybody wonders, is three very strong (but polite) disagreements with my views, one thoughtful question about the consistency of library policy, ten messages of enthusiastic support, and one profane epithet that I suspect won't make it verbatim into this newspaper.
In my comments to the American Library Association President, I said that I thought the ALA was doing a lousy job of responding to people's concerns. She said maybe I should recommend an alternative.
So here it is.
The issue: some people (not very many, based on the complaints I've received, but some), aren't happy about the fact that the Internet has some very explicit sexual content, and that both adults and children can get to it from public library Internet terminals.
Guess what? Welcome to the club. Librarians aren't happy about it either. We are not eager to expose you, or your children, to pornography. Why would we be?
The Internet is different from print. Although the library does spend money on Internet-based resources, it tends to be great stuff -- magazine indexes and articles, consumer information, business profiles and market analyses, databases of quotations, criticism of literary classics. That's not quite the same thing as a library, but it's an impressive contribution. We're proud of it.
Not only that, librarians have created some truly wonderful resources of our own. We've built lists of recommended books and websites. We've put up tools that encourage children to think critically about the information they stumble across.
We've assembled good guidelines about safety on the Internet -- reminders not to give your address to online correspondents, admonitions to never say you'll get together with anyone you met online unless your parents are with you.
We care about your kids, just as we care about our own.
But the Internet is different from print. We buy or create good resources. Other stuff comes along with it, and much of it is vulgar, erroneous, and/or dumb.
The Internet, a world-wide telecommunications network, is unregulated. There are now over 2 billion web pages, put up by anybody who can, and the content is changing by the minute.
Librarians can't possibly control that. We didn't produce that content. We didn't build the pipelines. It's way outside our abilities or spheres of influence.
It's as if we bought sixteen copies of Good Housekeeping magazine, and then discovered that two copies, on different pages, for just one month, had ads from Hustler magazine. Can librarians look at every page of every new book or magazine that's published?
No. We can't.
Some people say, "So won't you at least use software that lets only the good stuff through and keeps the bad stuff out?"
Well, librarians have looked long and hard at the option. But there are some problems. The people who make this software say a lot of things that aren't true. They say they've looked at every single page on the Internet, and decided what's OK.
The first problem is, that's impossible. Remember: there are at least two billion pages on the Internet, and the content keeps changing. Do the math.
The second problem is that they won't tell you who decided what was OK, and why. Why, for instance, is a Quaker site blocked by a filtering program?
And here's the final point. Librarians don't oppose censorship because we're trying to drag your children into filth. We oppose it because we think it's a really bad idea for government employees to start saying what you can't look at, especially when they won't tell you who made the decision or why.
You may say, "Stop my children from being able to get to things I don't want them to know about!"
Librarians may say, "There are some things we don't want our kids to be exposed to, either!"
But suppose that decision means your children also won't have access to thousands or hundreds of thousands of other things that are essential to a thoroughly moral education? Do we toss out the treasure with the trash? Who gave us that authority? Who made us so smart that we can do that?
The job of librarian is this: we gather, organize, and provide public access to the intellectual capital of our culture. We're good at it. That doesn't mean we endorse what the culture has produced.
In other words, we're (mostly) decent, thoughtful people who are trying to figure out just what the most profound technological advance since the printing press really means. Our bias is to let people decide for themselves, as individuals, after talking about it with their families.
We don't have it all worked out yet.