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.
July 27, 2000 - A Coffee Shop Conversation
She rolled her eyes. "Librarians!" she said.
"Look," she continued. "If I want a book, I look it up on Amazon.com. And I get more than just the things librarians use in their bland and boring catalogs. I find out what other people thought about the book.
"If I've got research to do, I use Yahoo, or Northernlight, or Gobot. Investing in libraries is like investing in the village smithy.
"And before you say it, yes, there are still blacksmiths. But today's librarians are like yesterday's blacksmiths. It's a dying profession."
"OK," I said. You've got us on the catalogs. They ARE boring. But they're better than amazon.com to find something you don't know the name of."
"No way!" she protested. If I'm interested in organic gardening, I type in the term, and amazon.com lists all the books on the subject."
"Oh no it doesn't," I said. "For one thing, librarians are a lot more consistent and comprehensive in attaching subject headings to books. For another, amazon.com mostly focuses on things that are currently in print. The life span of a particular title isn't as long as you'd think -- publishers have to pay taxes on their inventory."
"But that's what I want," she said. "What's new."
"Oh really?" I said. "It's true that a little over half of what we check out from the library has been published in the past year. But all that means is that the other half is just as popular. People mistake facts for knowledge. They think that scanning over the new factoids is the same thing as understanding a topic. But the books that define a field -- that put in the hard intellectual labor to make a PATTERN of the facts, to place the data in a coherent context -- aren't necessarily the ones that are new. And they aren't common."
"Amazon.com is starting to add all kinds of out of print stuff," she retorted. "They'll even track it down for you."
"True. I've used that myself. Kind of like our Interlibrary Loan service, only amazon.com makes you buy the book to find out what's in it. But the big difference between them and us is SELECTION. We've gone out of our way to find the definitive stuff, not just offer a bunch of lists."
"All right," she admitted, a little testily. "I can see that. If you're doing serious research on a topic, and you've got the time to read a whole book on something, then I guess the library might offer you a better shot at getting a solid grasp on something.
"But for the kind of research I do, I'm just looking for something quick. The best buy on a refrigerator. New herbs for arthritis."
"And you think the World Wide Web is better than a library?" I asked, astonished.
"Well, sure. The odds are good that just yesterday a new company popped up that offers the latest product. I won't find that in a library book."
"Fair enough," I allowed. "But what do you know about those companies? Most Internet websites are little more than advertising brochures. And when you do a search on the free web, you get all kinds of garbage."
She sneered at me. "What, you're saying libraries are too pure to use the Internet?"
"Not at all," I responded. "The difference is that we use it intelligently. We subscribe to high quality databases ..."
"Using tax dollars," she said huffily.
"Well, yeah. Some of these databases cost $50,000 each. Who could afford that all by themselves? And your share is pennies. But the difference is that when you search for herbal remedies for arthritis, you get four or five focused articles, balanced and well-researched -- as opposed to the 150,000 you get on the Internet that might have been put up by any quack. You told me you don't have time to waste on whole books. Do you have time to waste scrolling through hundreds of screens of irrelevant, or even dangerous, information?"
"Well, whatever," she said. "I've got to get to work."
"Nice chatting with you," I said.
She picked up her latte and started out the door.
"Where DO you work?" I asked.
She looked uncomfortable. "The nails place. I do nails. And pedicures."
"Ah," I said.
"Listen," she said, defensively, "it's a good job."
"I'm sure it is," I said. "You're obviously intelligent, and you get to talk to people."
"That's right! And you know, these days, they say people change jobs every two years."
"And careers, at least three times," I agreed. "But if or when it's time for you to make a change, I've got a hot tip."
"What's that?" she asked, suspiciously.
"I know a place where you can get free information about careers. Free newspapers, job lines, all kinds of stuff. Arranged in a way that makes them easy to use."
I smiled. "The library."
She rolled her eyes. "Librarians!" she said.