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.
November 29, 2000 - The Individual Versus Society
When I was in high school, I got deep into the works of Ayn Rand. Then I took a class from a guy who infuriated me. His subject was sociology. When he asked the question, "Who came first: the individual or society?" I knew the answer. The individual. Of course.
But the teacher said I was wrong. The right answer, he said, was "society." Without society, he said, you would have no self, would not have opinions about culture because there would be no culture. You would be an animal.
I would retort: what is society but the sum of individual accomplishments?
And he would reply: what is the individual but the sum of social accomplishments?
We spent through the rest of the school year snarling at each other, each of us refusing to back down. In short, as I have seen too often in my life since, things devolved to the point where both of us simply stopped listening to each other. Both of us were convinced that it was pointless, that the opposition was just too stupid to get it.
Well, I'm a little older now, and while I still believe in the importance of the individual -- I believe, in fact, that a society should be judged primarily on how well it protects individual liberties -- I also see some of what my teacher was getting at. My interpretation is a little softer, however.
Part of my life experience is centered around libraries. The value of the library can be measured in two ways.
First is the incalculable joy of finally finding a kindred spirit. If you have never loved a book, I mean loved it so fiercely that you bitterly resented every instant you had to spend eating, sleeping, or anything else that kept you away from that book, then ... I pity you. I've had maybe seven books like that, books that made worlds so powerful, so convincing, so right that I knew that was where I truly belonged. Those were times of exaltation and joy.
So ask the reader who has found those seven books, and he or she will tell you: the quality of the library is directly proportional to how many of those specific books the reader stumbled across. It's an individual experience. The place where you find a holy book is forever a temple to you.
But then I look at things from the administrative angle. The value of the library is the fact that it represents a cumulative experience. Whole civilizations have risen and fallen without grasping a tenth of the key knowledge captured in the World Book Encyclopedia. And there it is, just sitting there on our index tables. Free.
I review our statistics and see the number of kids who attended story times; the number of adults who attended meetings; the number of questions answered by our crack reference librarians; the number of titles recommended to young adults looking for some diversion. And the aggregate of all those activities, the fact that all of those resources are housed in a series of buildings right here in Douglas County, is remarkable. The library is the sum of lives stretching back 5,000 years.
And, therefore, every library patron who walks through our doors is just a little sharper, a little more ahead of the game, than those folks who don't come to see us.
It's like the child who grows up in a big family where lots of people tell him stories. He just knows more, understands how things fit.
A child who doesn't grow up in a family like that is still an individual, is still smart. But he doesn't have as much to work with.
So which came first? The individual or society?
Doesn't matter. The fact is, we are individuals within a society, both of it, and capable of changing it. A library is a good place to start.