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.
January 10, 2001 - Welcome to the Profession, 2000 Graduates
On January 6, 2001, I had the honor and privilege of giving the commencement address for Emporia State University's Master of Library Science Class of 2000.
Mostly, I talked to them about the great gift they had received: the gift of the library's reputation. Yes, it's true that "librarians" still call to some people's minds a somewhat silly and outdated stereotype (the spinsterish air, the general dowdiness). But that just goes to show that they've never seen a roomful of rowdy library professionals -- nor do they have any idea of the challenges and excitement of 21st century library work.
The important thing I have learned, after some 20 years of professional work, is that the library as an institution has great credibility. People tend to view library representatives with respect. Even the people who haven't set foot in one for years still somehow understand that the library is a public good, that we are fair, that we are neutral, that we mean them no harm. The library has no enemies. Well, at least that used to be the case. Over the past 10 years, a determined minority of religious and political leaders have worked very hard to paint the library, and librarians, as willing purveyors of pornography over the Internet.
I have to ask: just why does anyone think we would want to do this? Do they imagine that librarians leap out of bed in the morning and say, "Hey, I've got an idea! Let's package up a bunch of obscene images and highlight them in the children's room?" To what purpose? The whole thing is ludicrous. But the truth is, I think what angers this minority is not that they believe the library is deliberately pushing adult content at kids. What angers them is that we have not adopted their agenda as our own. Yes, your library carries representative works of socially conservative thought. It does not carry ONLY those works. Yes, the library purchases and presents materials that represent fundamentalist Christian approaches to child rearing. It does not purchase and present ONLY that perspective.
The mission of the public library is very clear: we gather, organize, and provide public access to the intellectual capital of our culture. Our selections seek to be representative OF that culture. Moreover, we have the ability, the means, to do this.
Our mission is NOT to govern a world wide communications network, the Internet, and keep its content at the level appropriate to the average 6 year old. Even if we wanted to, the task is wholly beyond our powers. I raise this because of Representative Istook's (R-Oklahoma) last minute attachment to the U.S. Congress's budget. In brief, this bill requires that all schools and public libraries install software filters on ALL public terminals, the better to protect children from pornography and violence. It does not provide any money to do so. The bill further requires that this software can be manually disabled for adult use, if, IN THE OPINION OF THE LIBRARIAN, the research request is "bona fide" and "legitimate."
So let's get this straight. If an adult -- that would be, legally, anyone 18 years or older -- wants to do research on venereal disease, infidelity, homosexuality, or the sexual misadventures of elected officials, for instance, they would have to explain this to a librarian, first. How likely is that? Children (that would be 17 and under), apparently couldn't even ask. As I've written before, software filtering technology has been extensively tested by librarians. In brief, it doesn't work. It allows a great deal of "bad stuff" to get through. It -- sometimes randomly, sometimes deliberately -- blocks plenty of "good stuff" that raises issues of political and religious censorship, endorsed by a public entity.
While some kinds of filtering might make sense in a public school setting, or in the children's room of the public library, it is not, nor do I believe it ever will be, an appropriate tool for adult Internet workstations.
But more to the point, even the suggestion of its mandated use by the federal government (at least, if the library wishes to get any federal funding, including telecommunications discounts) is tantamount to an invasion of privacy. This bill sets up librarians as the arbiters of appropriate inquiry. Adults must now ask PERMISSION from government employees to look up things that are, in themselves, perfectly legal.
This is monumentally dim legislation, betraying not only a profound lack of understanding of the limits of technology, but also, at base, directly attacking the mission of the public library. Class of 2000, consider this a post-graduate exercise. And welcome to the profession.