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.
February 8, 2001 - Patience Reveals Deeper Truths
When I was assistant director for the public library of Springfield, Illinois, one of my library board members was an elderly gentleman named Simeon Osby. Dapper, always smelling of cologne, sporting a precisely trimmed pencil-thin mustache, Simeon had lived through some interesting times.
I recall, for instance, his description of the day he got married. Simeon was an African American, and on the very day his bride-to-be was to arrive, a full-fledged lynching erupted - a shameful thing anywhere, but particularly so in the home town of Abraham Lincoln. Simeon met his fiance's train outside city limits, and boarded. Together, they crouched down on the floor of the dining car as the train rolled slowly through the city. Once, the train was stopped, then allowed to continue. Simeon and his fiance barely escaped the mob's detection. A man was in fact lynched that day - not your usual honeymoon story.
Despite his obvious intelligence and poise, I have to say that I had always dismissed Simeon. He had a tendency to launch into anecdotes that struck me, frankly, as pointless. The Board would be barreling along through some issue, and then Simeon would begin some obscure tale involving people no one had ever heard of. Board members would let him speak for some respectful period of time - two minutes, say - then cut him off with a "but back to the business at hand..."
I was a newcomer to the culture of that Board, but soaked up the pattern of Simeon's treatment. I stopped listening to him.
Then, one winter's evening, I found myself at the end of a work day, with nowhere to go, and a couple of hours to kill. Simeon wandered into my office. I invited him to sit. Before long he stepped off one of his conversational cliffs, and I felt a moment of exasperation. But then, I thought, what the heck? I've got plenty of time.
Well, one Simeon story led to another. And that reminded him of another. And that provoked yet another. Simeon strung together some 18 distinct tales, stretching over a century, and involving at least 50 people.
And then, about an hour and fifteen minutes later, Simeon utterly astonished me. Every single one of those anecdotes fused into a single, comprehensive and incisive point.
I sat there dumbfounded, looking at Simeon with new respect, and no small degree of shame. Sitting before me was a man in his eighties who had learned some profound life lessons. And when he tried to impart them, he was met only with the self-important impatience of the young. Yet Simeon was unfailingly polite, treating even his daily dismissals with undaunted graciousness.
What I learned that day is that some things just can't be told quickly. Or maybe it's that the things that CAN be told quickly are necessarily shallow. I invite you to consider, for instance, political soundbites. "Representative, in 10 seconds, can you tell us what ought to be done about public education?"
Some life lessons, some insights into the human condition, just like some books and some movies, must be built up slowly, scene by scene, character by character, in a time frame that gives everything its due.
But except for at the library, except between the pages of a book, except in the thrall of a movie, we rarely take the time to pay attention to the slower-paced rhythms of life, and the deeper truths they may reveal.
I'm grateful to Simeon for showing me that there's more to life than having the attention span of a 4 year old.