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 15, 2001 - Turning Away from Generic Downtowns
I've just finished listening to travel writer Bill Bryson's wonderful, "In a Sunburned Country," about Australia. I've been a Bryson fan for a long time ("The Lost Continent," "Mother Tongue," "Notes from a Small Island," \"I'm A Stranger Here Myself," "A Walk in the Woods," and others) but this book shows a Bryson that's happier than I've ever seen him. He LOVES Australia.
That isn't to say that Bryson doesn't have his usual, hilarious mishaps. He remains the master of snotty but incisive commentary. For instance, after a long day's walk, Bryson asks some teenage boys if they can recommend a restaurant.
He asks about some Thai food. The boys are puzzled. Bryson then works his way through a variety of ethnic eatery possibilities -- not at all out of line in a country with a rich diversity of Asian immigrations. The boys shake their heads and look increasingly distressed.
Finally, Bryson asks if they know of an Italian restaurant. The boys brighten immediately. "We have a Pizza Hut!"
Later, one of Bryson's English friends tells him that Americans have a lot to answer for. In this case, it's a Wal-Mart, located not far from Ayers Rock. Bryson agrees. Our gift to world culture, he muses, is to offer shopping and eating experiences that are simultaneously tacky and irresistible.
I mean, of course, no disrespect to either Pizza Hut or Wal-Mart. It happens that I like the new Pizza Hut offerings quite a lot, and my son (who turns 7 today) thinks an afternoon in the Wal-Mart toy area is close to perfect.
Bryson's point, though, is that the more he travels, the less he sees. There is a creeping sameness in the world. Disappearing are the unique cultural differences that make travel a feast for the senses and mind.
You can see it right here in America. Anymore, at least once per car trip, I do not have the slightest idea where I am. I tend to avoid highways, but even the back roads eventually lead you to absolutely generic streets, lined with all the usual suspects: McDonald's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Best Western, Marriot, Motel Six, strip malls, shopping centers. Why go anywhere if it's exactly the same as where you are now?
It used to be that in at least some parts of the country, there was something distinctive: the deep south, Texas, the tip of Maine. But the relentless pressure of franchises and television are the steamrollers of local idiosyncrasy.
The Douglas Public Library District has been a partner in the "downtowns" of several communities. As is so often the case, the library finds itself in the center of competing world views.
On the one hand, we know (from surveys, from research, from our own conversations with our patrons) that Douglas County residents are looking for a downtown that features the businesses of local residents. They are not looking for their civic and commercial squares to become the wholly owned subsidiary of remote corporations.
On the other hand, many developers, many bankers, many politicians rely on the so-called wisdom of the marketplace. They always do what they've always done, and we always get what we've always got. Until, that is, it doesn't work anymore.
Significant societal trends can't be turned around overnight. But a change in direction begins with just a few people stopping and looking around.
A library is a good place to do that.