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.
March 14, 2001 - Mr. Mahanna's Continuing Education
The first time I saw Mr. Mahanna was also my first night working at the Normal Public Library. It was a blisteringly cold December night in central Illinois.
The door creaked open and there he was: about 5 foot 6, mostly bald with a fringe of snow white hair, which, when he removed his dark wool hat, stuck out in wild angles. He wore a huge white cotton coat, over some six layers of sweaters. Under the frayed bottoms of his denim overalls, were big black rubber boots. One eye was more or less permanently shut, and the other one bulged and glared. His walking stick was the plain wooden handle of a sweep broom.
He looked like Popeye's evil grandfather.
He was fascinating. He dragged himself (and his backpack) over to the periodicals, pulled out the local newspaper, and then extracted an enormous magnifying glass from somewhere about his person. Then he scrutinized the paper.
After awhile, he struck out into the reference section, where he spent some more time. Clearly, he knew his way around the library.
An hour or so after his arrival, he gathered up his belongings again. He paused on his way out the door to turn to me and bellow, "Good night!" in a voice remarkably rich and strong.
As you might imagine, I asked around about him. Mr. Mahanna was about 80. He was mostly deaf, and mostly blind. But he was uncommonly smart and strong. And why not?
Here was his schedule.
Every single day, he started from his home somewhere in Normal. He walked the five or six miles to the Bloomington Public Library. (Bloomington-Normal are known as Twin Cities.) There, too, he kept up with the events of the day. Then he walked to the Illinois Weslyan University Library in Bloomington. By early afternoon, he walked to the Illinois State University Library back in Normal. And he ended his day by walking to the Normal Public Library. The schedule varied on Saturday and Sunday somewhat, as the public library wasn't open in the evening.
But that was his circuit: four libraries a day, and a good 10-12 miles from start to finish. He made this circuit in rain or shine, balm or bluster. The only time he didn't show up was when his daughter was in town to visit.
I did finally get a chance to talk to him, and worked myself into his routine. Various parts of Mr. Mahanna's body were failing him, but his mind was alert, curious, and tenacious. He had a penchant for politics and local history, and would follow his investigations across four library collections. As a consequence, he was very knowledgeable.
He was entirely self-taught, a former farmer who became a rural circuit judge. The farming background no doubt accounted for his tough resistance to weather. Being a judge got him used to making the rounds.
Now that the Boomers are growing older, there's a growing field of research on the topic of prolonging human life. It won't surprise anyone to learn that two big components involve mental and physical activity. Another factor is diet.
The library will indeed provide information about food. (Hint: eat half of what you think you need, and at least twice as many fresh vegetables.) But Mr. Mahanna showed me the real contribution of the library: make us part of your daily exercise plan. Come see us every day.
When you get here, investigate something. Use both current and older sources. Talk to people younger than you.
I haven't seen Mr. Mahanna in over 20 years now. But it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he's still out there, making the circuit.