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.
June 13, 2001 - The Value of Thoughtful Public Investment
For most of their history in this country, public libraries have been governed by library boards. Typically, libraries have been municipal creations. But even when the city didn't give it much money, library control tended to be the sole province of that Board.
That semi-independence was a marker of the perceived value of the library. During the immigrant waves in New York, circa 1938, the Depression meant that most city services were sharply curtailed. But not the library: it served as a sort of cultural receiving center, helping people to learn the language, and (mostly through newspapers) to find work. During these times, many libraries greatly increased their hours and staff -- and in the process, gave many, many people the chance to begin anew.
In the post-WWII boom, libraries mostly fared pretty well. Through the 50's, and certainly in the "Great Society" 60's, many millions of dollars of federal money were poured through states, creating State Libraries, and providing matching funds for library construction and outreach into both urban and rural areas.
That began to change during the 70's. City, state, and federal budgets were getting tighter. The trend, accelerating through the 80's and 90's, was to take governing authority away from library boards, making them "advisory." Many library boards were disbanded. Library Directors became library managers, reporting first to the Mayor, then the City Manager, then to a city department head, usually under Parks and Recreation.
Political priorities and values in America were changing. Libraries were no longer vital investments in a civic infrastructure. They were "secondary services," of recreational value only, if that.
I see a similar shift within libraries themselves. In Douglas County, our reference services (as measured by people asking informational questions of library staff) are growing rapidly. But more generally in the profession, the fastest growing public demand has been for non-print materials: books on tape, videos, CD's and DVD's. Thus libraries themselves are moving from institutions dedicated to civic support, traditional literature, and practical knowledge, to centers of pop culture, from information to infotainment.
Some of this, of course, is inevitable. Libraries are public institutions, and thus we reflect our times. A library that fails to adapt itself to the cultural and social realities of its day will accomplish nothing but its own extinction.
But I also believe that many of the founding principles of public librarianship -- the idea of free public access for all citizens to representative collections of significant knowledge -- still has value, and still must be preserved. Moreover, I think that libraries (and other public institutions) have to stay centered in their missions, serving in this case as a necessary counterweight to the swings of our society.
To my mind, one of the most encouraging developments in the history of American librarianship is the recognition by many big cities -- among them, San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver -- that the library can be a linchpin for a new focus on community development, in partnership with a diversified retail base.
Another encouraging trend has been the formation of independent library districts. Directly accountable not to larger governmental units, but to the people who actually pay for library services, library districts are often more nimble, more focused on specific local interests and trends. Moreover, the governance of these districts is closer to the historical root of library governance: a local board, concerned only with the library.
The closer government of any sort is to the people who use it, the more likely that government is to reflect the real concerns of its public.
And unless I miss my guess, I think the American public is coming around to a renewed understanding and appreciation of the value of thoughtful public investment. That has to be good for libraries -- and for the public.