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.
July 11, 2001 - Public Library a Remarkable Return on Investment
Last Saturday, I attended two weddings. The first was of Kevin Watkins, the library's crackerjack Network Administrator. Kevin was most dignified; I was proud of him. It was a lovely service, and the Best Woman (Kevin's sister) did a particularly fine job. The bride, in the grand tradition of brides, was radiant.
The second service was for a couple who have lived together for the past 25 years. It took place by a tree, along a river. Participants read poems from the Bible, from the Sufi poet Rumi, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from various other sources.
The Episcopalian priest did something I hadn't seen before. After the couple made their vows to each other, the priest asked those gathered to make their own vow: to counsel and encourage the couple, to support them, to help them to preserve this union. We said, "We will!"
Then the couple said they had a list of people they wanted to thank. They thanked their parents, now deceased, for bringing them into the world, and for tending to their upbringing. They thanked their family and friends. Then they did something quite extraordinary. They thanked their former spouses, their "ex's" -- who were also in attendance.
This, I thought, is how a civilized society ought to work. A marriage is not just an exchange of promises between two people, it is a covenant with the community.
It is a sad fact, of course, that many marriages do end in divorce. It is an even sadder fact that many of those people remain embittered, and work hard to keep anger and mutual destructiveness alive. (Just try to think of the last time someone spoke of their "ex" with kindness and charity.)
But our very happy newlyweds showed another path: one of reconciliation and gratitude for life's lessons. They showed that it is possible to grow and to gather in all the good people whose lives had touched theirs, even if there had been mistakes and false starts.
The ceremony also sounded that note of shared responsibility. If married couples have a responsibility to each other and to the community, the community also has a responsibility to them.
The older I get, the more appealing I find the old idea of the "social contract." Unlike business contracts, our social system doesn't provide a list of all the terms up front, with a clear delineation of requirements and costs. But the contract is there: in exchange for your contributions of time, of effort, of attitude and deed, you qualify for the support of the people around you.
It isn't always a fair exchange. Sometimes you pay more than you get. Sometimes, you get more than you pay for.
I think of the public library as one of those "benefits." There are people -- about 23% of Douglas County households -- that don't seem to use the library. For them, it's an expense without a benefit.
But for the other 77% (most of which include young children), the library provides an altogether remarkable return on the investment. For the cost of one family dinner per year, they get literally hundreds of books, videos, books on tape, magazines, programs, and authoritative reference information.
The public library is a living, tangible symbol of the social contract, a covenant predicated on the notion that a representative, well-organized collection of cultural capital, is the birthright of every citizen.
Let no man put it asunder.