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 26, 2001 - Column a Place to Opine About Trends and Much More
I have been writing at least one weekly newspaper column since 1987. How come? In almost every community in this country, the public library does good work. It provides access to a staggering array of intellectual resources. It almost invariably puts bright, funny, helpful people at its service desks. It hosts story times, sponsors stimulating programs for adults, and, in often beautiful buildings, offers free public meeting space.
Libraries change lives by encouraging literacy, fanning the flames of individual interests, and providing a safe place to explore the world of ideas. Not only that, they are remarkable stewards of public funds, consistently returning a solid bang for the buck.
Despite all of the above, in many communities, the public library is all but invisible. It is known only to the core group of its users. To the rest of the community, it is irrelevant.
But library funding, and thus its continuance, depends upon public support. So I decided that libraries had to do what every other successful institution in America does: advertise, get the word out, stay visible, connect with the marketplace.
Why through newspapers? Because newspaper readers and library patrons have similar profiles. If you subscribe to the newspaper, you are literate. You are interested in the written word, and believe in its power to inform, educate, and entertain.
Is it hard for libraries to get a column in the paper? Local newspapers are often very pleased to host a column by people working for civic institutions. There are some caveats. The column can't require too much staff work to clean up spelling and grammar problems. It has to be delivered on time, week after week. It has to fit within the limits of the paper's usual page layout. It helps if somebody actually reads it.
Another reason I wanted to write a column was personal. It's a useful exercise for me to sit down at least once a week and poke at something that affects library operations, or the environment in which we operate. It clarifies my thinking.
It also keeps me honest. Try to explain some new bit of bureaucracy to the public. If it's unintelligible to outsiders, that tells me that it's usually a bad idea.
Not only that, if you can make a column readable enough, you get regular readers. If you goof, or if they think you're taking their institution in the wrong direction, they let you know. They catch you before you make even bigger mistakes.
There are at least 15 public libraries in the state of Colorado who have regular newspaper columns. Most of those columns tend to fall into two categories: book reviews, and program PR.
But there are many sources of book reviews floating around the county (although I do give a column to a book every now and then). And our library has Katie Klossner, our Community Relations Manager, who does an awesome job of publicizing our ever-burgeoning list of library events. That frees me up to do something else: opine about trends both within and without the library, to try to plot an institutional course in full view of my fellow travelers.
Another Colorado library director who cranks out weekly newspaper columns and I are working on a piece for a library magazine about all this. We'd appreciate some feedback from the consumers of such columns.
Please feel free to give me a phone call (720-733-8624) or an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) to give your thoughts on the following questions:
1. If you read this column (and if you don't, I'll never hear from you!), how come? What do you get out of it? What works?
2. What doesn't work? Format? Content? Tone?
3. What suggestions do you have for future content? For instance, would you like to get more information about what goes on behind the scenes at the library (how books get selected, how people get hired, etc.)? See profiles of library staff? Hear from Library Board members? Get more statistical or financial data? See more of those book reviews? Would you rather see a clear stand on an issue, or a thoughtful balance of opposing viewpoints?
I thank you in advance. Your comments may help libraries all across the state do a better job of letting people know what we're up to.