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 3, 2002 - Independence
Almost 30 years ago now, I sat in on a lecture at a church. It stayed with me.
The topic was "rites of passage." The point was that in the United States our young people have no significant rituals through which they can become recognized as adult members of our society.
The biggest ritual is getting a driver's license. But 16-year-olds still have another two years of high school after that. At 18 they often leave home, and they can vote. At 21, they can drink.
But even 21 doesn't mark full political maturity. According to the Constitution, you must be 25 to run for the House of Representatives, 30 to run for the Senate, and 35 to run for President.
Marriage is another ritual marking adulthood. With parental permission, you can marry in some places (Kansas!) as young as 12. Several states permit people of 14 to marry with parental permission or a judge's consent. In Utah, a 14 year old can marry WITHOUT parental permission -- providing he or she has been married before.
Contrast these social sanctions with the biological facts. According to some researchers, menarche - the onset of menstruation - usually started at age 18 in the 1600s. Today in the United State, the average age of menarche is 12, and it seems to be falling.
Biologically, you are mature when you can reproduce. Yet there is a delay between biological maturity, and social maturity. In America, that lag is what we call "adolescence" -- a kind of social limbo. Not child, not adult.
Since the end of the agrarian economy, adolescence has grown longer and longer. As a result, we also stretch out the period in which children exhibit the natural tendencies to test limits, to define themselves through acts of rebellion.
The speaker suggested that we need significant ritual, significant challenge, and significant responsibility for our young people: a true coming of age trial.
I very much agree. The same thing is true of countries.
Like young people, nations, too, declare their independence. To be successful, they, too, must brave their rites of passage.
In the case of our own country, there was indeed "significant ritual" -- mostly around the deliberations of the so-called "Founding Fathers" in Philadelphia. There were months of debate, of the formation of endless streams of committees, of documents prepared, and fought over, and revised, and defended.
There was significant challenge. England was older, stronger, wealthier. It had a navy, trade relations, and political alliances. Many political theorists believe that the American Revolution succeeded only because England was otherwise occupied. (This also describes how some children gain their independence.)
There was significant responsibility. When you declare independence, you make an awkward discovery. When things go wrong, you can't keep blaming the person or nation who used to look after you. The clearest example of this was the life of George Washington, general of a rabble, tasked not only with war, but with the almost impossible task of feeding and clothing his soldiers.
The interesting thing about rites of passage is that they don't happen just once. The fledgling United States found itself facing many new rituals (internal elections on the one hand, and the establishment of diplomatic relations on the other), new challenges (defining and field testing models of republicanism and federalism), and endless new responsibilities (the mechanics of trade, adjudication, and public health, to name just a few).
That cycle continues to this day. Maturity is not secured once; it marks the beginning of effort, not the end.
By the way, here's an interesting historical note about this week's holiday.
"The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." -John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776
According to historian David McCullough, on the fourth of July all the revolutionaries took the day off.
Accordingly, the library is taking the day off, too. We'll see you again on the 5th.