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.
April 16, 2003 - Library Troubles
These are hard times for Colorado libraries, and they are getting worse.
Over the past several weeks, I've talked to my colleagues on the West Slope and the Front Range, in rural Colorado and the metro area. I've talked to librarians working in schools, colleges, and municipalities.
All of them are in trouble.
There are a variety of factors. The most crucial, for public libraries, has been the abrupt loss of city sales tax revenue. Some libraries, such as Denver Public, have already sustained up to 25% losses within a single year, with more to come. Virtually every city librarian I talk to has lost positions, or is about to.
I've mentioned before that bad times in the economy inevitably result in an increase of library use. People come in to rent what they used to buy, or to read job ads, or to work on their resumes, or to meet people who also find themselves at liberty.
The demand for library services is going up. The resources necessary to meet that demand, and even the hours some libraries will be open, are going down.
College and academic libraries are also facing massive reductions, but here the cause is the drop in state revenues. Libraries aren't being singled out, generally, but their fortunes are closely tied to higher education funding. In Colorado, this year, that's not a good thing.
So my colleagues in college and universities are looking at significant lay-offs, and sharply curtailed purchases of books and journals.
Right now, school librarians don't seem to be as hard hit, in part because their revenues are based on property taxes, rather than more volatile sales taxes. But in Colorado, school libraries have been fighting their own budget battles -- and losing -- for many years before the current crisis.
Colorado libraries may take comfort, or even more alarm, in the fact that this severe downturn in library fortunes is nationwide. The Queens Public Library in New York is slashing hours and staff. The University of Michigan just cut 30 jobs. Minneapolis Public is hacking off 10% of its services and staff.
The news isn't all bad, of course. The New York Times recently announced the expansion of its annual awards for librarians, recognizing librarians who provide outstanding community service on a consistent basis.
The Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library just got nearly $450,000 in donations toward a new branch library. Right here in Castle Rock, our library district is completing a new branch that will be built without a penny of public debt. (But also, thank goodness, with many private donations.)
How, though, shall we make sense of our times?
Here's a suggestion. Read "The Fourth Turning," by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Written in 1997, "The Fourth Turning" is mainly concerned with various strong cycles in American history. Those cycles are economic, social, and cultural. They even directly address the likelihood and severity of war.
According to the authors, America in many areas is coming to the end of an autumn, feeling the first tinges of a winter. Strauss and Howe predicted the current recession, and the challenges faced by both business and government.
In times of crisis, Americans look to their enduring institutions. Over the next decade or so, librarians will need to work smarter, do more with less, form new partnerships, and reach out to both their communities, and the rare philanthropists within them.
As Strauss and Howe point out, even if winter is coming, winter comes every year. Let's hope this one isn't too severe, or lasts too long.
And let's remember that in time, there will be spring. Even for Colorado libraries.