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.
August 6, 2003 - King of the Hill
In our neighborhood, Louis Yarc was the king of the hill.
When we all got together to play the game on some bales of hay, Louis was the undisputed winner. I still have vivid memories of him, in the midwest summer twilight, fending off the regicidal lunges of as many as 8 other boys. He'd dance around them, hoist them over his shoulder and toss them off, or just muscle them down.
But you know what? I could take Louis. Not once, but over and over. I wasn't anywhere near the oldest kid, or the biggest, or the strongest. But that was the whole point. I'd lurk behind him, then, just after he'd wrestled somebody away, and paused for breath, just slightly off-balance, I'd hurl myself into the back of his knees. Down he'd go.
That was the first lesson I learned: it doesn't matter how good you are, there's somebody -- and it doesn't have to be somebody big and obvious -- who can get you.
I should point out, however, that just because you can take down the king, doesn't make YOU the king. If I'd scramble up to the top, one of the bigger kids would just shoulder me aside, or even more humiliating, pick me up bodily and set me aside. By then, Louis would be up and fighting. So I'd jump back behind him and lurk some more, waiting for the right moment.
Probably nobody thinks of librarians as king of the hill. It's not our style. We are not engaged in a ruthless struggle to outmuscle the masses for our greater glory.
On the other hand, if Louis stood for something -- a magnificent spirit, a certain animal vigor -- we stand for something, too. Here's the short version: librarians think people have the right to read what they please, and that that's nobody else's business. In the jargon of the profession, the first one is "intellectual freedom," and the second is "patron confidentiality."
You might not always agree with that. In fact, not all librarians do, all of the time. There are extenuating circumstances. Free speech isn't an absolute, even in the library. If someone comes into the library yelling at the top of his lungs about some political point, whatever the
point may be, we'll ask him to be quiet or to leave.
There are certain situations where librarians promptly comply to legal requests for information. I'm thinking of a case where a library book was found near the place where a snatched child was last seen.
Librarians were the first to protest laws that allowed the government to block internet content through filters. Recently, we lost that one -- got muscled right off the hill by the Supreme Court.
Librarians were among the first to speak out against the Patriot Act, calling for citizen oversight of what could very well turn into unprincipled snooping into the reading habits of innocent Americans.
I remember how much I always irritated Louis -- how did this sneaky little kid keep toppling him?
But I admired HIM tremendously. Knock him down, and he'd struggle his way back to the top, every time. He stood for something: a refusal to give up, a gallantry.
Librarians will keep struggling, too. We may not always win. But at least you know what we're fighting for.