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.
May 12, 2004 - Books on the Fringe
Books are powerful things. Or rather, the ideas in them sometimes find surprising resonance in the world.
Here are four examples;
"Common Sense," by Thomas Paine. The American Revolution was by no means a certain thing. Paine's plain-spoken case for independence, predicated on the then radical notion of individual liberties, took the nascent nation by storm. It may well have precipitated the war. It certainly persuaded people that what they might fight for was both noble and
"Das Kapital," by Karl Marx. This treatise launched two movements with profound effects on the world. The first was unionization -- a response to the often brutal exploitation of workers in the Industrial Age. The second was communism, upon which whole nations set their course.
"Mein Kampf," by Adolph Hitler. This manifesto was the play book for Nazism, leading at last to both the Holocaust and World War II.
"The Fountainhead," by Ayn Rand. Appearing just as America was entering its own socialist phase, this book served as a call to arms to what eventually became the American conservative movement.
None of these books came from the mainstream (although Rand did find a mainstream publisher, very much against the odds). By definition, the mainstream is a sort of statistical average. The big ideas that result in cultural change come, by definition, from the fringe. They are ideas that are strange, unexpected, even shocking.
Such cultural change can be surprisingly swift. Consider civil rights. As I came of age, Martin Luther King, Jr. had become a voice that terrified many white, middle class citizens. I well remember the bigotry of the time, cruel and venomous sentiments accepted as perfectly normal.
While racism is hardly defeated, we've made progress, particularly among the young.
The idea of homeschooling was considered, not too long ago, as slightly lunatic, aberrant behavior among fundamentalist zealots. It heralded a whole wave of school reform (and a homeschooling movement that continues, both within and without the religious viewpoint).
Then there are the parallel movements: evangelical Christianity on the one hand, gay rights on the other. Both of them came in from the side streams of American culture; both now have entered the mainstream.
As I hope I have made clear, it's hard to know in advance if the rise of an idea is a good thing, or bad.
But the public library, it seems to me, has a responsibility to sample some of the current fringe offerings.
While the commercial output of mainstream publishing is something over 150,000 titles a year -- there are that at least that many titles again published by so-called "small" or "independent" presses.
With the arrival of mass market computers, almost anybody can do desktop publishing from home, quite outside the typical review process of mainstream publishing.
What do these outsiders publish? Well, to some extent, the same thing you'll find in the mainstream: diet books, exercise books, personal growth guides, investment books, spiritual meditations, and more.
But you'll also find alien abduction books, books on co-housing, books on the value of polyandry (women having more than one husband), lesbian political poetry, and treatises about the evils of immigration.
Most of the library's budget, of course, goes to reflecting the mainstream. But we probably need to spend more of our money investigating the outrageous. That's not because we endorse, or seek to promote, a particular viewpoint, but because we have learned that the truly transformative ideas may not be the ones you find at Barnes and Noble.
And that's the glory of free speech -- the ability of the average citizen to listen in on the conversation about just what tomorrow will look like.