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 19, 2004 - You're on Candid Camera
Here's the good news. Twice now, the library has done inventories, and found in the process that our theft rate is remarkably low. That has saved us the cost of expensive security systems -- the sort with gates, magnetic strips, and the like. Overwhelmingly, the people who use our libraries are decent and law-abiding.
Here's the bad news. We're beginning to see some other kinds of misbehavior. Bicycle theft. DVD and CD-ROM theft. Vandalism. It is a consequence, no doubt, of our continued growth from rural county to suburban enclave. It may also be a consequence of the proportionate rise of teens in the county, which is not a blanket condemnation of a generation, but a recognition that there is a certain percentage of risk-taking behavior that happens at that age.
There are several ways to try to fight the trend. We can remind parents to talk to their children of our shared responsibilities within our communities. But the parents who take such things seriously have already done so.
We can hire more people to more closely supervise public space. But that's an expensive solution, and not sustainable.
We can rearrange our spaces to make them more easily supervised by existing staff. We've done that to some extent. But that one has inherent limits, too.
Then there's the solution we picked. Just recently, we installed a system of security cameras.
The good news is, this has enabled us to more safely close our buildings of an evening. Staff can scan the monitors before walking into long corridors. In one case, we were able to go back and identify the person who left behind something valuable. It yet another, we were able to identify, and thereby confront, a thief.
Our system is set up so that there's a loop. Routine images are overwritten regularly -- in some places every couple of days, in others, as infrequently as a fortnight. But if there's a problem, we have the ability to scan through the relevant cameras, and burn an image to a CD.
As long time readers of this column know, the right to privacy is a core value for librarians. Moreover, in Colorado, there is a law which prohibits the release of information about your library use -- including whether or not you are even in the building -- except for some very specific circumstances.
On the other hand, if you commit a crime in the library, we can, and will, hand over our recordings as evidence.
Several years ago now, a lone gunman actually took several library patrons hostage at the Salt Lake City Library. Fortunately, the incident ended with no loss of life. Should such a situation arise in one of our libraries, we now have the ability to allow law enforcement officials to scope out the situation remotely, greatly increasing the safety of both the public, and the officers.
But I want to make sure that our community knows that we have taken such a step. Yes, you are being electronically surveilled in the library now -- just as you are in grocery and department stores. But all requests for information thereby gathered have to be in writing, and have to come through me. I don't take that charge lightly.
Like many public institutions these days, we're trying to find the delicate balance between preservation of civil liberties, and the demands of security. Meanwhile, we will continue to be as thoughtful about this as we can.