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.
June 2, 2004 - In defense of the Public Sector, Part One
In the past couple of weeks I attended two workshops that stay with me.
The first involved a gathering of visiting librarians from Bulgaria. Largely through the efforts of Nancy Bolt, our State Librarian, some seven libraries in Colorado have formed "sister library" partnerships with Bulgarian public libraries.
The Douglas County Libraries are partnered with the Dora Gabe Library in Dobrich. Our visitor was a very bright young man named Ertan. He is the technology manager and webmaster for his library. While English was the first language of none of our visitors, all of them spoke it well, and understood a good deal more.
Bulgaria has a troubled past. Formerly a member of the Soviet Union, today's nation is riddled with economic depression and organized crime. But there is much to be proud of as well, and I found the Bulgarians librarians delightful.
At this gathering, my presentation focused on library funding. I emphasized several points: in a library district, our money comes directly from the people we serve. In general, we get no money from the federal government, and no money from the state. Virtually all of our funding comes to us, and only after a positive vote, from the residents of Douglas County.
That's very different from the situation in Bulgaria. There, most of the money comes from the Bulgarian government -- and there isn't much money to spare.
The rest of my presentation focused on the strong incentive of the library district to reach out to all its many constituencies. There are two reasons. First, people become librarians in the first place because they have a deeply held ethic of service. Second, if you only appeal to some small elite group, then you can't win an election.
After hearing the discussion about demographic analysis, about the difference between public relations and marketing, and the importance of being a deep part of the culture and civic infrastructure of a community, Ertan made a profound observation.
"In my country," he said, "we practiced socialism, and it failed. Here, you have succeeded in what we were TRYING to do."
Some thought that it was because our outreach worked from the bottom up; Soviet-style socialism was imposed from above.
But I believe that it goes back to the heart of our incentive. Our very livelihood depends upon our ability to demonstrate that we add value to our community. Public service isn't just a mandate from above, it's the essential strategy to our survival.
The Bulgarians expressed surprise, even astonishment, at our beautiful and spacious buildings, our well-stocked collections, our rows of public computers. They were intrigued by our bustling activity as hubs of community meetings. They shook their heads over the frequent collaboration of Colorado newspapers and libraries.
Just before he returned to Bulgaria, Ertan shook my hand and said, "You have a good system here in America for libraries."
And we do. It is, however, by no means guaranteed. That's next week's topic: the attack on the whole idea of the "public good."