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.
July 7, 2004 - An Opportunity to Learn
I suppose it's my background in philosophy: I enjoy a good argument every now and then. But a "good" argument isn't just disagreeing with somebody. It's trying on a perspective for size, seeing how easy or difficult something is to defend or critique.
The object isn't to defeat the opponent. The object is to learn something.
This, of course, is hardly what passes for argument these days. Most of the political or religious discourse I run across is riddled with ad hominem attacks. People don't argue to understand their own, or other, positions better; they argue to belittle and cow their enemies into silence.
Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.
Some years ago I was involved in friendly debate about "the best country in the world." The person with whom I was arguing had made some telling, and negative points, about the United States. That got me interested.
The library has many, many books that compare international statistics -- everything from the World Almanac to the reports of various agencies and organizations. I asked myself: so which country IS the best?
I regret that I no longer have the final spreadsheet I produced. But I rated some 25 countries (mostly Western or European, but a few Asian nations, just to see how they did) according to a highly subjective list of qualifications.
You might think about this: of the measurable things that determine how good a place is to live, which things matter most to you? These are some of the things I tried to track:
* health. What was the percentage of live births? Infant mortality? Life expectancy? What was the leading cause of death?
* income. What was the average household income compared to the cost of a house, or a loaf of bread? What was the annual inflation rate? What percentage of people were unemployed? What was the discrepancy between the wealthiest and the poorest? What percentage of personal income went to taxes? What percentage of national spending went to the military?
* crime. How much, and what kind? What percentage of the populace was behind bars?
* literacy. What percentage of the population could read? How many newspapers were available, and how many newspaper subscriptions? How many public libraries?
* social factors. What was the average educational level? How many teen pregnancies? How many abortions? How many political parties actually elected candidates to federal office? What was the average population density? How many museums of art? How many universities?
Sometimes, I found that the pieces of information I was looking for couldn't be readily obtained. And some countries, you may be surprised to learn, lie about themselves in reference books.
What I was after, finally, was some objective data about where in the world a human being might expect to live a long and reasonably healthy life, and pursue a variety of cultural interests, without being gunned down in the streets, jailed and tortured, or forced into abject poverty?
I should point out that the results are now probably five years old. But I'd be willing to bet that the general rankings, for me, won't have changed much.
In rough order, the top countries that I would probably do well in include: the United States of America, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, England, and New Zealand.
No country scored well on everything. The United States has a variety of troubling statistics -- our incarceration rate is the one that bears the closest watching, I think.
But my analysis not only gave me a better handle on what was going on around the world, it also made me think more intelligently about the intent of our founders: to secure our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
A perfect government requires, alas, a perfect people. But I was comforted, around our Independence Day, to learn that on the whole, there's good reason to be a patriot.