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.
February 16, 2005 - Free Speech in the News
When I was in library school, there was deep concern about how librarians should change their outdated image. You know the stereotype: the stern, pursed-mouth spinster with a tight bun and a ready shush.
It lingers still, I suppose. But over the years I have formed a different opinion of the past.
I honor the librarians who have gone before us. These service-minded, well-educated women of the past (there were some men, but not many) established an institution of great credibility.
In part, that's because of that extraordinary level of service.
But it was also their achievement in establishing the public library as neutral ground. Too often, and especially so in these times, institutions take on a certain ideological bent. Librarians keep trying to gather information from all sides, even when a majority may find some of that information unsettling, disturbing, or "dangerous."
As I was flipping around the radio dial one day, I caught a quick section on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." The topic was the resignation of Attorney General John Ashcroft. One of the speakers made the comment that Ashcroft had repeatedly tussled with librarians. Then, the speaker remarked that today's librarians are one of the few focused and believable voices we have on behalf of civil liberties, particularly the twin rights of freedom of speech, and confidentiality.
I'll happily claim that change in our national image, the more so because those rights are under increasing fire. Somebody had better stand up.
There are two examples from the past week. The first was the incident in Norwood. An unnamed parent or parents complained about the book "Bless Me, Ultima," by Rudolfo Anaya. The school superintendent, without reading the book, without, in fact, following any of the relevant policies of the School Board, simply scooped up the books and gave them to the parent to be destroyed.
The book weren't burned (as some alleged). They were apparently sent by the parent to a landfill, instead. This surprising action by the superintendent, despite its utter violation of policy, is apparently too subtle for some people. This is censorship, people -- the willful suppression of information by a government official.
I don't know how you get to be a superintendent who believes that books should be "destroyed." Do you survey your institution's academic scores and conclude, "whoah, our children are reading too much?"
A second case is more emotional. Ward Churchill, a CU academic, has for many years been writing articles and books from a certain perspective. Recently, he has come under fire from the Colorado Legislature.
I won't go into his arguments here (and neither does any other newspaper, which is an interesting omission, don't you think?) except to say that Churchill believes that all Americans, especially those working for international financial institutions, are complicit in a host of crimes committed against the rest of the world.
And watch the scramble of politicians and columnists to denounce this professor! The language used to describe Churchill's writings went from "insensitive" to "outrageous" to the coup de grace, delivered by our own Governor: "treason."
So we have been treated to the posturing and protestations of moral outrage by our elected officials, the "pressure" to fire Churchill, and the calls for a reduction of university funding. (Incidentally, the last time the legislature reduced university funding for similar reasons was when CU stood up to a legislature stacked with members of the KKK who wanted the university to fire Jews and Catholics. A proud tradition.)
As a friend of mine often quotes, "Just because we all agree with each other doesn't mean we're right." Destroying books, pressuring into silence or unemployment those who dissent: what DOES it mean?
It means we just may be standing on the edge of a new age of censorship, characterized by the politics of intimidation and the abuse of authority. Lately, it seems like you have to be a librarian to notice.