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.
August 11, 2005 - Are libraries obsolete?
I was listening to the Mike Rosen show the other day, where I heard him horsewhip Denver City Librarian Rick Ashton for buying "graphic and violent comic books" -- a Spanish-language illustrated novel in the library.
Rosen seemed to imply several things. First, the REAL mission of a public library was to be "a repository of knowledge," and even to be "uplifting."
Second, by having a book featuring drawings of a violent murder and rape, the library was "pandering" to popular taste.
Why, he wanted to know, did the library buy such a thing? Rosen said he wasn't interested in censorship, this was a selection question. Rosen said he wasn't a prude, he even believed in the legalization of prostitution, but wasn't adding such a controversial title a terrible mistake in purchasing?
Then he went on to describe the women in the book: large-breasted, narrow-waisted, muscular thighs, and "bubble butts." This graphic novel existed only to titillate, he said. (As opposed to, say, a radio show?)
Later, Rosen also mentioned that he thought a lot of people had questions: was the library becoming obsolete?
Well, it seems to me that Mr. Rosen is trying to put libraries in a double bind. First, he proposes that libraries should only offer things that are safe, innocuous, and "uplifting." In short, it should provide things that nobody is all that interested in.
Second, he suggests that libraries might be obsolete. Why? Because our job is to be boring, and ... we are boring?
Well, let me set some things straight.
First, people are not bored. They ARE using libraries. Statewide, two out of every three people have a library card. In Douglas County, three of four households have a card. The growth of our services consistently outstrips even our rapid population growth.
Why? Because, second, the library does NOT exist to lecture you about how you are supposed to improve yourself. We are not a ladies' temperance union.
Our job is to provide one stop shopping for the marketplace of ideas. Our job is to gather, organize, and present the intellectual capital of our culture.
Librarians don't invent all these ideas and products. We reflect them -- and our culture sends a lot of messages, not all of which are universally hailed as wholesome.
Should a library avoid controversy? Absolutely not! A vital library, a library that's doing its job, has lots of ferment in its holdings. It takes risks.
In the 1950's, for instance, "nice" libraries didn't have books by a new crop of African American writers -- James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, or that upstart, Martin Luther King, Jr. And those libraries missed the underpinnings of profound social change.
Libraries that are innocuous are also irrelevant.
Third, sex and violence were not invented by the graphic novel. You'll find it in Shakespeare. You'll find it in Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales. You'll find it on the radio and in the newspaper and in movies. You will find it in every medium known to humanity.
Fourth, surely Rosen doesn't believe that the big problem in Denver today is that there are too many children spending time at the library.
Fifth, I happen to be a passionate defender of comic books. The so-called "graphic novel" is a source of some of the most interesting storytelling and art around. See the works of Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.
Libraries that foster a fervent discussion of ideas, where people meet to talk, to participate in an emerging online reality, to view art, to sample the output of our culture, are libraries that are deeply and directly involved in their communities and culture.
And they are libraries that will never be obsolete.