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.
December 1, 2005 - Wal-Mart Suffers Blistering Criticism
After college, I sold shoes for awhile. I was good at it, too. I broke some regional sales records, and got offered a manager position.
But I was young and restless, and really didn't want a career in a shopping mall. So I hit the road with a pair of shoes I sold myself.
And those shoes gave me blisters so bad that by the time I got to my uncle's in the Arkansas Ozarks, I could barely walk.
So my aunt took me to a big new store that had just opened up in Fayetteville. I'd never heard of it, but my aunt said the prices were great.
It was called Wal-Mart.
I did indeed find a pair of good, cheap sneakers there. I wore them, very comfortably, the whole time I worked as "mud man" (cement mixer) for my uncle, a stone mason.
For most of my kinfolk, Wal-Mart was a godsend. It offered a lot of things that weren't to be found within an hour's drive. And it was affordable.
Since then, that formula (big selection, convenient and cheap) ensured that Wal-Mart spread swiftly, first throughout the rural south, and then ... everywhere.
The results have been mixed. Wal-Mart is admired by some as the leanest, meanest example around of good, old-fashioned American entrepreneurship, mixed with a savvy grasp of international economics.
And it is detested by others as the destroyer of small town infrastructure, the death knell of locally-owned and economically diversified downtowns, and worse.
Which view is correct? That's an excellent question.
A few weeks ago, a group holding the latter view booked one of our meeting rooms. They showed a movie ("Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price") and talked about it.
Shortly afterward, a local resident, holding an opposite view, complained to the town government about the event -- a complaint forwarded to me.
What I wrote him was (roughly) this:
* on the one hand, the library isn't responsible, or culpable, for the views expressed by people who book public spaces.
* on the other hand, I am delighted to have the library host discussions about controversial issues.
Good questions deserve good debate. Why not at the library?
I jumped into our catalog to see what we've got on the topic. Here are just two representative titles:
* "The Wal-Mart decade: how a generation of leaders turned Sam Walton's legacy into the world's number one company," by Robert Slater, and
* "In Sam we trust: the untold story of Sam Walton and how Wal-Mart is devouring America," by Bob Ortega.
Thinking about this reminded me of several things. First, I recently nominated Reggie Rivers for a library award for his writings against censorship. When receiving this award he commented that we need the First Amendment to protect offensive speech. Why?
Because inoffensive speech doesn't need protection. You can stand on the corner and proclaim your tender affection for butterflies, and nobody cares.
Second, I can't help but notice that our media bristles with critiques of public education, and endless varieties of "bureaucratic government." We take that as a given, as a right, and even as a commonplace. Who complains about it?
But it seems criticism is not constrained only to the public sector. There are problems, and issues, in the private sector, too.
My own view is that public sector or private, any human institution will exhibit some behavior that is wholly admirable, and some that is not. It's a good topic for a library program, whether we are direct sponsors, or not.
And maybe it's not a bad thing for the private sector to take a walk in the public sector's shoes every now and then. If only for the blisters.