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 27, 2006 - Technology Isolates and Brings Us Together
I was talking with a friend last night about the social effects of technology. He was saying that people today, mainly because of technology, live incredibly accelerated lives. And we're overstimulated.
We rush from one place to another, never really having the time to focus, to pay attention. Along the way we have radios, CDs, DVD players -- and that's just in the car.
Not to mention cell phones. How often, he said, do you see people driving down the highway, one to an automobile, paying only partial attention to the road, jabbering away on a phone?
We are a society with attention deficit disorder, he said.
We were having this discussion in a coffeehouse, surely one of the positive signs of the time. Coffeehouses are places where people go just to hang out, to talk with each other face to face.
Of course, over in the corner was a teenager, plugged into an iPod, surfing on his little iBook. Alone.
My argument was that things aren't that simple.
On the one hand, technology isolates us. Think of all those people, boxed up all by themselves, on the daily commute.
In an earlier time, they might have ridden a bus, or a trolley, or a stagecoach, or a wagon. The very freedom of the automobile makes us little atoms, whizzing around space by ourselves, colliding only occasionally.
But the cell phone works against that. Maybe you're not talking to a real live person right there with you. But you're talking to somebody!
Or if not, you're listening to talk radio. You're in the middle of somebody else's conversation.
Or take that teenager. If we had peered over his shoulder, what would we have found?
He would have been participating in some kind of online community -- a multiplayer game, a chat room, a forum devoted to a favorite movie or a band. He would be listening to a podcast made by a couple of kids just like him, one living in a basement in Vancouver, the other in an apartment complex in Pittsburgh.
The technology isolated him from us. But he was using technology to get connected to people elsewhere. And the odds are, he had found people more likely to share his interests than anyone he could have found in the coffeehouse.
I wish we had better library statistics on this phenomenon. We know that our public computers are in great demand, in every one of our branches. There is a host of resources we have developed for people: the marvelous asset of our catalog, the depth of our website, the wealth of in-depth information of our subscription databases.
But I suspect that the biggest use of the computers is just to talk to people. Our patrons send and receive email. They hang out with their buddies online -- and their buddies are all over the world.
Certainly, there's irony. They come to a public place, then ignore all the people around them, to talk to people somewhere else.
But you know, that's always been true in libraries. When you open the longstanding technology of a book, and immerse yourself in it, you're sitting in a roomful of people that suddenly cease to exist.
You enter a world of imagination, not quite physical, but still real. It's kind of like cyberspace.
I believe that people everywhere, of any age or time, seek the same thing. They are trying to find meaning, to make sense of their lives. They want to have real contact with others who share a vision of the world.
Sometimes, that contact is physical. We still have a need for that.
But other times, we reach out even in the middle of our incredibly overscheduled lives for just a touch of that human contact, even if the touch, strictly speaking, is only in our minds.