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 10, 2006 - Let's Catalog the Community
A couple of years ago, we were working on the design of our Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. To that end, we did what we always do: talk with the community.
We held meetings with seniors, elementary school students, civic groups, and storytime moms. We listened to business people and government workers. Over and over, we asked, "What do you want to see in a library?"
There was a lot of overlap. Everybody wanted us to have books, books, and more books. Another strong contingent asked for recorded books -- on audiotape and CD.
Many people pushed us to greatly expand our public computers. They liked our big, fast, Internet pipeline.
Oh, and here's the one that always tickles me: they wanted fire and water. Almost every time I have held a focus group in Douglas County, eventually somebody brings up the importance of fireplaces (gathering around the hearth, warmth, shelter), and the sound of running water. People want to be inside and outside at the same time.
Well, all of our libraries do have fireplaces now. We haven't quite worked out how to do the kayak-ready river people seem to want, but we have experimented with small sculptures that recycle water and produce a pleasant burbling.
People also, consistently, asked for more public art. And so it is that most of our public libraries now also serve as community galleries.
The big surprise for me was the strong request for more public meeting rooms. Our old library had just one big meeting space, about 500 square feet. But the request for more made me go back and examine the pattern of use.
Sure enough, that room was booked Monday through Thursday night, a year in advance. But not all of our meetings were big ones. Sometimes, fewer than half a dozen folks were looking for gathering space.
Our projected new library space was slated for about 30,000 square feet. By the time we were done, at least 5,000 of that was dedicated to variously sized public meeting rooms: a big room that held about 150 people (or could be divided into two rooms holding about 65 each), a couple of spaces that seated about 20, another that seated 8-12, and a handful of big, office-size spaces for 1-5. That doesn't include our storytime space.
One of our staff members was troubled by this. "Does this mean," she asked us, "that people don't really want a library at all? They want us to be some kind of convention center!"
I think a lot about the question of mission creep -- what happens when public institutions start accepting more and more responsibilities that aren't really a part of their job. Ultimately, I think, such institutions fail to do anything well.
But I didn't, and don't, think that's the case here.
What is the job of the public library? Here's my read on it: to gather, to organize, and to present to the community the intellectual assets of our culture.
Books are obvious examples. Music is another. Movies are a third. And the burgeoning world of electronic information is yet another. What's missing?
You are! Even in the wired age, how do most of us get the information we're looking for? From each other!
The people within a community are just as much an "intellectual asset," a resource for learning, as any book we've got.
But that means more than just providing public meeting space. It also means that we need to apply the librarian skill set to the populations where we live. We need to catalog the community.
What does that look like? At a minimum, our website should contain comprehensive listings, boosted by a powerful search mechanism, of all those groups mentioned above: seniors, business people, school populations, government workers, civic groups, and more.
Ideally, someone should be able to type into our website, for instance, "home schooling," and not only get our books on the subject, not only retrieve a host of relevant electronic periodical articles, but also find out about area organizations that support home schooling, and when they might meet at the library.
Not too long ago, I read about a library in Scandinavia (I think) that took the idea one step further: need an expert? Look one up in at the library. Check him out!
I don't know how they handle renewals, or fines. But it's a good idea. It's the right idea.