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.
January 18, 2007 - Libraries are Workshops for the Future
Not long ago, a provocative opinion piece by author John J. Miller appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In essence, he was alarmed when a nearby library removed a book by Hemingway because nobody was reading it.
Finally, he concluded that today's public libraries were "welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow the hot new potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at the local Wal-Mart." Not surprisingly, the article generated a lot of conversation among librarians.
But it's a little baffling. Miller's curious stance is that libraries, through the process of becoming more popular, are thereby "becoming outmoded." But what is he suggesting? That it is our mission ONLY to be guardians of the past, not (also) eager participants in the present?
Miller writes, "There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes." Oh yes, we all remember that long, lost day when all libraries were well-funded, and bought only the "best."
But that's nonsense.
Yes, we're still cultural repositories, and our collections still hold treasures. But librarians have always had limited funds, and have always wound up with a mix of holdings both classic and current.
And consider this: in the time of Mark Twain, many librarians refused to buy his books, branding them popular trash. Better to buy the Lives of Plutarch! Or they chose more sedate, critically well-received authors of the day, now forgotten.
Who decides what's worthwhile? Is the decision made by librarians, who choose to keep, or not keep, particular titles? Or are classics decided by readers, by people who actually choose to read them?
Here's what I think: Our libraries may be marketplaces of ideas, but they are marketplaces nonetheless. The canon of the classics is in constant turmoil and evolution.
The mission of the public library isn't to place the seal of eternal judgment on specific titles; instead, our mission is to reflect our culture as it happens, talent and tawdriness alike. That includes a steady wellspring from the past -- witness Jane Austen's resurgent popularity -- and the fresh precipitation of authors on whom the juries of history are still deliberating. (I've got juries deliberating on rainfall here, but I hope the point is clear.)
Miller asks, "... why must we have government-run libraries at all?" Here are three reasons:
* Because not everybody CAN afford to purchase new books.
* Because libraries do more than provide bestsellers. We provide children's books and storytimes, perhaps our nation's most potent strategy for sowing literacy in the land. We provide public programs, of both civic and recreational nature, thereby building communities. We answer reference questions essential to students, struggling entrepreneurs, curious voters, and more. We bridge the digital divide, and thereby participate in still-emerging forms of creativity and social discourse. And yes, we preserve parts of the past -- but not as museums. We are workshops for the future.
* Because having publicly funded institutions that actively respond to the paying customer is a good idea. Public institutions that ignore public interests and needs not only die, they deserve to.