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.
September 20, 2007 - Why the Demand?
This is a fact: the demand for library services is growing faster than our population. On the one hand, that's good: Douglas County likes its libraries.
Nationwide, library checkouts are growing by about 2 or 3 percent annually. In Douglas County, they have grown by 124% over the past five years.
By contrast, our population growth, which is impressive by itself, has only jumped by 44 percent in the same period.
But why have our checkouts increased so much faster than our population? Incidentally, that discrepancy applies to the use of our Internet and computer resources, reference questions, programs, and meeting rooms, too.
I think there are three reasons.
1. Douglas County demographics. Our patrons are both highly educated, and, relatively speaking, have lots of children still at home.
People that have worked their way up to at least one college degree, and often on to Master's or Ph.D.'s, tend to value that investment.
Parents with small children go through a kind of awakening, too. They discover that "teaching" isn't something that only happens at school. It starts at home. It should continue there, too, if only because adult behavior sends such a strong signal to children about what matters.
Together, that explains both the remarkable use of picture books by our patrons, and the high use of non-fiction by adults. Our patrons value education.
2. Our collection. The library's computer catalog tallies a wealth of management data.
We know exactly how many books, videos, and music CDs get checked out, and we can break those numbers down by subject, by the number of uses within a year, and more.
Our librarians have learned to work way ahead of publication dates to order materials, and to predict demand with remarkable success.
Our behind-the-scenes staff get those materials out on "street date" -- the same day they hit the book and discount stores. We've also gotten very good at displaying these materials so they catch your eye.
I wish I could say that I invented this insight, but I stole it from Denver Public's Schlessman Library: the right "mix" for a popular library's collection is roughly 1/3 kid's books, 1/3 adult print, and 1/3 movies and music. We've been testing that out for several years now, and it works.
Some folks worry about that last category. By carrying audiovisual materials, aren't we either (a) diluting the mission of the library as a purveyor of books, or (b) directly competing with movie and music stores?
My response: (a) libraries aren't just about books. They are about the active pursuit of knowledge, about the building and understanding of your community. Movies and music are a big part of our culture.
(b) I know of no library that put a book (or music or video) store out of business. If anything, libraries help stimulate the market for all of these things, keeping people interested when they can't afford the latest release, or helping them pick out the things most worth buying.
3. The need to belong, and to contribute. The third reason for our astonishing growth in use is that the library has consciously responded to a primal human need.
The county has grown so fast. So few people actually grew up here, that they're still trying to figure out where they live. They often begin by investigating local history. At the library.
People also connect at programs and meetings. They notice each other at the Internet stations or in study rooms. They chat as they browse the new books and magazines.
The library is a community hub, a way to explore the past, and help invent the future, of your neighborhood, town, or county.
All of these things add up to a library that people use.
It can be a challenge to keep up. But what fun!