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.
March 12, 2009 - get your news ... from the library
A few weeks ago I gave a talk up in Golden. Later, a journalism student interviewed me. Was there still a place for the library, he wanted to know, in the age of the Internet?
I told him that I've been asked that by a lot of reporters over the years. But it has a particular poignancy to it now. Before this young man, the last person to ask me worked for the Rocky Mountain News. (The financially troubled Rocky, as surely everyone now knows, recently shut down operations after failure to find a buyer.)
Here's the irony of it. Libraries are actually doing quite well coexisting with the World Wide Web. Often, we assume the role of providing public access to it. Not only that, whenever we add a new Internet station, use of everything else goes up: checkouts of kids' books, adult books, magazines, music and movies, and even program attendance.
That surprises people, although it shouldn't. Why do you use the Internet in the first place? For diversion, for exploration, for social contact. It turns out that libraries are spectacularly good at all of that.
People imagine that newspapers make their money from subscriptions. That's not so. They make their money from ads. And here's the hard truth: the rise of online advertising hasn't been nearly enough to offset the loss of print ads. Printing and distributing papers is expensive, but no major newspaper has yet figured out how to make money on the online-only format.
Frankly, I'm worried about the trend. A lot of newspapers are in trouble, and that does not bode well for the well-researched, investigative journalism upon which an informed citizenry depends.
On the one hand, the explosion of private blogs has been liberating for those wanting to express non-mainstream views. But more often than not, the content is opinion, not news. That is, usually the blogger didn't interview anyone, research the background of the story, or try to seek some alternative viewpoint. He didn't attend a year's worth of public meetings. He just opined.
And that leads me to a radical solution. If the business model of for-profit newspapers is broken, then maybe what we need them to do is merge with an obvious partner: the public library.
We, by which I mean 21st century librarians, have long been moving into the area of greater community involvement, of dedicating public resources to the analysis and solution of local problems. We were among the first to recognize the value of the Internet, and to develop publicly accessible websites known for credible and authoritative information.
And what is a librarian, after all, but someone passionate about the world of ideas and doings, someone willing to ask questions, dig for answers, and organize the results? Just possibly, this is a moment in history when the job descriptions of journalist and librarian might dovetail.
You want local news you can trust? Librarians and journalists bring it to you online. (I don't see us cranking out the print copies, though.)
It's fascinating to think this through: would the library take editorial stands? Maybe it would constitute a citizen editorial board to do just that. We're already bastions of free speech.
Would "hard news" compromise the ability of libraries to win at the polls? It might -- but it's not particularly easy now, and a library that covered local events, and archived them as a matter of course, might actually see a rise in public support.
It's a shame that the Douglas County Libraries has a hiring freeze right now (which suggests some business problems of our own, even if the problem isn't the Internet). Otherwise, I'd be hiring Rocky Mountain News reporters. We could use them.
LaRue's Views are his own.