This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

October 13, 2004 - Bulgaria, Part 2

The costs of my recent trip to Bulgaria were underwritten by a grant from the US Department of State. Why would the State Department be interested in Americans traveling to Bulgaria?

There are two reasons. First, after some 60 years of continuous occupation in Germany, many of our military bases are being dismantled. They are relocating to Bulgaria. From a geopolitical perspective, Bulgaria is certainly closer to such hot spots as the Middle East.

Second, as a former Soviet country, Bulgaria is deeply enmeshed in the transition to democracy and capitalism. The end of Soviet socialism in Bulgaria was bloodless -- but as several people told me, not without troubles. The abrupt withdrawal of guaranteed pensions and health care has led to deaths, particularly in the rural areas. Many people feel a deep nostalgia for what they remember of the Communist era -- glossing over the persistent loss of individual freedoms one of my translators described as "a humiliation of the soul."

On the other hand, the economic growth in Bulgaria has been nothing short of amazing. In Sofia, the capital, there are endless rows of bustling shops and restaurants. There is the thriving outdoor bazaar, the Ladies Market. In Dobrich, a city of 150,000 people, enormous pedestrian plazas were lined with cafes, clothing stores, pottery shops, and more.

While unemployment is still high -- up to 14 percent in some areas -- the cities are transforming almost overnight into something quite new in Bulgaria's long and rich history. They are becoming vital economic hubs based not on agriculture or centralized planning, but on thousands of independent, entrepreneurial ventures.

Exchanges between the public sectors of Bulgaria and the United States are a stabilizing influence. The United States' own history of economic and political development rests not only on business, but on a host of institutions that provide the glue of a society, an undercurrent of meaning and purpose.

I saw the influence of three such institutions. The institutions of faith -- Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism -- were once strongly discouraged. Now, buildings have been restored, and attract a steady stream of visitors. (The trip to Bulgaria is worthwhile just to hear the Orthodox Church choirs, their music soaring into impossibly high arches.)

Incidentally, these faiths coexist quite comfortably in Bulgaria.

I saw the influence of museums. In some respects, the standards of display and care are far less rigorous than those in the US. I was able to reach out and touch the real bones of a caveman -- something I can't imagine would be permitted here.

Bulgaria was one of the crossroads of the very earliest migrations of humankind. Then there is the whole period of Roman occupation -- many ruins from the 2nd and 3rd century are still visible (and in some cases, are in better shape than the Soviet-era apartment complexes). Then came the long history of Christianity in the area, a tale told in icons. All of these long precede the European discovery of our continent.

And, of course, there are public libraries.

But public institutions also face a challenge, just as they do in the United States. Many leaders consider history and culture worthy of respect, but also consider them too backward looking. To be deemed worthy of funding, in Bulgaria as well as the United States, public institutions must learn to capture significant use, and make an active contribution toward the forging of a local future.

My colleagues in Bulgaria are certainly up to the task. They were very smart, savvy, conscientious, and industrious. I believe in them.

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