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.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

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."

It 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 USE something?

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.

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