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, February 7, 2008

February 7, 2008 - Chris Gates and civic engagement

My fundamental idea of librarianship has changed a lot over the years. I began with a simple love of books. Books did and do make me happy.

When I became a director, I focused on trying to understand the remarkably complex background of library operations. (Any business is complex when you really dig into it.)

As the leader of any organization must, I eventually re-focused on the process of securing sufficient resources to accomplish our plans. That required me to take a look at the larger context of the library environment.

At first, I saw the community (everybody "out there") as tools to help the library do its job.

About a decade ago, I had an epiphany. I realized that I had it exactly backward. It is not the job of the community to help the library. It is the job of the library to help the community.

We do that in two ways. The first is through personal transactions -- our responses to individual questions.

But we are also a social asset, serving the larger community in a number of other ways. One way is as an anchor of downtowns, a destination whose traffic greatly benefits those around us.

Our community meeting spaces also provide an essential opportunity for people to find not just library resources, but each other. We provide something that is in all-too-short supply in our world: common and neutral ground, public space available to all, and staffed with good listeners and researchers to help inform our conversations.

I believe the future of public librarianship lies precisely in this sphere of community integration. Every community has issues, questions, projects. Libraries aren't the only assets that can be deployed to assist; but they are, or can be, powerful ones, especially when partnered with others.

There is a swing in societal movements that parallels my own. One generations focuses only on itself. Eventually, either that older generation, or a new generation altogether, comes along to say, "but what about the rest of us? What about the larger community in which we all live? What kind of environment are we making not just for ourselves, but for those who come after us?"

And that question is the beginning of what some call "civic engagement."

Civic engagement has many dimensions. One of them, in a presidential election year, is obvious. Question: Who will decide the nation's leadership? Answer: only those who vote. If you're not registered to vote, or if you're registered, but DON'T vote, then you abdicate that decision to the people who do vote. You surrender to others the ability to decide your own future. And you live with the consequences of those decisions.

But civic engagement means more than politics and voting. It means taking actions, together, that result in a community worth living in, in which many can and do thrive.

That engagement will involve, on occasion, some conflict. There are competing visions of the future, and sometimes they have to be argued out.

The point, however, is not conflict. It is, finally, about cooperation, about processes of analysis and action to effect useful change.

On February 20, 2008, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., at the Castle View High School, the Partnership of Douglas County Governments is bringing in a provocative and exciting speaker, Chris Gates. There will be a little socializing from about 8 to 8:30 a.m. But Gates will start promptly at 8:30.

His address, a give-and-take conversation with the community, is free and open to the public. Many elected officials, and currently serving public board members, have already been invited. But Partnership members hope and believe that many other interested citizens will attend.

To ensure that everyone who wants to attend can be comfortably accommodated, please RSVP either by calling 303-660-7401 or emailing vhirschf@douglas.co.us.

Chris Gates is the first Executive Director of PACE, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. For 11 years before that, he was President of the National Civic League, a national, non-profit organization with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C. In addition to membership on various national boards, Gates is the founder and Chair of the Colorado Institute for Leadership Training, a former board member of Leadership Denver, and a member of Denver’s City Club.

Gates has been doing a lot of investigation of civic engagement around America. His findings will challenge your understanding of what's worth giving your time to.

What kind of community do you want to live in? And what will it take to craft that community, together? Isn't it time that you joined the conversation?

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