Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Should You be Reading?

Possibly the most frightening aspect of our culture of mass media is the hysteria that can be generated over the most mundane of topics with just a little glimpse of a total story. A good example is the current teapot tempest occurring in Denver where someone discovered that there were publications in the public library that were not in English! Arrgghhh, the horror, the horror of it all. Imagine, that in this melting pot of “E Pluribus Unum” we might actually have citizens who don’t speak the one true language. It seems so easy to forget that this nation was settled by folks who spoke a lot more languages than that of the King. We had a lot of German, Dutch, French and Spanish speakers among the first colonies and then during the intervening couple of centuries we’ve absorbed a lot of others as well. But, some are really incensed that Denver is offering Spanish language books for the populace. Spanish Books in Public Libraries?

I feel a little bit over-qualified to ring in on this topic, since I had the privilege to serve for ten years on the seven member Board of Trustees of the Pikes Peak Library District including several years as President of the Board. We served a population of around half a million constituents from eleven different library facilities and with a collection of over a million items. Not surprisingly, not all of the folks served were totally happy with the choices we made. Most however considered themselves well served.

What really is the issue here? (Regular readers of this blog might note that as my favorite question.) It seems that it is a corollary to the question of illegal immigration from our national neighbor to the south. The debate about what to do with regard to the flood of Hispanic immigrants who penetrate our porous border usually focuses on emotional questions rather than economic, social or historical. Practical solutions to the problems aren’t easy and are seldom part of the discussion.

But how does the library fit in here? The implication seems to be that by having Spanish language materials available for checkout that somehow the DPL is forcing taxpayers to subsidize illegal immigration. Can you just picture it? Somewhere fifty miles south of Juarez there is a newspaper ad or a radio commercial urging rural peasants to quickly sneak across the border to Denver where they can check out books for free in Espanol. Yeah, that’s right. By running libraries that spend a whopping 8% of their budget on Spanish language material we’re undermining the nation.

Throw in a complaint that there were sexually oriented Spanish comic books to bring the blue-noses into the argument. Then appeal to the anti-tax crowd by reminding people that “taxpayers” fund this outrage. Gimme a break.

Are there Spanish-speaking communities in Denver? Why, yes there are. Do these folks work, live and even pay taxes there? Certainly. Do they contribute proportionally to support of the DPL? Absolutely. Do they have a right of access to materials in the library? Why not?

Libraries were recognized by our Founding Fathers as a public good, essential to informing and educating the populace so that they could participate effectively in a democracy. Franklin and Jefferson were noteworthy in their efforts to support public libraries. Today, the media have changed in libraries, but the mission of informing, educating and even entertaining people remains. Libraries still offer books, but they also provide Internet access, videos, recorded music, documentaries, educational forums, periodicals, and even serve as repositories of historic records. Some of that stuff might even be in the language in which it was originally created.

The sort of jingoistic prattle emanating from Denver about the appropriateness of foreign language materials in taxpayer funded libraries is ridiculous.

Ohh, and by the way Fox News, Rick Ashton is more than “a librarian” at the DPL. He’s the Executive Director—the tall dog that runs the entire enterprise.

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