Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Day in the Park

I spent the day (10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.) volunteering at a booth for the Parker art festival. With me were a couple of other folks donating their time: local lawyer Jim Anest, and local restaurateur Stevan Strain, who also happens to be our current library board president. Both were articulate and passionate. Stevan is an extraordinary man.

I have several observations.

First, there is a big group of Parker residents who expressed shock that we lost last year. When told that only 34% showed up, they nodded grimly. "We need to make sure it wins this year." They talked about the trouble finding a parking spot. They talked about how long they had to wait for new materials. They talked about how important the library was to them and their children. One women said she had been sent to our booth BY her son -- who loved the library, who read all he could, who really questioned what kind of community he lived in that would vote AGAINST a library, who every time they drove past the spot where the new library was supposed to be, got angry all over again. What was WRONG with grown-ups? Lots of folks signed up to be volunteers, or to put signs in their yards.

Second, a lot of people showed up at the festival from far away: first, there was Arapahoe County, Jeffco, Denver; then Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Texas; then the odd places like Minnesota, Florida, and South Carolina. Here's the truth: arts festivals have a strong regional, and beyond regional, draw.

Third, a few folks (three out of maybe a hundred) told me why they would NOT support the library. The first said that she just couldn't afford it; we were all tightening our belts these days, and the library should, too. In this setting, you don't argue with people. But you do think: "we're talking one book per year, $24 per household. You really don't have that? You really don't think that extra $24 won't buy you far more in the way of services (books, movies, music, and programs) especially in hard times?"

The second was a senior citizen who just said that he voted against it the last time, and would vote against it this time; he could only read one book at a time, and the current library was just fine by him.

The third person said she just didn't use the library. And 16% of the county doesn't. Some of those folks don't see a need to increase their costs for a benefit they don't value.

Fourth, it's amazing to me how hard it is to get solid information into the community. Things that have never been true -- such as "the library is asking for a property tax support for a performing arts center" -- are still out there. So we tried to straighten people out: no, we're just asking for a library.

There were a couple of families I found particularly interesting: an African America family that has lived in the area for a couple of decades; a Latino family that had also been there for at least 20 years, too; a homeschooling family, that had depended on the library for all kinds of curricular materials. All of them had particular support for the library, all were people with a fundamental belief in the importance of social systems to help individuals better themselves.

Here's the big realization though: despite my profound investment in the outcome of this election, I realized that it really has nothing to do with me. It's about what the community itself wants. I do have the obligation to articulate as clearly as forcefully as possible the context and particulars of library planning. That's my job. And I still think that there are few messages of the value of the public sector in our society today.

But a community also creates its own identity as it goes along. And it decides, through each public vote, just who it wants to be, just what it wants to value.


LifeLoveLibraries said...

Hi Jamie. Down here in Terrebonne Parish Louisiana we needed public support in passing a mileage in the form of a sales tax to build our (now five years old) new Main Library. When it failed the first time, we organized a god walk with the theme "The Library is Going to the Dogs." Because if people can't support our library, then maybe our four-legged friends can. And, they did. It worked. The tax passed and we now have a state of the art Main Library, with renovations being done to all other existing sites. I really like your anit-ads! Slaps folks in the face, sort of like we did. Good luck, friend!

LifeLoveLibraries said...

Sorry, I meant to type "dog" walk...not "god" walk.
Although, I wonder how that would have worked out.....

Jamie said...

Funny! Thanks for the comment (and I also assume you meant "anti-ads." But why is it that libraries have to go to the dogs before we do something about it? This is happening in too many places! Good for you for being creative. Somehow, though, we have got to let people know that the easiest time to fix the roof is BEFORE it rains. - Welcome

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