Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book review: "Your Inner Fish"

I just finished "Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5-billion year history of the human body," by Neil Shubin. Shubin is provost of the fabulous Field Museum, as well as professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, and a clear, lively writer. His thesis is this: it is possible to trace a common blueprint for life from human beings all the way back to primitive multi-cellular organisms. As Shubin writes,

A subset of these multicellular animals have a body plan like ours, with a front and a back, a top and a bottom, and a left and a right....

A subset of multicellular animals that have ... a body plan like ours....also have skulls and backbones...

A subset of multicellular animals that have ... skulls and backbones ... also have hands and feet ...

A subset of multicellular animals that have ... hands and feet also have a three-boned middle ear ...

A subset of multicellular animals that have ... a three-boned middle ear also have a bipedal gait and enormous brains.


Shubin makes some truly fascinating observations. For instance, embryos of many species follow a common order of development: "arches" -- simple swellings that look like blobs, at first -- eventually develop into cranial nerves, or jawbones, etc. What they develop into changes according to species; but the logic of that development has a long history.

On a recent trip to Denver's Museum of Science and Nature, I delighted in expounding to my family on on the skeleton of a whale: see the common design of the arm in the whale's fin (one big bone, two joined bones, then little blobs, then "fingers")!

Shubin's other big point is this: the thesis of "descent with modification" -- evolution, ladies and gentlemen, although I don't believe he ever even uses the word -- is testable. If this is true, one should be able to predict that one might find fossils of intermediate stages of evolution in rocks that correspond to the approximate age at which that change might have happened. And guess what? Shubin goes to such areas -- and the fossils are there (including many new discoveries). Or as he writes, "we see a pattern of descent with modification deeply etched inside our own bodies. That pattern is reflected in the geological record. The oldest many-celled fossil is over 600 million years old. The earliest fossil with a three-boned middle ear is less than 200 million years old. The oldest fossil with a bipedal gait is around 4 million years old. Are all these facts just coincidence, or do they reflect a law of biology we can see at work around us every day?"

I also got a kick out of this statement, in a section about common human ailments: "Virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component. ... [D]ifferent branches of the tree of life inside us -- from ancient humans, to amphibians and fish, and finally to microbes -- come back to pester us today. Each of these examples show that we were not designed rationally, but are products of a convoluted history."

Or as I have written before, I'm losing the hair on the top of my head, and growing it on my toes. What's intelligent about that design?

But don't take my comments to mean that this is some kind of mean-spirited attack against Creationists. Rather, it's a rapt, lively summary of what science has learned lately. The author's conclusion is one of deep appreciation: "I can imagine few things more beautiful or intellectually profound than finding the basis for our humanity, and remedies for many of the ills we suffer, nestled inside some of the most humble creatures that ever lived on our planet."

Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Private sales, public elections

Another intelligent patron emailed me today. It's very much in keeping with my previous post. He cited what seems to be today's myth: the Internet has made libraries obsolete. Never mind that no one reads whole books on the computer, and certainly not children's books. I focused on, really, the idea of "need" again. I wrote, "...by every conceivable measure -- library visits, library reference questions, children's storytimes attended, adults attending programs and meetings, and of course, the plain number of items checked out -- library use [in Douglas County] is increasing at least three times faster than our population. That is not the profile of an obsolete institution. That looks, in fact, like a successful business facing extraordinary demand. In the private sector, demand equals sales. In the public sector, our costs do not include profits, so our 'sale' is conducted via elections."

I grew up reading, and greatly admiring, Ayn Rand. But ultimately, I rejected her brand of extreme libertarianism. Her fallacy was that she equated taxation with coercion. But taxation is nothing more than a cooperative purchasing agreement. What would be profit in the private sector, is reinvestment in infrastructure in the public (except, of course, where the public sector pays the private sector for services, such as architect fees, contractor fees, etc.).

Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail. But the outcome of a successful tax election is a contract between the institution and the public: payment for services. If you break any other contract, you might go to jail, too.

Some libertarians will say, "Just charge those people who use the library for this demand, and use their money, not mine." But these are people for whom "the public good" no longer exists.

The Douglas County Libraries checked out more children's materials in 2007 than any other library in Colorado. We are not the biggest library. We don't have the most books. We don't have the largest population, or even the largest children's population. What we do have is a clear focus on literacy, and parents who value that. We promote reading, and more than a third of our business is now the pre-reader. How can anyone believe that that's not a good thing?

If we were to charge for each item, what would be the result? By raising the cost of borrowing a book, we would clearly reduce children's access to them. We'd have fewer books in fewer homes.

The gain, for some, is obvious. "I spend less." The loss is equally obvious: we get less. We get a community, a society, in which only those children whose parents inherit or earn discretionary money, and value literacy, are encouraged and actually enabled to read.

Library literature is full of stories we don't often share with the public at large. The gang member who hid out in the library, and read his way out of the ghetto. The child from a broken or violent home who found sanctuary and encouragement in a space he didn't have to rent, or buy something to sit in. The child of a laborer who became the CEO.

I am myself the child of a family who would not have paid to buy or borrow all the books I read. Those books made my life.

So one argument on behalf of library funding is this: until all children have independent incomes sufficient to enable their learning to the extent their natural curiosity and ability permit them, we need public support. Unless, of course, ignorance is more important to us.

Want versus need

A week or so ago, the library sent out the first letter in its public information campaign about a potential mill levy question on the 2008 ballot. Since then, I've gotten maybe a dozen responses. About a third of them were positive and often included offers to help. About two thirds were either critical or negative. When people gave their names or emails, I contacted them to answer their questions, or at least let them know that I heard their concerns.

But one response, an anonymous letter, voiced a frank enough concern that got me to thinking: how do we (taxpayers) know that the library actually needs more money?

Let's begin with the basics: the list of human needs is actually pretty small. We need air, water, food, shelter. Once the basics are taken care of, we start to move up the list of more abstract "needs" -- intimacy, productivity, recreation, etc.

What does that mean in the public sector? What do we "need?" Often, police and fire are defined as "essential services." But the truth is, most of us will never need them (we hope!). Of course, when you've been abducted by kidnappers, when there's a fire at your house, police and fire services certainly do fall into the category of "urgent." But most of us won't face that.

"Essential services" are insurance. I pay house insurance, car insurance, medical insurance, and more. I know that most of us certainly pay more than we need -- one need only look at the profits of the insurance industry. If they're making that much, then the risk is overstated, and clearly, the price is too high. Until, of course, you're one of the people that really does need to replace your home, your car, or an important body part.

We spend our money, voluntarily, for such "insurance" because we are able to look ahead, to imagine need. We want to spare ourselves, and our loved ones, catastrophic loss.

Then there's the whole category of other things people spend their money on. Plasma TVs. Humvees. Do people "need" them? No. They just want them. And why? Because they believe that these amenities will improve their lives.

Suppose that hula hoops are popular. And there's a tremendous surge in purchases. The market has spoken: there is a "need" for hula hoops. So more are produced, more are sold, more money is made.

But when I've used the argument of "demand" for library services -- 20% increase per year in circulation for two years running, 18% last year -- there are some folks who say, "but what's the need?" Yet they wouldn't ask that about hula hoops: if demand goes up, of course the supply or price rises. Why should library services be any different?

Do I "need" to read a book? One might argue that literacy is a need to survive in the modern world, but only at a certain level. We don't need to be smart or well-informed. We can get by. Heck, we could all be dumb as stumps and still live. So here's a radical notion: Like TVs, like big or little cars, like houses of 5,000 sf with granite kitchen counters, libraries may not be a need at all -- if "need" means "necessary to continue living."

To date, I've defended the need for increased funding for libraries on the basis of thoughtful, and well-tested library standards. A half a square foot of library space per capita (of a service area) allows us to keep up with the public consumption of books, movies, music, storytime space, meeting rooms, study space, and technology. We know this; we've got 18 years of data to prove it. And we can show that in at least three areas of the county, we're seriously behind the eight ball: we just don't have enough library room to maintain existing levels of use as the county grows, which it continues to do. We certainly don't have the money to build, buy, or run, new ones.

But I think I've learned that there are at least two big groups of citizens: those who don't have to be convinced, and those who can't be convinced. The purpose of a campaign is twofold: to persuade the folks who don't fall into either camp that the "need" for more support is justifiable; and to remind the supporters to show up.

So here's a different argument for library funding. No, we don't need library funding any more than we need more insurance. Or the arts. Or open space. Or air-conditioned schools. Or two bathrooms in a house. But we want strong libraries because it improves the quality not only of our individual lives, but of our community. Our lives are better if we have passionate advocates for literacy in our towns, and a rich supply of cultural offerings, than our lives would be without those things.

So it's a choice: spending more money for libraries preserves the quality of our lives now, and improves them in the future; not spending more means that the quality of our personal and common lives declines. The question is not what do we need to live, but how do we want to live?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

My DNA results

Well, the genographic site had the results of my DNA analysis up yesterday, and I may be no wiser than before. This was the attempt to trace my paternal line: son to father to grandfather, and so on. The sad news: no evidence of anything but the typical European markers, so no evidence for a Cherokee heritage. On the other hand, the alleged ancestor was my father's MOTHER'S father -- by definition outside the link of father to son. But if I go to the maternal line, I still wouldn't catch him. I may need a different kind of DNA analysis after all.

Lakoff's "Political Mind"

I'm reading, "The political mind : why you can't understand 21st-century politics with an 18th-century brain," by George Lakoff. I haven't gotten real far yet, but I find the notion of taking brain research into account in politics an eminently reasonable suggestion.

Reading over breakfast today, I saw that Lakoff says we construct our world view of "frames" and "scripts." The example was a hospital: a place where you go when you're ill, and follow a script of admission, etc..

I find myself thinking about how to describe the modern library -- and wonder if some of the negative reaction we get to the new circ-desk-free model -- is about that "frame." To date, we've set it up as "information seekers" who appeal to the figures behind the desk.

A better frame might be this: seekers for MEANING who find guides on their quest. I like the narrative of explorer better than supplicant, of a quest for meaning rather than information.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Men's facial hair

It was a long time ago -- late spring of 1985 or 1986 -- when I was preparing to do what I did every summer: shave my beard. But my wife, Suzanne, asked me not to. She liked me better with a beard, she said. So I kept it -- right up until several years ago, when I shaved it for a play I was in (Greater Tuna, and again for Wizard of Oz).

Last month, I trimmed back my beard, basically just removing sideburns. It was a sort of funky look, and I liked it. Yesterday, based on my son's digital photograph of the new line, I trimmed it back further to the more common goatee. (Although now I kind of regret it.)

It's a weird thing. On the one hand, it's genuinely if oddly refreshing to drag a razor across your face, then splash it with cold water and cologne. It might also be cooler.

On the other hand, the first couple of times you shave previously unshaved skin it is distinctly painful, and subsequent shavings tend to nick previously painful spots again, leading to unsightly globules of bloodclots.

Here's the thing, though: I have made that difficult adjustment from my longstanding and distinct-from-reality self-image (early twenties, basically) to actual chronological reality (details too depressing to recount). So, what the heck? Why not play with my facial characteristics, as if I were my own Mr. Potato Head?

Next up: braids?

New Douglas County Libraries website

We were the first website in Douglas County -- and one of the first websites in Colorado (back in 1996). Today, we went live with our latest version based on Drupal, the open source content management system. (Click the heading to take a look at our website today.)

I have two distinct feelings about it. First, it represents a tremendous amount of profound intellectual labor, and I'm very proud of my staff for producing it. Second, its complexity shows. We still haven't quite figured out how to enfold all that rich content in a simple and elegant wrapper.

But the tool is open source -- that's progress. And by design, it reaches out to the community, allowing them to add their own content (although some of those modules are still under development). The library website continues its evolution from static portal to dynamic community conversation.

My newspaper columns moved around on the new site, too, and I think I've adjusted all the references now to the new location. I'm sure that this will result in a lot of broken web links.

In my latest column draft, I talk about four principles:

1. Almost everything important requires teamwork.

2. Significant achievement should be celebrated.

3. Nothing is ever done.

4. Simplicity isn't easy.

Ain't it the truth?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ubuntu upgrade - 8.04

Today, I hit Upgrade in the Update Manager, and less than an hour later, while I continued to work, my work computer went up to the latest Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) version. I got asked one question (about overwriting a configuration file) then had to shut down all running applications while it did a 5 minutes cleanup. Then, it asked me to confirm reboot.

It came back up and ... no problems. Clean, fast, stable, kept all my settings, all my old stuff works.

Ubuntu is a marvelous package: Linux-based operating system, and a host of free programs that are capable and powerful. Recommended.

Incidentally, there's also a program called Wubi that installs Ubuntu on your Windows system -- you can try it that way, without compromising your Windows system at all. Link:

wubi-installer.org