Friday, November 28, 2014

What is a public library?

Near the end of my tenure as director of the Douglas County Libraries, a county commissioner proclaimed the purpose of the public library was "to be a repository of books." That's a tragically limited view. 

I've been using another definition for the past several years: "the job of the public library is to gather, organize, and present to the community the intellectual content of the culture."

But that may need some amplification. "The community" doesn't have to be a city; it could be a school or university or company. Or it could be a genre of writing or music.

"Intellectual content" isn't just the usual suspects: books, magazines, movies and music. It also includes people - often the most immediately useful and convenient repository of information, knowledge, or wisdom. That's the meaning of our traditional provision of programs, guest lectures, author visits, public meeting rooms, and the hosting of community discussions.

"The culture" likewise has some elasticity. For a city, that might encompass not only what goes on within geographic boundaries, but the entirety of American or the emerging global culture. (And yes, it's a big job.)

In the very conservative Douglas County, people sometimes told me that the library was socialist. That's the libertarian shorthand for "an unnecessary program that steals my money through taxes."

So I find myself thinking of a slightly different definition of the public library these days, reflecting more broadly our contribution to society -- about why we exist, not just what we do.

Here it is:

The modern public library is a cooperative purchasing agreement, a social asset that promotes literacy, encourages individual discovery and creation, and builds community.
  • As I'll get to later, the library's "cooperative purchasing" not only provides brilliantly cost-effective access to resources for individual coop members (read: library patrons), it also has a host of distinct and significant social savings. 
  • A "social asset" is a tool that can be applied to shared local problems and opportunities. We can think of bonds that build public roads as one kind of asset, resulting in physical infrastructure. Libraries are part of our intellectual infrastructure -- and just as vital.
  • "Promotion of literacy." To quote Shirley Amore, current director of the Denver Public Library, "we own ages 0-5." And as I'll elaborate later, the public library's promotion of early and emergent literacy may be the most powerful strategy yet discovered for building a healthy and productive citizenry.
  • "Encouraging individual discovery and creation." There are thousands of stories, including my own, about how just one sensitive librarian (Mrs. Johnson, in my case) can transform individual lives simply by offering the right book at the right moment, or by providing the space to study, or the computer to apply for a job, or by quietly encouraging someone to make something: a book, an artwork, a model airplane, a business plan.
  • "Building community." For the past generation, we have mostly been dismantling public institutions, and replacing them with for-profit businesses. But libraries -- through their focus on sharing investment and resources, on institutions that provide tangible demonstrations of local values -- help us to find a new approach. It helps us become builders together.
Comments please: What do you think of this definition?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

why this book

I am passionately in love with the idea and practice of the Library. I know public libraries best, but love (and have spent many hours in) school and academic libraries, too. I try to pay attention to my colleagues and their successes and challenges.

In that process, I have learned that we all share one big challenge: the American culture’s generation’s-long devaluing, even deliberate dismantling, of our shared public infrastructure.

The evidence is clear. We have become a nation not of citizens, but of consumers. Our meaning, our merit, is measured now not by what we believe or build. We are judged by what we buy.

Ideas matter. In fact, just a few words can make “frames” (see the works of George Lakoff) so powerful that they govern almost every aspect of our lives. The Declaration of Independence is one example: “All men are created equal.” “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here’s another: “tax burden.”

Let me stake out my ground up front. Libraries generally, public libraries specifically, are an almost incalculably powerful, incomparably cost-effective tool to improve lives, to build better communities. 

Here’s the mystery: even the people who utterly depend on us, even the people who fund us, even the people charged to govern us, are all too-often incomprehensibly opposed to precisely the services that most benefit them.

My book is about two things.

  • First, how to lead and manage public institutions to achieve excellence.

  • Second, how to lay the ground for a shift in public awareness. One generation (Baby Boomers) broke the social contract. The next generation (Millennials) will lift us up, reclaim our place in the civic mind. I hope they will, anyhow. And this book is designed to help them.

Join the journey

I’ve decided to undertake a grand experiment. Using the program Gingko (, I’m going to generate a series of blog posts that will flesh out my original outline, and begin to elaborate what will eventually be chapters in a book. Do check out Gingko, by the way. It just might change the way you think about writing. 

Ultimately, I will self-publish the work as an ebook. Price: $5? (Please comment below. Would you pay that for a roughly 200 page book?)

The working title is “Who Needs Libraries?” I invite you along on the journey. Comments from librarians and non-librarians alike will help me write a better book.

I’ll be trying to blog at least three times a week, at about 350 words per blog. Along the way, I hope to learn more about this fascinating program.

And please, do comment. We’re in this together!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

SmartDown - a markdown editor for Windows


This is my first use of the of the Aflava software, SmartDown, billed as a minimalist, markdown editor for Windows. I downloaded the trial version (which is due to expire in December). I don't know what the ultimate cost for it might be. But it was mentioned on, where I often find interesting new software, and I'm intrigued by the quick, zen-like approach to plain text writing.

Let's put it through its paces.


  • Sandwich icon on top left (file functions, export function)
  • Character and line count at bottom center. Hover the mouse over it and get word, sentence, page counts. That's essential for most of the writing I do.
  • View icons at lower right: pencil for edit, eye for view output.
  • Column size easily changed by dragging.
  • Right click gives usual cut/copy/paste/delete options.
  • Spellcheck tags.
That's it, and so it's a very simple interface, with a pleasant enough gray-blue background. It seems to be close to my essential writer tool chest requirements.

Note: it appears that I can only edit one file at a time. That's too bad.

Editing commands

  • Movement forward and back by word (ctrl+arrow). Check.
  • Delete forward and back. Check.
  • Home and end. Check.
  • Select by shift and cursor movement. Check.
  • Beginning and end of file (ctrl-home/end). Check.
  • Select all - check.
  • Copy/paste - check.
  • Undo - check.
  • Movement by paragraph (ctrl-up/down). No.
All but one of the usual suspects are there.

Formatting commands

This is italic, and this is bold.

Items preceded by a hypen become part of an unnumbered list, as above under "editing commands."

Items preceded by numbers become a numbered lists.

  1. The first item.
  2. The second.


This should be a link to my website. Yep, although I don't see how to then go back to where I was (short of clicking between the view icon and edit).

I am supposed to be able to link elsewhere in the file, too, but I don't quite understand that yet.


Apparently, anything that follows a heading (line preceded by hashtags) until another heading of the same level or higher can be collapsed simply by clicking on the along the left edge of the window. I guess this includes any other text, until the next header.


So if I want to have additional folding under something, I'll need a new section.

Like this

And text under it.

Like so.

But note that the additional "nesting" does not result in additional onscreen indentation.
  • Unless, perhaps, I also add hyphens to cause bullet indentations.
Folding is a very handy way, as in outliners, to collapse onscreen text, allowing one to stay on top of the emerging structure of a piece.


It works as expected: anything it flags has a wavy red underline. The dictionary files came with the program, based on Hunspell and Chromium dictionary files for English.

Focus mode

I went to preferences and turned on this toggle. All it seems to do is highlight the current sentence. Once one finishes the sentence, it grays out. Not terribly useful for me, I think, and not the "hoisting" feature (pulling an outline level up so that it is the only visible section on the screen) I thought it would be.


I like it. It's fast, easy to learn, easy to use, not a bad place to work. Again, I have a growing preference for elegant software. I suspect there is much more that I could do with this - setting up text snippets, and digging a bit deeper into markdown syntax.

It is often the case that I find good software, but then don't get around to using it much. I don't know what the final cost for this one will be, but it looks promising. And it's always fun to just mess around with new software.


Now that my trial version is about to expire, I see that an introductory price has been set: $20. I'm sure it's worth it. After having spent some time looking at other "zenware" type writing tools (particularly SmartMonkey), I think SmartDown is quite good. But I also think that I probably wouldn't use it. I use outliners for complicated things, or LibreOffice for standard documents, and a variety of other apps on other platforms (Workflowy, SimpleNote). My usual discovery is that I don't actually need more tools. I need to spend more time using them. - Welcome

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