*Note: This essay was published in the Pikes Peak Bulletin print edition on November 22, 2018. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.
When the Manitou Springs Public Library’s doors opened on February 22, 1911, William Howard Taft was president, China’s last imperial dynasty was crumbling, the sun hadn’t yet set on the British empire, the Titanic was still a year away from its fateful voyage, and Pueblo was the second largest city in Colorado. Henry Ford’s Model T was America’s top car.
The world was different. Manual labor was predominant. Libraries were mainly for recreation, a distraction from the drudgery of the hard physical work week.
There’s been a great shift since, from the Industrial to the Information Age, which has had an immense impact on our lives and the critical educational role libraries and librarians play in them.
Librarians are Manitou’s secret weapon in the Information Age. They help us find useful information, convert it into knowledge, and then, over time, maybe even a little wisdom. For anything you’d care to know, just ask a librarian.
If you’re a worker seeking sense of the rapidly changing economy, just ask a librarian. They’ll make lifelong learning a little easier. It can get disorienting when we’re all changing jobs so much. One long-term Labor Department study looking back on the Baby Boomers found the average person held eleven jobs from age 18 to 40. And that trend has accelerated since. Workers need to develop new skills constantly.
My wife is an excellent case. She danced a career with the San Francisco Ballet and now wants to be a pastry chef. Moving from ballet to baking is tough. So she went to the library for a normally-very-expensive cookbook to help learn her new craft.
If you’re a student with a project on a deadline, just ask a librarian. They’ll assist in navigating the information overload. With so much available online nowadays, student learning is overwhelming.
Consider a kid writing a paper. Left to their devices, they’d simply search engine everything, without filter. Librarians are a core part of the team that helps cut through this noise and distraction to find the right information to answer the right question.
If you’re a citizen concerned about democracy, just ask a librarian. They might steer you toward the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation’s ongoing research into “truth decay,” the “diminishing role of facts and data in American public life,” and how it undermines democracy. Librarians fight this corrosive development daily. There’s no “fake news” at the library.
If you’re a community member wanting to know more about local history, just ask a librarian. Librarians make our past come alive, satisfying both curiosity and practical needs. How many times has Manitou flooded? When? Fires? And just who was that guy in Memorial Park up on that big rock?
If you’re a naturally inquisitive person, just ask a librarian. They love questions. The New York and Los Angeles Public Libraries have had call-in phone lines for decades. Some examples:
What kind of an apple did Eve eat?
Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates one and the same person?
Is there a full moon every night in Acapulco?
Can immortality be perceived in the iris of the eye?
Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them? And how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter?
Just ask a librarian. Wanting to know something complex and important is like heading into the unknown, beyond any search engine’s map. Librarians are your tour guide, taxi driver, and trip companion, all rolled into one. They know the route. And won’t ask for a dime.
But they’re limited by the car we’ve left them with. In Manitou, our librarians plod along in Ford’s Model T, with a 20 horsepower engine, top speed about 40 miles per hour, at less than 20 miles to the gallon. Compare that to today’s top car: The Tesla Model S (a name company owner Elon Musk deliberately chose to one-up the Model T), with its over-400 horsepower engine that tops out at upwards of 155 miles per hour, running on electricity.
Manitou’s stuck in Mr. Ford’s car in Mr. Musk’s world. And to take on the Information Age in a Model T, while the world’s riding in a Model S, just isn’t good enough for Manitou Springs. It’s time to upgrade Manitou’s library into a new model.