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Winds of Change

June 3, 2013

You’ve heard the term “winds of change.” I’ve seen three impressive examples recently.

First, we hiked up Pass Creek to the lake, and for maybe a mile along the path, the forest was changed—blown down—looking like a pile of “Pick Up Sticks,” but big piles, higher than one’s head. It had a nightmarish quality, like pictures of war zones.

Then, we drove through another kind of war zone going over Wolf Creek Pass: miles of dead spruce. Coming back, we fell into silence through this zone, except for the occasional sigh or “wow.”

Near the top, L spotted a faint white cloud. “Uh, oh,” she said.

To me, it seemed too white to be smoke, and I even suggested maybe we were simply seeing the start of cloud formation, despite the fact that L was once a forest firefighter. It’s such a graceful thing when partners hold their tongues.

Sure enough, down the east side of the pass and downwind, we smelled smoke—a lovely scent but unwelcome.

The wind was stiff, holding flags and banners out like boards. Even before we reached Del Norte, the white puffs of “clouds” had turned into a plume of smoke dwarfing the mountains. It was frightening to consider the forest of dead spruce.

After that, ahead of us, the Sangres were blotted out by a dust storm across the San Luis Valley created by the same wind. Large dust devils and sudden blotches of black dust or smoke appeared in the midst of the yellow-brown dust storm. Apocalyptic visions everywhere.

Or … merely the winds of change. I had witnessed another example, in fact: libraries riding the winds of change. I was at the annual public library directors meeting, and by the end of it, one could not miss the fact that libraries have transformed.

It’s remarkable and encouraging to see the continuing evolution of libraries of all sizes. The closest thing to a blow-down or a wildfire is loss of funding.

City and county libraries typically rely on sales tax revenue for much of their income. Library districts, such as ours, rely on property tax, which usually fluctuates less dramatically and less frequently than sales tax. Usually.

Since 2008, however, most districts have dropped in assessed valuation, as much as 40%, which is dramatic, to say the least. We have been fortunate, seeing a 6.5% drop in assessed value two years ago and now perhaps another 3.5% drop next year.

That’s a storm we can weather comfortably. But even libraries that have had to cut services have also had to change those services, adapting to the demands of a digital world even while traditional use holds steady or climbs.

This means not only developing digital collections of all kinds, but also supporting library users and their myriad new devices.

Plus, the digital revolution, such as it is, seems not to be about keeping people at home. Instead, it’s about mobility. Most libraries face demands for more public space.

One library weeded 25% of their collection to make room for more public workspace, and … their circulation went up. This has been proven many times, but it’s always surprising.

Our digital culture may be out of infancy but not past toddler-hood. We have many surprises ahead. Consider the change in this breeze: A recent New Republic column discussed the most highlighted passages among Kindle users.

The author seemed not to bat an eye, but I had to think, What? Have we really accepted that how we read and use our Kindle books will be so carefully monitored?

I believe we’ll need book shelves for a while longer.

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