April 20, 2017: Louis Armstrong: Lessons for the Library

April 20, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Timeless. In the recent Belmont Media Center debate between Library Board of Trustees candidates, one candidate referenced how, while growing up, she used the World Book Encyclopedias as her reference source.  In contrast, I am reasonably certain that my Millennial daughter has never opened a World Book volume, turning instead to the internet as her primary information source.  The Belmont library serves both individuals, the middle-aged person who turns to books and the Millennial who turns to the internet, even though looking perhaps for the same information. As that BMC debate comment acknowledged, it is the information, not the mechanism used to record and make that information available, that withstands time.

Let’s consider, for a moment, Louis Armstrong, labelled by TIME publishing as one of the 100 most influential Americans of all time.  It was almost this day 94 years ago, April 5, 1923, that Armstrong, as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recording. And the world changed. According to music historian Phillip Atteberry, “jazz, more or less as we know it, could have happened without a lot of prominent people. If Benny Goodman hadn’t come along as the King of Swing, someone else would have. Something like jazz could have happened without Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Thelonious Monk or even Duke Ellington. But jazz as we know it simply could not have happened without Louis Armstrong.”

More than 40 years after making that first recording, Louis Armstrong was still making history. In 1964 (May 9th), Armstrong ended the Beatles run of 13 straight weeks of having #1 songs with his recording of Hello Dolly. The musical revolution in the United States wrought by the Beatles, in other words, was grounded, at least temporarily, by a nearly 63 year old man who had been playing his trumpet for 40 years.

Much can be said about Louis Armstrong’s legacy. Born in poverty in New Orleans, Armstrong became an international music icon. Even if not the originator of the jazz solo, Louis Armstrong took the jazz solo to new heights. Armstrong gave birth to the use of improvisation in American jazz music. Armstrong began his career with one instrument (the cornet), not moving to a different instrument (the trumpet) until 1926.  Even later, Armstrong added decades of unique vocal renditions to his musical legend. All of which is known today, of course, to both young and old.

Which brings me back to the Belmont public library. As I sit here thinking about Louis Armstrong making that historic recording back in April 1923, I find myself somewhat awed by the task that the Belmont library has undertaken for our community. The job of the library is to make accessible not merely music, but information, in a multitude of forms, from a multitude of eras, to a multitude of people. From Louis Armstrong’s first recording in 1926, to his Beatles-defying recording in 1964, up to the music he recorded before his death in 1971, the music of Louis Armstrong will live on in public libraries. Whether available to my Millennial daughter (through You Tube), or to folks my age (through a paper book), information about the life and music of Louis Armstrong is made available to all comers through the public library.

In this era known as The Information Age, you truly have to appreciate the complexity of the job undertaken by the Belmont public library, as a community institution, in making available timeless information to anyone, and everyone, who seeks it. And one must admire the commitment of the people who keep that institution vibrant through all the dramatic changes in information-sharing over time.


November 3, 2016: Election campaigns as marketplace of ideas

Belmont Citizen-Herald: November 3, 2016

A long and painful federal election season will come to a close next week.  There’s not much need to beat up on the oft-stated complaint during this election year about the substance, or lack thereof, of the Presidential campaign.  I will not repeat the thinking of many voters that the Presidential campaign, based largely on personal attacks, has not well-served the country.

Given, however, that not long after the federal elections are over, there will soon be a local election here in Belmont, even now it is not too early for us to think about what we would not merely hope for, but what we should affirmatively expect, from any candidate for a local office in Belmont’s town elections next spring. How should our community’s elections differ from that which we have been experiencing?

I was recently reading a back issue of the Christian Science Monitor, one of my favorite news sources, about “personal choice” and its relationship to free enterprise.  “[F]ree enterprise is not just about enjoying abundant goods and services,” the Monitor said. “Its subatomic structure is ideas.  Free markets run on ideas. People try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others. . .Good ones will become better. Lousy ones will go down the drain.”

The Monitor’s article predated the 2016 Presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it would have provided sound counsel to both of the two major political parties this year.  And, looking forward to Belmont’s local elections, there are lessons to take away for candidates and voters alike.

“Free markets run on ideas.” One role of a campaign is to present those ideas for public consumption.  A campaign that fails to do so cheats the voters out of an opportunity to hear those ideas and to “try them on.” Too often a candidate avoids offering ideas, particularly new ideas, out of fear that voters will disagree.  Such conflict avoidance does a disservice to the community. A much better approach is to follow the counsel of British author Edward de Bono, who I believe rightfully opines that “it is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong, than to be always right by having no ideas at all.” Belmont voters should demand, and candidates should commit, that our local campaigns will be idea-oriented.

The dynamic nature of a campaign, be it for President of the United States, or Belmont Selectman or local Library Commissioner, does not flow exclusively from the candidates. It flows also from the voters.  In discussing the role of ideas, the Monitor said “people try them on, dispute them, reject some, adopt others.”  Elections, in other words, assume a certain level of active voter engagement. Elections are like marketplaces, with exchanges not of currency but of opinions and values. Campaigns should not be monologues, with candidates simply talking to voters; they should instead be dialogues, with voters also talking back (as well as with each other).  Just as one cannot truly participate in a marketplace by simply showing up at the cash register, one cannot truly participate in an election by simply showing up at the voting booth.

Let’s all take a deep breath, and a brief respite, when the Presidential campaign ends. It is, however, not too early for Belmont candidates, whoever they might be and for whatever office they might seek, to pledge to run an idea-based campaign.  And it is never too early for Belmont voters to commit to being actively engaged in the community dialogue which a campaign should generate.

Through a commitment to ideas and public engagement, we can do better than what we just experienced.