Sunday, October 08, 2006

Book Review: Long May They Wave

A few months ago I posted about the fall 2001 flag flap at the Boulder Public Library. To recap, in the wake of 9/11 a BPL employee named Chris Power suggested that the library hang a 10' x 15' American flag near the main entrance of the building. The BPL's director, Ms. Marcelee Gralapp, initially approved the suggestion, but later changed her mind. When the Boulder Daily Camera got wind of the story and asked her about her decision, Ms. Gralapp stated that hanging the flag "could compromise our objectivity. We want people of every faith and culture walking into this building, and we want everyone to feel welcome." The absurdity of this explanation became even more evident when it was discovered that the BPL was hosting an art exhibit on domestic violence that included a display of 21 ceramic penises. Because nothing makes people "feel welcome" like ceramic penises. Eventually, the brief controversy blew over, and the incident became simply one more example of political correctness run amok.

Unfortunately for Mr. Power, the story did not end there. Apparently held responsible by Gralapp for the leak that sparked the controversy, he found his 15 year career at BPL brought to an end when his position was eliminated due to city wide budget cuts in 2003. His job would be the only library position eliminated. That same year, Power's candidacy to replace a retiring Gralapp as library director was turned down under circumstances that left him little doubt that the process was stacked against him.

Mr. Power tells his story in a book called Long May They Wave. After I posted on this topic, Mr. Power was kind enough to contact me and send me a copy. At long last, I have read the book, and found it to be quite interesting.

At its heart, Long May They Wave is an entertaining and well written account of an incredibly surreal series of events. What makes the Boulder controversy so fascinating was its bizarre mix of the profound and the absurd. On one level, it raised issues such as the role of libraries in public discourse, free speech and censorship, community standards, patriotism, and political correctness. At the same time, the controversy featured ceramic penises, the "Dildo Bandito" and Sparky the Fire Dog. Power recounts it all in detail.

Along the way, he debunks the various objections offered to his flag proposal. In particular, he convincingly refutes the idea that patrons would have had to push aside the 10' x 15' flag in order to enter the library. As he shows in a scaled drawing, the location where Power proposed hanging the flag was high enough that it would not have come anywhere near human height. Power also discloses the ironic fact that he was not the source of the leak to the Boulder Daily Camera. Rather, it was a library volunteer who told her neighbor about the flag decision that led to the media finding out about the story.

As intriguing as the flag flap was, it was not what I found most compelling about Power's story. Rather, it was his broader account of his career at BPL that really struck a chord with me, and I suspect, with many librarians. Power's description of Gralapp, while somewhat one sided, strikes me as basically accurate for the simple reason that all too many of us in the library profession have experienced directors who display similar traits.

He sums up Gralapp's management style as one of rewarding her friends and punishing her enemies. On the one hand, she was warm hearted and solicitous towards many of her subordinates, including Power. She was also a skilled politician who clearly did great things for BPL in her over 40 years as director. On the other, Gralapp made it a point to go after anyone she suspected of disloyalty. In addition to his own example, Power mentions that of a library volunteer who read to kids as part of a storytime program (Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this was the same volunteer who indirectly leaked the flag story to the Daily Camera). When this woman was interviewed for a TV news broadcast during the flag controversy, she criticized the decision not to display it. Several months later, her storytime program was eliminated. Gralapp also engaged in cronyism and favoritism, and made a habit of bending rules and regulations to get her way.

Of course, any first person account is going to be biased, especially one written by an admittedly embittered ex-employee. For the most part, though, the book is relatively measured in tone. Power supports his story with citations from newspaper and magazine articles, and even interviewed several of the individuals involved. Power makes a genuine effort to be fair to most of those he criticizes, especially Gralapp. The most glaring exception is a library manager whom Power identifies by a pseudonym, towards whom he levels some very serious allegations that would have better been left out, in my view. He also comments on the gender imbalance in the library profession, going so far as to blame his ouster on a desire of the "Old Girls' Club" led by Gralapp to replace him with a woman. I think this is going a bit far. After all, by his own admission he got along with Gralapp for 13 years before the flag controversy hit.

Overall, Long May They Wave is an inexpensive and entertaining look at a bizarre footnote to American library history, and an interesting study of one library's internal political dynamics.


Anonymous Raymond Macon said...

As someone who worked at the Boulder Public Library at the same time that Chris Power did, I must say you are dead wrong in your review on two accounts. First, Chris is not an "embittered" former employee, but a badly abused one. The behavior of Marcelee Gralapp and her distaff coterie was nothing short of unprofessional and disgraceful. That coterie went to extraordinary lengths to deny opportunities and advancement to the men who worked at the Library. Being a male employee there, I witnessed their blatant discrimination first hand, both in how I was dealt with and how other men similarly fared.

Second, the story of the other library administrator whose unsavory interests and behavior were detailed in the book were absolutely essential to the story. It was this administrator's political agenda that was the real reason for Gralapp's reversal of her original decision. Furthermore, his conduct, and its hypocrital overlooking by Gralapp, stand in stark contrast to the warm welcome the "dangling dildos" were given. These are essential elements in the story and could not be ignored, abridged, or otherwise misconstrued. I think it vitally important that readers of your review be acquainted with these facts.

9:57 PM  

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