Sometimes the most unlikely people prove to be the bravest," said Chase McInerney in his remembrance of the late Lee Brawner, who died last week, and who presided over central Oklahoma's Metropolitan Library System for nearly three decades.

In the 1990s, Brawner was faced with two crises in the space of two years. The Murrah bombing in 1995, less than a quarter-mile away, damaged the downtown library, and left much of its staff feeling violated, traumatized, and downright scared. It fell to Brawner to come up with coping strategies.

Two years later, a nudnik named Bob Anderson checked out the library's one copy of the 1979 German film The Tin Drum and turned it over to the police; an Oklahoma County District Judge decided it was some mutant form of kiddie porn, and DA Bob Macy sought to have it declared obscene by a district court. Brawner fought back: in his defense of the film, he pointed out that The Tin Drum did not appeal to the ever-popular "prurient interests" and therefore did not run afoul of Oklahoma's obscenity laws. Perhaps more importantly, Brawner got the case moved to a Federal court, which subsequently dismissed it entirely. In the meantime, sales of The Tin Drum spiraled upward substantially, and Brawner was pleased to return the videotape to circulation, where it remains today.

Also worth mentioning was Brawner's unflagging support for the concept of the independent library district. In 1993, he argued (in Library Journal) that the district system, in which multiple governmental units assume responsibility for the library, was ultimately more viable and far healthier than the usual city, county, or school-district operation. The concept is spreading, albeit slowly; not quite half the states now allow library districts of this type.

(How this works: The Metropolitan Library System, created in 1965, is a joint venture among Oklahoma City, Oklahoma County, and smaller cities within Oklahoma County; each city with a branch library also has a representative on the Library Commission. Generally, the cities provide the actual library buildings; the county, through a portion of the property tax, provides the operational funding. Library cards are available to residents of Oklahoma County and to residents of Oklahoma City who live outside Oklahoma County.)

In 1898, the Philomathea Club raised $500 for a public library in Oklahoma City, located upstairs at Sheridan (then Grand) and Robinson, on the second floor of a building which eventually became the Farmers National Bank. Andrew Carnegie subsequently donated some $25,000 for a permanent facility (sadly, since razed); at the dedication, a speaker noted that the temporary library had been established during an economic downturn, and that "it was by no means an easy task to interest the people in an enterprise that did not directly add to their material interests." Indeed. But it was a task that Lee Brawner enthusiastically embraced for all of his seventy years.

The Vent

  13 February 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill