What to do tonight: Talking with William J. Dobson

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Mount Washington has its great view of the city skyline. But Mt. Lebanon offers a view of the world.

The best vantage point is found at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library on Castle Shannon Boulevard, where visitors tonight will be able to hear Slate political editor William J. Dobson discuss his new book, "The Dictator's Learning Curve: Are Modern-Day Dictators, Tyrants, and Strongmen Getting Smarter?"

The event is part of the library's continuing effort to bring in speakers on a wide variety of world topics, including religion, poverty, war and trade.

"We've been doing this since the end of 1999 or start of 2000," said Cynthia Richey, who has been at the library since 1983 and director since 1996. "These programs fit so well with the library's mission to provide information on current affairs.

"Public libraries are the center of the communities. They're open, comfortable spaces for quiet study, informal gatherings, electronic and print resources, and programs that are intellectually enriching, informative and entertaining. People gather at the library to make connections."

And you thought it was just a place full of books.

"Libraries are among the most democratic institutions in the world," Ms. Richey said. "It's very important that libraries are free and open to the public. That way no one is deprived, no one is disenfranchised. Our philosophy is to invite participation by everyone."

So they hold these get-togethers with speakers who are generally smarter than the rest of us discussing topics of interest and importance.

Some of the speakers appear for free. Others are awarded an honorarium. For a recent project on human rights, coordinated with Amnesty International and the Thomas Merton Center, the library received a grant from the American Library Association.

Tonight's event is presented in partnership with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, which invited Mr. Dobson to town to speak to its group, then arranged for him to stay an extra day so he could visit the residents of Mt. Lebanon.

"It's great because the World Affairs Council has a waiting list of people who want to attend. Now, they can come here," Ms. Richey said.

The gatherings at the library usually attract about 30 people, though sometimes -- when the conditions and the topic are right -- they can bring more than 100 people into Meeting Room A. Afterward, those attending will often talk about what they've heard.

"We have high school kids, working people, older adults, all having these fascinating discussions," Ms. Richey said. "It's wonderful."

Most of the time, the speakers are neutral and objective regarding their topics. But that doesn't mean the discussions don't get a little lively.

"We've only had a couple of times that were controversial and that was when the programs involved the Middle East," Ms. Richey said. "There were some opposing viewpoints and the speaker was from Egypt. Two people opposed him and were hostile and shouting and didn't want to let the speaker speak. But that was years ago.

"There can be a vigorous discourse, and that's good. We don't mind. People can be passionate on both sides of the issue. But our speakers have been very respectful and even-handed in their presentations."

Why Mt. Lebanon?

"People from outside our neighborhood have the perspective that it's all affluent," Ms. Richey said. "There is some affluence, but it's a nice mix. We get people from all over. People who work at jobs that require them to be aware. People who care about education and life-long learning.

"People who are interested in what's going on in the world. People interested in world affairs, world peace and making the world a better place to live."

Oh, those people.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and -- like all great libraries -- is free and open to the public.

books - neigh_south

This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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