This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, May 30, 1990

May 30, 1990 - Home schooling

What do the following people have in common: William Penn, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Agatha Christie, Pearl Buck, astronaut Sally Ride, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor?

None of them went to school. Or to put it more correctly, they were schooled at home.

Based on the people my staff and I see using the library, there are more and more families practicing home schooling. Others have questions.

First of all, is home schooling legal? Yes. According to Colorado Senate Bill Number 56, which was effective as of July 1, 1988, "The general assembly hereby declares that it is the primary right and obligation of the parent to choose the proper education and training for children under his care and supervision. It is recognized that home-based education is a legitimate alternative to classroom attendance..."

Do parents have to be certified teachers? No. Then how do we know if the child is learning anything? Home school students have to take nationally standardized achievement tests in grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 - just like the kids in regular schools.

How well do home school students do? Based on numerous studies, they do at least as well as public school students, and tend to average better.

Why do parents decide to teach their children at home?

There are probably as many reasons as there are parents. But generally, the concerns seem to fall into one of several camps: religious, academic, medical, and philosophic.

Religion is a chief concern of about 40% of the people doing home schooling. These parents feel that their values, typically Christian values, are not emphasized sufficiently in public schools. In fact, some believe that American textbooks are specifically DESIGNED to "undermine religion and traditional values."

Other parents get into home schooling because their children just aren't doing well in their studies. According to one woman I spoke with, her child kept falling behind in school and couldn't seem to get the help she needed to catch up. But when she was taught at home, she caught up, stayed caught up, and started to pull ahead.

The medical theory, put simply, is that children just aren't ready for school at the age today's society dictates. Citing research on brain and body development, they argue that real physiological damage can occur by shoving small children into school too soon. To quote educator Raymond Moore, "the eyes of most children are permanently damaged before age 12." Moore and his associates at Hewitt Research Foundation also concluded that "thoughtful learning" was not possible - due to the rate of brain development in most children - until the age of 8 or 9.

Some parents become home teachers simply because they are opposed to what they see as the incarceration of their children in a totalitarian environment. Let children be children! they argue, instead of trying to forge them into super-geniuses. While "thoughtful learning" in the sense of classroom reasoning may not be productive at early ages, children naturally soak up a great deal of information about the world just by playing in it. To quote Moore again, "...to attempt to institutionalize all young children because a few are disadvantaged...is like trying to hospitalize all because a few are sick."

What kind of guidelines exist for home teachers? I recommend Mary Pride's books on home schooling (available through the Douglas County Public Library System). Her books, such as "The New Big Book of Home Learning," are arranged in a catalog format, and provide near-encyclopedic surveys of what's out there.

What other kinds of support are available? Well, there's a Colorado Home Educator's Association and a Home School Legal Defense Association, to name just two.

Is home schooling a significant educational trend? Could be. I know one thing: home schoolers really use the library. For that alone, I give them an "A."

Wednesday, May 23, 1990

May 23, 1990 - Libraries, public schools, and Mad Magazine

When I was in college, I had to work five part-time jobs in order to eat, buy books, and pay tuition and rent. Two of those jobs were teaching assistantships.

I have the deepest respect for teachers. To get ready for just 50 minutes of class time sometimes took me up to 6 hours. Teaching is hard work.

Of course, teaching has its rewards too, even if I can't think of any right now.

I prefer the rewards of librarianship. For instance? I like talking with a two-year-old one minute and an octogenarian the next. It tickles and sometimes enlightens me.

Another reason I'd rather work in a library is that I don't think most kids really want to go to school. They're forced to. Coerced.

When children go to a library, it's more likely to be by choice. And we're a lot more relaxed about what they can do when they get here. I remember Mrs. Short, my fourth grade teacher. Once she caught me reading a Mad Magazine in class. She yelled at me, then took it away. I never saw it again.

At a library, kids can read Mad Magazine and we not only don't mind, we're thankful that they're reading. (Hmm. Do our branches subscribe to Mad Magazine? No? Then by Alfred E. Neumann, they will! You know, sometimes it's great to be the boss.)

(And by-the-bye, Mrs. Short, if you happen to be reading this, I'd just like to say that I learned more from Mad Magazine than I did from all my sappy fourth grade reading primers, and now I'm buying it for THOUSANDS OF OTHER KIDS.)

But old injuries aside, schools and libraries can and ought to be good partners.

If libraries are doing their job, they hand over kids prepared - even eager - to learn, especially to learn how to read.

Then, during the school year, public libraries provide backup for the school libraries. We not only stock our shelves with plenty of reference and non-fiction materials, we also buy lots of books - and magazines - that help children remember that reading is more than a classroom skill, it's fun!

And when school days at last are done, we provide materials to help people write resumes, find colleges (and scholarships), repair cars, cook meals, buy a house, and much, much more.

Together, schools and libraries form a sort of life-long intellectual insurance policy. The public school system is there to provide the core knowledge and basic learning skills. Libraries exist to stimulate the interest for reading in the first place, and help people track down the information they need later on.

So what do you get when you combine formal instruction on the one hand, and supplementary reference materials plus recreational reading on the other?

You get smarter kids. And eventually, smarter adults.

Before long, libraries may assume an even more direct role in public education. But I'll have more to say about that next week, when I examine what seems to me to be a distinct Colorado trend: home schooling.

Wednesday, May 16, 1990

May 16, 1990 - Who reads what?

Library statistics are like community fingerprints. No two communities use a library in quite the same way.

The number of people registered for library cards is a good index of a community's interest in literacy and education. In Douglas County almost half the population of the county has a library card. As is true throughout the country, most of our library users (70% in Douglas County) are women.

Now for the really interesting question: what do the people of Douglas County like to read?

Douglas County's libraries keep track of 31 different statistical categories for our materials. But just four of those categories account for about 75% of our business.

Based on the number of checkouts, the number one category at every library branch is kid's picture books. The percentages of our total circulation vary from a low of 27% at Philip S. Miller (where we have our biggest collection of adult materials), to a high of 37% at Oakes Mill.

The use of children's pre-school books speaks very highly of Douglas County library users. As I've written in an earlier column, children exposed to books early on in life are far more likely to become readers. There is no simpler, cheaper investment in your children's intellectual (and recreational) future than to get them in the habit of going to the library. Obviously, many of you already know that.
The second, third, and fourth biggest categories jockey for position at each of the agencies. Overall, adult non-fiction accounts for 20% of our circulation. Adults read non-fiction to learn how to do things or stay current; younger people use the non-fiction collections for school assignments. Providing up-to-date factual material about a broad range of subjects is a major responsibility of the public library.

The third busiest collection is adult fiction, accounting for about 15% of our business overall. This number combines various other smaller categories you might call "reading for fun": new fiction, older fiction, paperback fiction, and genre fiction (westerns, mysteries, science fiction, etc.).

The fourth best-used collection isn't books at all. This is the up-and-comer in library services: videotapes. Overall, videos account for almost 9% of our business -- 13% at Oakes Mill. We're not talking, necessarily, the kinds of movies you see in rental stores. We have a fairly extensive collection of children's videos, how-tos, and science videos, such as the popular Nova series.

The other categories -- combining with the top four to account for over 95% of our circulation -- also have a lot of overlap from branch to branch. The biggies are children's fiction, periodicals, and audiotapes (books on cassette, old radio programs, and the like).

The main use of Douglas County libraries continues to be books: still the most convenient package for information and reading pleasure. But we are making way for newer materials in keeping with technological advances (videotapes) and changing lifestyles (audiotapes -- read while you drive!).

Statistics are more than just interesting. At the Douglas County Public Library System, we use these numbers to determine how much money to put into different categories -- matching your tax investment with your demonstrated interests.

You can count on it.

Wednesday, May 9, 1990

May 9, 1990 - Art

When my daughter Maddy was about 18 months old, she startled me with her raw artistic perception. My wife had just made a quick sketch for her. Maddy glanced at it and shouted, "Cat!"

So the next night, I made my own sketch of a cat. "What's this?" I asked Maddy proudly. She gave me a look of profound sympathy. Even pity. "Rabbit?" she hazarded.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But that one word summed up a lifetime of my drawings. I admit it. I am artistically disabled.

It's taken me a long time to come to grips with this. When I was a kid, I spent many hours in the local public library, enthralled by the sculptures of Rodin, mesmerized by Van Gogh's wild, unrestrained paintings. I wanted to be a Great Artist.

In turns out that you can't be a great artist unless you have great talent. Artistically speaking, the best I can hope for is to be a Great Appreciator. On the other hand, for appreciators, libraries are great places to hang out.

So I find it fitting that the Philip S. Miller Branch of the Douglas County Public Library System is hosting an art exhibit. The artists are the students (K-12) of the Douglas County School District. Until May 12, we'll be exhibiting about 500 pieces, and some of them are absolutely stunning.

At the opening reception on May 1, I was delighted to see literally hundreds of people roaming through past display boards and down library aisles. I saw primary students standing proudly next to their works, and parents taking snapshots. I heard people getting into friendly arguments about artistic techniques -- then running out to the reference desk to look up the facts.

I believe the basic mission of any public library is books. Literacy is the essential skill for survival in what has been dubbed the Information Age.

But eventually books lead to everything else. Libraries, if they are to survive and flourish, must serve as gateways to the entire universe of human culture.

Depending upon the community, sometimes libraries must do more than just buy books, magazines, and videos about art. Sometimes, they must also serve as community showcases, linking up with other community organizations to highlight the burgeoning ability of their citizens.

Judging from what I have seen in the School District art show, Douglas County has some remarkably talented young people. It wouldn't surprise me if there are even some talented grownups around.

In the months to come, the library will be looking for more ways to lure talented Douglas County residents into the open. If you've got an idea for something exciting -- a writer's contest, a senior citizen's craft display -- then we've got an invitation. Go to your nearest library branch and tell us about it.

You'll find us to be an appreciative audience.

Wednesday, May 2, 1990

May 2, 1990 - Trash

Until she met me, Zanne, my wife, maintains that she was a person of culture. She read Kafka and Tolstoy -- in the original Russian. She admired the musical works of Shoenberg. She was a keen devotee of the paintings of Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the other Impressionists.

It's not that my wife thinks I'm a mental midget. (I think.) She knows that I was a philosophy major in college. With her own eyes, she's seen me read a decent number of fairly big books.

But I believe that as we grow older, we cultivate new tastes. As for me, I have learned an appreciation for, well, trash.

Don't get me wrong. When librarians say "trash," we're not sitting in judgment. We're not condemning whole branches of writing as somehow substandard.

"Trash" is our shorthand and even affectionate phrase for a whole body of very popular literature. I'm talking about romances, either the squeaky clean variety, or the ones with a little oomph. I'm talking about gory mystery stories. I'm talking about Stephen King, and Sweet Valley High paperbacks, and "True Confessions." I'm talking about grocery store tabloids. I'm talking about the books most librarians usually read themselves. I'm talking about the reading materials that make money.
The turning point for Zanne was when I got her to read some of my comic books. I handed her a copy of a wickedly funny comic called "Howard the Duck." To my wife's amazement, she loved it. She read my whole HTD collection -- and I have the #whole# collection -- in one stretch.

Shortly afterward, I got her started on mysteries -- Raymond Chandler. Since then, there's been no stopping her.

But I'm not done corrupting her yet.

Last week, I bought a copy of a tabloid called "The Sun" from a gas station. The headline caught my eye: "Cheating Husband's Head Explodes." Mainly, I admit, I bought it to see if there were any pictures. But there was also an article no responsible American citizen could or should ignore: "UFO Aliens Forced Nixon to Resign," which in my judgment, explains a lot.

For just seventy-five cents, I got a lot of entertainment. And my wife read it too, although not where I could see her.

So okay, maybe I have lowered my wife's literary standards. But I'm not going to apologize. I think reading ought to be fun. For some people, it's Russian literature. For others, it's philosophy. And sometimes, even for the same people, it just might be "The Sun."

So stop by your local library branch and tell us what flavor of trash #you# enjoy. And don't be embarrassed. How will we react? Get ready for a surprise: We'll buy it. After all, it's #your# library. And besides, it could be we like it too.