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.

Saturday, June 30, 1990

June 30, 1990 - Library advertising

Last night I had the strangest dreams.

First, I was in a dusty Western bar, watching a poker game. One big, grizzled cowpoke laid a spread of cards on the table before him and grinned. "Three queens," he said.

Then the man to his left, a skinny dude with no chin and an enormous Adam's apple, set his cards face down. "Fold," he said, then spit.

The next man, dressed all in black, peered up from beneath the worn leather brim of his hat. His eyes were ice-gray - cold and dangerous. His gaze swept around the table. In a gravely voice, he sneered, "Full house." After tossing his upturned cards to the table, his calloused hand reached out toward the mound of coins.

Just then a high, thin voice rang out. "Not so fast, mister." A small hand dropped over the scarred paw of the man in black, freezing it.

Then, just like in one of those spaghetti westerns, the camera of my dream turned slowly, to a rising tide of hoofclops and guitar music. And there, splashed in a dazzle of spotlight and white-fringed cloth, sat a 6 year old in a 10 gallon hat and full good guy cowboy regalia.

With infinite, almost impertinent confidence, the boy lifted his wrist and snapped down ... a Douglas County Public Library System card.

Everyone around the table moaned.

"With a Douglas County Public Library card," piped the boy, "you've always got an ace in the hole." Then, as the others lowered their eyes and backed away, the lad lassoed the money.

Then I had another dream.

The scene was -- the Philip S. Miller Branch library. But mingled with stately rows of angled bookstacks, there were benches and mirrors, and hundreds of people milling around in leotards and sweatpants.

My dream did a close-up on a beefy young man panting on the edge of a library table.

"I started out lifting some of the lighter books - V. C. Andrews, Stephen King, and like that. But now ..." I noticed that in each hand he held several volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "Now," he said proudly, "I can bench press half the essential knowledge of mankind."

I saw an energetic young mother, aerobicizing in the aisles. "Mentally as well as physically," she huffed, "today's women go for the burn."

And suddenly, in my dream, the library had a drivethrough lane. "Your order?" a voice asked brightly. "Two bestsellers, a Newsweek magazine, and a book about current car prices." "Please pull forward to window 2," said the bright voice. "And have your library card ready. Have a nice day!"

Abruptly, I woke up, sat up, and shook my head. What was my unconscious trying to tell me?

At first, all I could think was that whenever you dream about your job, you should get to put it on your timecard.

But then it came to me. What's the real reason that more people talk about movies, health clubs, and fast food restaurants, than talk about public libraries?

Simple. Advertising.

Here we are, with a veritable cornucopia of culture, with more to offer (in my unbiased opinion) than any other institution in our society. But people persist in thinking of libraries as nice quiet places where people doze whilst reading Chaucer.

It's time for a change. Libraries need a brand new image.

Or am I dreaming?

Saturday, June 23, 1990

June 23, 1990 - Weeding revisited

Before my wife and I moved to Colorado I used to say we had a ton of "stuff" - our belongings. I was wrong. When the movers weighed everything, I discovered we had three tons of stuff. One ton - 2,000 pounds - was just books.

These days I try not to buy so many. If I want to read something, I get it from the library. Otherwise, I know that sooner or later I will once again have to whittle down my possessions to fit the available space. I hate that. I get enough of it at work.

Deciding which books not to keep is the most painful task a librarian faces. You don't get into this business unless you love books. And like everyone else, we have the unconscious presumption that a once a book makes it to library shelves, it will be there forever. The Happy Hunting Ground of the Printed Word.

But libraries not only collect books. They have to get rid of them too.

We call this process "weeding," and we do it for the same reason a gardener weeds. We need to make room for fresh, healthy growth. Just because a book makes it to the library shelves, doesn't mean it stops getting old. Over time, and despite our best efforts, the paper yellows and turns brittle. The binding begins to deteriorate. Dust collects. The lettering on the spine starts to fade. Old books eat up shelf space. After a while, they actually scare people away from the new books.

Particularly in the non-fiction areas, we can't afford to keep books more than ten years. Even five years is pushing it. Old books, particularly technical books, have bad information in them.

So every so often, librarians have to (gulp) throw books away.

How do we decide what goes? Since this is an election year, let's say the people decide. Every time someone checks out a book, it counts as one vote. Popular books are like popular candidates. They get a lot of votes. So whenever we weed, we re-elect them to our shelves.

But sometimes we find that a book hasn't been checked out in a long time. And in the public library, a book that hasn't gotten a single vote in ten years gets kicked out of office. It's democracy in action.

Even when the People Have Spoken, that doesn't make it any easier on librarians. Some books - classics, for instance - we may choose to replace with newer copies. In our innermost hearts, we still believe that every book has its reader, and every reader his or her book. It's sad when one of our books goes unloved.

So where do new books go when they've been weeded? That's the good news. Usually they wind up in library book sales. From there they pass to precisely the places that please us most. They find good homes, with people who will love them.

Until, that is, it's time to move.

Wednesday, June 13, 1990

June 13, 1990 - Summer Reading Program

I've been a father now for almost three years. In that time, I've learned a lot about the single most powerful influence on the parental mind: guilt.

On every side, the new parent is met with questions that seem simple enough at first, then get staggeringly complex. Should you use cloth diapers or disposables? Is it better to breastfeed or use bottles? Are playpens a simple lifestyle convenience -- or a sort of kiddie Auschwitz?

In some places I've lived, you almost had to get your children's names on the "right" preschool's waiting list before you got them home from the hospital. Is this academic one-upmanship, or sound educational planning? Then there's the BIG question: if both parents work, is the child going to grow up to be a serial killer?

On either side of these issues, there are hosts of persuasive experts, all citing alarming research. And as a librarian, I have to say that it makes sense to do a little reading before you make up your mind.

But guilt can go too far. A woman told me a story once that sticks with me. She and her mother were chatting when the woman's newborn child woke up and started crying. The new mom, desperate to do the right thing, started rapidly thumbing through one of the new baby Bibles to figure out what to do. The woman's mother, who'd raised six children, said carefully, "Put down the book. Pick up the baby."

I've met parents who march their children into the library the day after school lets out and announce, grimly, "Studies have shown that during the summer, children forget up to 80 percent of what they've learned in the previous year. And their reading skills can deteriorate by as much as a grade level." Then they sign up little Joan or Johnny in the Summer Reading Program in the name, I guess, of a higher grade point average.

What can I say? It's true. Children do forget a lot in the summer. BUT THAT'S THE POINT. THAT'S WHAT SUMMERS ARE FOR. Force a 6 year old to read so as not to lose an academic edge in the first few months of the next grade, and you will get a child who does not like the library.

But now that I've probably awakened all your guilt, let's put it back to sleep. Yes, I, a library expert, strongly recommend that you get your kids signed up for this year's summer reading program. Why?

Because they'll have fun! If kids read for just 12 hours over the summer -- and they can read anything they want, we'll give them fancy certificates, and PRIZES. And if you have children that are too young to read, then you can read to them for just six hours over the summer. They still get prizes.

We'll also have some other fun stuff. We'll have storytellers and skateboarding demonstrations. We'll have photography contests. We'll have air-conditioning.

So what are you waiting for? Take your kids out for an ice cream cone. Then, with great enthusiasm, say, "Hey, I just got a great idea! Let's go to the LIBRARY. I hear they've got some cool things happening this summer."

Sure it's good for them. But they don't have to know.