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, July 25, 1990

July 25, 1990 - The decline of correspondence

Last night my wife and I got a rare and precious gift -- a letter from a friend.

The friend, Gary, is living for the summer in a ramshackle cabin near Middlebury, Vermont. He dwelt in loving detail on the kitchen, the windows, the knobby pines, the sewings of his wife. I sat out on my porch and gloated over every word.

"Isn't it wonderful?" my wife sang from inside.

"I hate it!" I shouted. "I'm already on the last page!"

So I read it again.

Most of the year, my friend is an English teacher at a small college in Illinois. Probably he can be forgiven for his unabashed revelry in the English language.

But his letter reminded me of something he had said years ago. At that time, he was busy transcribing and indexing a trunk-full of correspondence from his wife's great-grandmother, a woman named Mollie. Mollie had lead a fascinating life, tightly bound with the development of Mormonism. A turning point had been the death of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Mollie's people broke away from Brigham Young to follow Joseph Smith, Jr. Her letters documented this deep rift in what was then a young religion, as well as Mollie's often eloquent observations of the people and events of her time.

"Did you ever stop to wonder," Gary asked me, "how historians will reconstruct the people's lives of our time? #There are no letters#."

The decline of correspondence sounds trivial, but isn't. Even a generation ago, people took the time to write each other. Letters were often the only way they had to bridge the gap of distance and time. Today we might send cards when the calendar dictates -- but those are Hallmark sentiments, not ours.

Of course, distance doesn't mean what it used to. I can fly the thousand miles back to my hometown in a couple of hours. Or I can do what so many people do in America -- phone home. I may not get anyone the first ring. But one of my sisters has call-forwarding, and the other has a phone-answering machine.

But suppose some night I talk with one of my sisters on the phone, and I suddenly remember a story she has never heard before, a story my grandmother told me. Maybe my sister will remember enough of it to pass on. More likely, this little chapter of family history will disappear, as irretrievable as the wind.

Right now (unless the police show an interest in you) you can't replay a phone conversation. By contrast, letters, like books, are infinitely repeatable experiences. You can rush through them once, savor them the second time, read between the lines the third time, catch the subtle joke the fourth time, and so on, ad infinitum. You can pass them on to your descendants.

I treasure my friend's letter because it represents an island of literacy in a sea of transient conversation. And I will keep it.

So the next time you feel the urge to communicate, why not reach out ... and #write# someone?

Who knows? One day it just might wind up in a library.

Wednesday, July 18, 1990

July 18, 1990 - The People's University

I was the first person on either side of my family ever to be graduated from college. And when I put myself through a Master's program, I think both my parents were prouder than they could say.

But my grandfather, my mother's father, was the only one in my family who correctly reckoned the worth of my sheepskins.

"I have no respect for credentials at all," he said. "Did you learn anything?"

At the time, I wasn't sure, and I said so. I hadn't #tested# any of it.

Now I think I have learned some things. And the best of what I learned, I learned from my grandfather.

He was a good teacher. From the beginning of our relationship, he paid me the greatest compliment any grownup can pay a child. He asked what I thought about things, and he listened to my answers. He encouraged me to hold even outrageous opinions. There was only one ground rule. I couldn't just make things up. I had to have at least looked at the evidence. And to make sure that I could do that, my grandfather took the crucial, fundamental step of taking me to the library.

My grandfather believed that the public library had a special role in our society. He called it the People's University.

It's true. The doors of the public library are open to anyone. We don't charge tuition. If you show proper reverence (meaning you bring things back on time and in good shape) you don't have to spend much on books. You can work your schooling around your own schedule. There are no exams -- other than the ones you choose to give yourself. You go at your own pace, studying only the subjects that matter to you. And for teachers, you can take your pick of the finest minds who ever lived.

I do not understand, I have never understood, our society's exaltation of sports figures. When I was an undergraduate, I ran across a fair number of people on sports scholarships. As near as I could figure, their primary concern was their individual physical performance at the next big game. Some of them -- I know from direct experience -- were even graduated without knowing how to read. And the university claimed to be proud of them.

I reserve my admiration for the man who works long hours at a bad job to support a family, then sets aside an hour a week at the library, where he tackles the subjects that will help him find a better job. I have tremendous respect for the grown woman who struggles to learn to read so that SHE can read to her young child. And I am more excited about a child eager to have and use a library card than I will ever be over an overpaid human showhorse who can run faster or jump higher than some other overpaid human showhorse.

There is something pathetically wrong about a culture where more men know the rules to football than can read above the fourth grade level.

It's taken me a long while to finally understand that education is not something done to you; it's something you do for yourself. It won't happen sitting in front of a television. Sometimes, it doesn't even happen at an expensive college. But it happens every day at the People's University -- the public library.

Wednesday, July 11, 1990

July 11, 1990 - Comic Books

When I was in fifth grade my parents got me a pair of black, horn-rimmed spectacles.

Some kids fretted about the names other kids came up with -- "Four Eyes" being the kindest -- but that never bothered me. From the very beginning I truly liked having glasses. Partly, it was because I discovered that I'd been living in a sort of French impressionist world and hadn't even known it. I used to think trees were made up of intriguing swashes of color. Turned out they had sharply-etched leaves, definite branches and bark. The world was abruptly crisp and clean-edged. It was exciting.

But that's not the real reason. Even when I first learned that I MIGHT need corrective lenses, I was almost smug about it. Why? Because I have always identified with Clark Kent.

The first "real" book I read was #Danny and the Dinosaur#. And I can still rattle off the whole of Dr. Seuss's #Green Eggs and Ham# from childhood memory. But I LEARNED to read from comic books.

A lot of parents think comics books are intellectual fluff. But nothing could be further from the truth. Comics are wonderful bridges to literacy. A child can enjoy the pictures right from the beginning. But what really hooks the interest and imagination is the plot. To follow the plot a child needs to develop a vocabulary. At the age of 6 I could recognize and spell "invulnerable." Could you?

I cut my teeth on DC Comics, featuring Superman (50 years old last year), Batman, Green Lantern, the Flash, and many, many others. The stories often hinged on some "gimmick" -- a scientific fact or bit of logical deduction. I learned not only to imagine the improbable, but also to look beneath the surface of the story, to analyze and detect. Comic books taught me both to dream and to reason.

As I got a little older, I switched over to Marvel Comics. There I found Spiderman, the world's first neurotic superhero. I discovered Thor, the Thunder God, who sparked in me an abiding interest in Norse mythology and literature. The world of comic books gradually acquired all the rich complexity of the real world, a morass of plot and subplot, the likely and the legendary all intertwined.

In retrospect, I think superhero comic books were some of the best teachers I ever had. (Of course now that I'm an adult I read more sophisticated fare, like the comic book "Flaming Carrot.")

Parents, if your son or daughter is drawn to these universes of inspiration and heroism, please be kind. In fact, you should probably increase his or her allowance (and kids, you can tell your mom or dad that a college-educated person said so). Your child is not only learning to read, but learning to emulate greatness of power and spirit, tempered always with compassion and integrity.

To the world I may be a mild-mannered librarian, but in my imagination I have learned to leap tall buildings at a single bound. I thank comic books.

Wednesday, July 4, 1990

July 4, 1990 - Overdues

Many years ago, the public library in the small Illinois town of Towanda (motto: "I love to wanda on the plain") had a simple but effective way of getting its overdue books back.

Every Monday, it posted in its big storefront window the names of all the people who hadn't brought their books back on time. It also listed which books were late.

This Window of Shame sat right next to the only other business in Towanda, the Post Office. In small towns, people go to the Post Office pretty regularly. And generally speaking, they are more than happy to stop and look at a public list of their neighbors' sins.

Peer pressure can be a powerful thing in a small town. If Joey forgot to bring back a Tom Swift book, he'd hear about it not only from the librarian, but from at least twelve of his neighbors. Every day. And at least two of them would want to know why he was reading that trash anyway.

One thing about Towanda, though, anything even remotely like a "dirty book" always came back early. The local pastor used to stop by that window too. Nobody wanted to wind up the object lesson of a sermon.

The next step up from the Towanda approach is to telephone people when a book is late. It works fine so long as a library doesn't check out all that many books, or there aren't that many people.

For a long time now, the Douglas County Public Library System has used the phone method. But these days you might say we're overdue for a change.

Last year, our library checked out over 300,000 items -- closing in on a third of a million. We had almost 70,000 individual library visits.

The telephone call approach just doesn't cut it anymore.

Starting this week, we're going to let our computer do some of the dirty work for us. Every day, relentlessly, it will churn out reminders that some of our books didn't make it back when they were supposed to.
It will work like this. One week after the book was due, we'll crank out a gentle reminder. You'll get it in the mail a few days later. If you fail to respond by the next week, we'll generate another notice. Now the book is two weeks overdue, and you're looking at a little bit of a fine. If you still don't bring it back, when the book is three weeks overdue our computer will print a bill. Then you've got a choice: pay us the full value of the book, or shuffle in, red-faced, return the book, and pay the fine. Believe me, the fine is a fraction of the cost of most library materials.

The point, if it isn't obvious by now, is to recover the materials -- not to humiliate anybody. You see, the books that don't come back are usually the ones most in demand. It's cheaper and usually faster for us to mail a couple of notices than to replace the item.

So if you should happen to get one of our new overdue notices, remember -- it could be worse.

You could live in Towanda.