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, October 31, 1990

October 31, 1990 - Say Yes to Libraries

On November 6, Douglas County voters will determine the future of the Douglas County Public Library System. The very last -- BUT NOT LEAST -- question on the ballot concerns the formation and funding of a Douglas Public Library District.

Before you vote, please consider the following facts about library services in Douglas County:

* Douglas County residents use their libraries. From 1988 to 1989, the use of library materials increased by 37 percent. Nationally, library use inched up by 2.9 percent.

* According to a study conducted by an independent consultant at the end of 1989, the Douglas County Public Library System has half the books, half the space, and half the staff it should have.

* The library is currently funded by the county at 1.1 mills. Last year, that was about $16.41 cents per household. By state law, the county cannot give us more than 1.5 mills. Even if we could be guaranteed a funding increase to the legal limit, 1.5 mills still wouldn't enable us to meet minimum national standards for library service.

* The library, due to increasing costs for library materials and the need to staff public service desks to keep up with the demand, is projecting a deficit of $130,000 in 1992. If the district does not pass, this deficit will require us to reduce hours of service and reduce the number of books we can buy, despite the extraordinary demand for increased service.

* Even compared to other public libraries along the front range, the Douglas County Public Library System is under-funded. Most of the public libraries in the metro area alone receive two to four times as much per capita funding as we do. As a consequence, they have more books and are open more hours. And as a consequence of that, a lot of Douglas County residents go elsewhere for library services. Who can blame them? However, you may not be aware that the Douglas County Public Library has to pay twenty-seven-and- a-half cents for every book one of our patrons checks out from another library. This year, we paid $7,000 to other libraries. Last year, we paid $6,000. If we're going to be spending money on library materials, wouldn't it be nice if they could stay in Douglas County?

* The Library Board of Trustees has adopted an ambitious Long Range Plan. If enough people say YES to the District, we will have the resources to open all major branches seven days a week, double the book budget, purchase a bookmobile to serve rural residents and the homebound, increase children's services, expand and renovate our existing library branches, and open a new, storefront library in the Highlands Ranch area.

* The only way for the Douglas County Public Library System to get the funding it needs is to follow the lead of many other Colorado county libraries and establish a library district. If approved, the district would levy a property tax of 2.75 mills. That's a tax INCREASE of about $25 a year on a $100,000 house, or a little over $2.00 per month. The county would drop the 1.1 mills it currently taxes for libraries. In effect, if you vote for the library district, you're promising to buy one more book a year for the library.

A productive, informed, and literate society depends upon a public library that is vital, vibrant, and highly visible. The library must actively recruit the young, and demonstrate to them the incomparable splendor of the written word.

To fulfill this mission, it must have sufficient financial support. We do not have it now.

It's time to turn to a new page in the history of Douglas County's public libraries. And you, the reader, will write that page.

Please vote on November 6.

Wednesday, October 24, 1990

October 24, 1990 - costs versus value

This will come as a big surprise, I'm sure, but things cost more than they used to. Even in libraries.

The last comic book I bought cost $2.00. It wasn't THAT long ago that they were twelve cents apiece. But even when comic books took up my entire childhood income, I thought it was a reasonable expense. I got hours and hours of pleasure from them. I believed then, and still believe now, that the value -- the WORTH of the comic book to me -- far exceeded the cost.

The October 5, 1990 issue of Publisher's Weekly , the book trade magazine, charts the changing costs of "real" books. For librarians, it's an alarming story.

Let's look at some popular hardback book categories. From 1977 to 1988, the cost for biographies increased by 69%, fiction by 75%, juvenile books by 77%, sports and recreation by 123%, and travel by 42%. The average cumulative retail cost for all categories of hardbacks in 1977 was $19.22. By 1988, that cost had risen to $39 -- a 102% increase in a little over a decade. Just from 1986 to 1988, the average cost for hardbacks climbed about 15%.

If you're a dedicated book-lover, or "bibliophile," you probably buy at least two books a month without quite realizing it. That could vary from about $10 for two new paperbacks, to $40 a month or more for hardbacks. But if you just gotta have a new mystery, romance, or computer book, it's worth it to you. The value is greater than the cost.

Of course, if you're a SMART bibliophile, you have another choice. You can go to the library.

In 1989, Douglas County residents checked out 324,700 items. (Incidentally, that was a jump of over 37% from 1988 -- over twelve times the national increase in library use.) Not all of our materials are hardbacks. We check out a lot of paperbacks, which are often much cheaper. On the other hand, we buy and circulate many items that cost more than books -- for instance, videotapes, audiocassettes, magazine subscriptions, and reference books.

Let's take the average hardback cost ($39) and apply that to each item checked out. By that reckoning, in 1989 Douglas County residents got $12.6 million dollars worth of value from its library system, based solely on items checked out. The library's budget in 1989 was $655,866. In other words, for every tax dollar you paid for libraries, you got $19.31 worth of service. Even if you drop the average cost to $20, you still got ten bucks back for every buck you paid.

And that doesn't include whatever a children's story time is worth to you and your kids. You might try pricing that against a morning in daycare. It doesn't include the many hundreds of reference questions we answered, at least some of which may have saved people thousands of dollars. You might compare that to various purchasing or investment services.

In 1989, the average Douglas County household paid about $16.41 for public library services. If you checked out just one book from us that year, you got your money's worth. If you read a newspaper, looked up a stock price, used a consumer guide of some kind, or, like my wife and daughter, checked out a bare minimum of fifty children's books a month, then you got many times your money back.

As the over 27,000 registered patrons in this county have discovered, libraries are a high-yield investment opportunity.

Wednesday, October 17, 1990

October 17, 1990 - Reference services

Some people believe that cooking with aluminum is a prime cause of Alzheimer's. If that's the case, I must have been using aluminum pots since, well, since I can't remember when.

I have been cursed with a poor memory. The best you can say is that it is erratic. Ask me the secret identity of the original comic book speedster, and I've got it in a Flash. (Jay Garrick.) Ask me who I'm supposed to meet for lunch today, and I haven't a clue.

When you work in a library, you run across a lot of interesting stuff. If you could remember the answers to all the questions that come up in a day, by the end of a week you'd be a genius. The trouble is, at least my trouble is, I can't even remember the questions.

So I've come to depend upon three basic reference tools. The first one you've probably seen in grocery stores all over the country. It's called "The World Almanac and Book of Facts." No library is without one, and no home should be. A current World Almanac alone can answer close to 50 percent of the questions that come up in a day.

The second basic reference source is an encyclopedia. I think the best one for a family is still the "World Book" -- it's easy to use, written in language children can understand, and impeccably researched. Grolier puts out an excellent encyclopedia as well. Encyclopedias provide the more in-depth information you sometimes need.

A third reference tool -- and I could not live without it -- is a dictionary. I like "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language." I'm the only person I know who will sit and read a dictionary for pleasure. But language defines us, gives us tools to invent or discover meaning, and English is the richest language in the world. The least we can do is learn to correctly spell and savor the words that inform our lives.

Together, an almanac, dictionary and encyclopedia will answer close to 95% of your questions about the world. Every literate household owes it to itself to invest in a home reference center.

But what about the other 5 percent?

The Douglas County Public Library System has over 100,000 volumes. Roughly 5,000 of them are reference books. Some of them -- like the "1990 New Car Cost Guide" by the Automobile Invoice Service, the "N.A.D.A. Official Used Car Guide," and various Consumer Report publications -- provide information that can save you hundreds of dollars.

Others, like periodical indexes, association directories, or college handbooks, can help you track down other kinds of current facts.

The truth is, there are reference sources for nearly anything. Some are esoteric. Many are prohibitively expensive for families. But that's precisely the point of the public library. We pool our money to buy what none of us can afford by ourselves.

In the technologically complex 'nineties, information may be the most important commodity of our culture.

So the next time you get to wondering about something -- a purchase, a career change, an adventure mental or physical -- you might want to give the library a call. (That's right, we'll even answer questions over the phone!)

It's worth remembering.

Wednesday, October 10, 1990

October 10, 1990 - Children's programming/services

Recently I took a hard look at my life. While I was at it, I examined the lives of most of the adults I know. And I came to a startling conclusion.

We just don't build a year like we used to.

The older we get, the more we have to get done in less time. We hurry. And time is just like anything else. If you don't pay close attention to what you're making, it just doesn't last as long. The reason time goes so fast for adults is simple -- inferior craftsmanship.

By contrast, children put some quality effort into their minutes. I distinctly remember when I turned five. Subjectively, it took almost three agonizing years to get from Thanksgiving to Christmas, nine months of it on Christmas Eve alone.

On the other hand, Christmas morning lasted a good six weeks.

This difference between the way adults and children see the world is just one of the things that makes libraries so interesting. Adults may do a little browsing, but basically they're in and out. They want quick information or a little well-earned distraction, all with a minimum of fuss.

But for kids, because their moments are so big, because they'll take the time to listen, libraries are a different story altogether. And speaking of stories, storytelling for children just happens to be one of the things we do best.

It seems simple enough. A librarian sits or stands in front of a group of youngsters, reads aloud, and shows some pictures from a book. Most story times last about half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes with a little craft activity thrown in.

But in what most adults would call a brief span of time, miracles occur. I've seen it. Children get excited about language. Through stories, they learn how people behave, and why. Perhaps most important, they learn that learning itself can be enormously engaging. And they get in the habit of hanging around books.

Take your children to McDonald's, and they learn to like hamburgers. Take your children to the library, and they learn to like books.

Of course, children aren't the only people who benefit from story times. New moms, or moms new to the area, are big winners too. For one thing, library story times are one of the few free activities left. Moms meet other moms. Their kids meet other kids. Everybody learns something, including the librarians. (Some of the best, clearest writing in the world is in children's non-fiction.)

So the deceptively simple practice of library story times has two big and complex results. Adults get connected to their community. Kids kick off a whole lifetime of reading predicated on enthusiasm.

If you've never taken your children to one of our story times, maybe you should make the time to look into it. If not now, when?

Here's our story time schedule:

Philip S. Miller Library (Castle Rock): Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. The Tuesday sessions are designed for 2-5 year olds. The Thursday sessions for 4-5 year olds.

Parker Library: Tuesday at 10 and 11 a.m. (for one-and-a-half to three year olds), and Thursday at 10 and 11 a.m. for 3 to 5 year olds.

Oakes Mill story times are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m.

The Louviers Library has story times at 2:30 every Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday, October 3, 1990

October 3, 1990 - Comparisons to other libraries

Two weeks ago I talked about some of the problems faced by the Douglas County Public Library System. Based on national standards, we have half the space, half the materials, and half the staff we ought to have.

But how do we compare to other Colorado libraries?

Every year, the Jefferson County Public Library produces a chart listing selected statistics of 20 Colorado Public Libraries with operating budgets greater than $400,000. DCPLS (that's us) doesn't stack up very well.

There are a lot of ways to compare libraries, the most obvious being the size of the populations they serve. Other key facts about libraries are how many books they've got, how much per capita support they receive, and how many hours they're open.

Of the twenty libraries, five of them serve about as many people as Douglas County (around 60,000), or fewer. Those libraries are Englewood, Littleton (Bemis), Longmont, Loveland, and Pitkin County.

Englewood has half our population -- but more books (108,000 to our 100,000), and over twice the per capita support ($25.76 per person, versus $10.73 per person in Douglas County). Englewood's library is open 65 hours a week. We're open 52.

Littleton also has about half our population. It too has more books (106,000) and a per capita support that is over twice ours ($25.01). It is open 64 hours per week.

Longmont serves about 10,000 more people than we do, but has over 50,000 more books, and a higher per capita support ($12.74). It is open 66 hours a week.

Loveland serves fewer people (about 37,000), has slightly fewer books (81,000), but almost twice our per capita support ($19.53). It is open 62 hours each week.

Pitkin County serves about a fifth as many people as Douglas County, has half as many books, and a per capita support almost four times ours ($38.27). It offers 66 hours of library service each week.

Our near neighbors -- Arapahoe County and El Paso county -- have libraries that serve 133,977 and 373,062 people respectively. The Arapahoe Library District has 289,526 books, a per capita support of $32.36, and is open 68 hours each week. Pikes Peak Library District in the Springs has 711,547 books, has a per capita support of $22.63, and is open 64 hours a week.

The Douglas County Public Library System currently receives about 1.1 mills of tax money. That has bought us a system that is only half as good as it should be, and considerably worse than most of the libraries around us. Under state law, a county library cannot levy more than 1.5 mills. Library districts -- like Arapahoe County and Pikes Peak -- can levy up to 4 mills, with voter approval.

I think the problem is clear. But as I asked two weeks ago, what's the solution?

Here's the recommendation of the consultants hired by the county for its master facilities plan: "The 1.5 mills legal limit regarding funding will #not#, in the judgment of the library consultants, produce the revenue needed to ensure Douglas County the level and quality of public library service the residents of the county will expect. Additional sources of revenue will be required. .... A library district offers the very #best# opportunity for the level of funding that the Douglas County Library System will need as it advances through the 1990s and into the next century."