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, November 28, 1990

November 28, 1990 - Bad language

Lately my three year old daughter, Maddy, has demonstrated the most remarkable ability to mimic other people's speech. Who really remembers learning to talk? So I find it fascinating to listen to her.

But suddenly she seems to know some, uh, bad words. Probably from the TV. Possibly her mother.

At any rate, I've been wondering. What makes a bad word bad? We can list the words - at least I can. But to many people it isn't so clear what's wrong with them (the words, I mean, not the people). So I've been doing a little reading about the subject. (I recommend "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, and "The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way," by Bill Bryson.)

Most bad words are short, consisting of one syllable and often only four letters. They tend to refer to the most basic human activities - things everyone does (or wants to do) but some find offensive to do (or discuss) in public. For some reason, there are no bad words for two of my favorite and equally basic functions, sleeping and eating. That's strange, since sleeping in public is almost always rude and can be very offensive. My father's snoring, for instance, was so loud it interfered with our television reception. As for eating, the way Maddy treats certain foods is a topic fit only for the forewarned, unfastidious or extremely strong of stomach.

But linguistically speaking, most of our bad words are perfectly acceptable and once quite common Anglo-Saxon terms. The objections of polite society are not based so much upon the meaning of the words as on their time and place of origin.

In 1066, the Normans (a French tribe) seized the English throne. This had many effects on English history, but particularly on the language.

People have the unappetizing but universal tendency to try to butter up their betters. Because the court spoke French, a Romance or Latin-based language, good old Anglo-Saxon came to be seen as "rough," associated with the defeated, the low-lifes, the peasantry. So some Englishmen, in an attempt to curry favor, adopted more "cultured" (meaning French) phrasing.

The fundamental characteristic of Romance languages is that if one syllable is good, two are better. Thus the terse Anglo-Saxon word for voiding the bowels, for example, became the more socially correct "defecation" - a clear case of brown-nosing.

It's hard to explain why people who didn't want to talk about something used words that took more time to get through, which meant that they had to talk about it longer. The answer, of course, is that time and delicate sensibilities were not really the issues. Vocabulary was a political choice and a socioeconomic claim.

In much the same way as the motto or slogan of a losing football team becomes an embarrassment to its home town, whole chunks of the Anglo-Saxon oral heritage were discredited, abandoned, and suppressed by the English-speaking people. But since short words tend to be more forceful than long words, the linguistic remnants we call "bad language" persist in our tongue.

In short, bad language, or "sub-standard" speech, is often little more than the practice of a cultural minority. Since children, too, are minorities, I have decided to be understanding about my daughter's linguistic experiments.

But I'm also going to watch what I say.

Wednesday, November 21, 1990

November 21, 1990 - Fifteen minutes a day

According to a study done in 1986 by the U.S. Department of Education, the average American mother spends less than half an hour a day talking or reading with her children. Fathers spend less than fifteen minutes.

According to more recent studies, the greatest single factor in a child's success in school is how much schooling the mother got. Why do mothers have more influence? What's the difference?

Fifteen minutes a day.

People with fancy degrees have spent a lot of time and money proving what should be obvious to everybody. If parents talk and read to their children, two things happen: children get the idea that they are important, and they get curious about the world.

Both of these are rare. Many children grow up thinking they are UNimportant. They learn early that it doesn't make any difference what they think or say or feel. Usually, the lesson starts with their parents. But too many of our basic institutions -- schools, churches, businesses, even libraries -- just pound it home. Kids are annoyances. They don't behave. They don't have any money. They don't have any respect. (Of course, they don't GET any, either.)

As for curiosity, well, it killed the cat, right? "Don't ask questions. Sit still. I don't know. Just keep quiet." In countless ways, every day, older people teach the younger ones not to wonder, not to challenge, not to dare.

In a book called "The National PTA Talks to Parents: How to Get the Best Education for Your Child," author Melitta J. Cutright gives plenty of good advice. It's based on this: "The difference between a good school and a great school is the parents."

Concerned about your child's education? Good. Start by giving YOURSELF a report card. Are you involved in your child's education? Do you have books and magazines at home? Do you set a good example? Do you talk to your children about their schooling? Do you call teachers early if you think there is a problem with how well your child is learning? Do you accept responsibility for teaching your children basic discipline and respect for others -- or do you think teachers have to do your job too?

After you grade your own performance, fill out a report card for your children's teachers. Do they take the time to catch your children doing something right? Do the teachers get to know what your children need, want, and what they're good at? Do the teachers ever call you up or somehow make an effort to talk to you? Do they expect your children to do well? Do they welcome your involvement in your child's education?

After you've done your homework, have some fun. Gather your children and take them somewhere you may have never been together. Go to the library. Show your kids how much sheer entertainment there can be in reading, listening to stories, flipping through magazines, listening to books on cassette.

Fifteen minutes a day. Think about it.

Wednesday, November 14, 1990

November 14, 1990 - Dial-in services

Back when I was in library school, there was a lot of talk about the Paperless Society. Paper (invented by the Chinese, circa 105 A.D.) was proclaimed by several big-time library automation experts to be obsolete. The media of the near-future would be entirely electronic. People would read screens, not books.

It is true that computers have had a significant impact on our society.

But the book is very much alive. In fact, since the computer has come along, more books are being produced than ever. Small press publishers once found the costs of conventional publishing prohibitive. Now, they crank out their works by way of microcomputers and inexpensive printers.

Why? Because books are beautiful. Books can be read under your bed covers by flashlight. Books can be carried into the bathroom. (Try reading a computer screen in the bathtub. Well no, don't.) Books can be lovingly passed from one generation to another.

Books are here to stay.

Still, the computer can be a powerful servant of libraries. Right now, the Douglas Public Library District's automated system does most of our filing for us. There was a time when people had to type, sort, and sequence hundreds of cards daily. Now, librarians copy information from one computer to another, hit a couple of keys, and everything files itself.

At the same time, computers give patrons and librarians more information than a card catalog ever did. For example, a card catalog might tell you whether or not a library owns a book, but it won't tell you if there's a copy on the shelf. A computer catalog will.

Librarians can also use computers to put our entire catalogs on your desk. All you need is a personal computer, a modem, and the appropriate software.

Suppose you want to sit at your home computer and dangle a bright, electronic hook in our stream of books, videotapes, audiotapes, and magazine titles. You can do it, right now, right here in Douglas County. You can go to the library without ever leaving your home.

As I mentioned last week, the Douglas Public Library District has been working on creating computerized listings of civic organizations, social service agencies, and other county associations. These listings will also be available as a local "dial-up" service.

A public library must focus on its community. After all, one of the library's jobs is to make it easier to locate information resources. Some of those resources are books. Many of them, however, are your neighbors. The trick is finding them.

We think our new dial-in services can help.

If you'd be interested in trying them out, please call any of our branches and leave your name and address. I'm putting together a packet of information that will tell you how to take best advantage of the system. I should have the packets done by about Thanksgiving -- then I'll mail them to anybody who's interested.

Computers can be useful and fun. But let's not forget the ultimate aim here: literacy. Our goal is to have every Douglas County household comprehend the incomparable value of the written word.

The book still matters.

Wednesday, November 7, 1990

November 7, 1990 - Writing contest

It's madness.

The pay - almost always - is terrible. The hours are spectacularly erratic. It's hard and lonely work. To get to the top exacts a terrible price, and even success frequently results in personal tragedy.

Clearly, creative writing is obsessive behavior at its worst.

What's the point to giving, as Oscar Wilde did, a whole day to the removal, then restoration, of a comma? Why huddle in the proverbial hovel, scratching out love poems and short stories? If you want status, be a doctor or lawyer. If you want to make money, sell cars.

But we librarians understand writers. We can spot them even as children. They carry notebooks. Their eyes blaze as they walk through our bookstacks, as if they strolled among gods.

Budding writers know that if they can just manage to write well enough, their words too can be preserved, touching and shaping thousands of minds to come. For some, that's the grand payoff: Immortality.

Of course, writing is appealing for other reasons as well. There is a great and satisfying craft to casting the well-rounded sentence, in making a character come alive, in startling the reader with an utterly unexpected observation or conclusion.

Libraries have many responsibilities, but among our most important are the recognition of local writers who have "made it," and the encouragement of new writers.

I am very much on the lookout for local authors. If you know of anyone who has published a book, or you've published one yourself, come talk to me about it. I'll buy it!

But how to stimulate and develop new local authors? Here's one way: I am pleased to announce the "1990 Budding Author's Contest."

The Friends of Douglas County Libraries will be offering cash prizes for original works of poetry and short fiction. Submissions will be due at any Douglas County Public Library System branch no later than 4:00 p.m. on November 24, 1990.

We're particularly interested in getting children involved in creative writing. All the schools in the Douglas County School District have received a copy of the official rules for the contest.

Adults are also invited to submit their works. Free copies of the rules are available at your local branch library.

Writers know that writing is hard work. But we hope too that they know they'll always have a home at their local library. After all, without them, where would WE be?


I'd like to close this week's column with a farewell. Stephen Buffy, our Reference Librarian, will be leaving us this week to take a position as a reference librarian for the Sonoma County libraries in Santa Rosa, California.

Stephen made significant progress in improving the quality of our reference collection. He has worked particularly hard on our business reference materials.

Stephen's other project has been the development, with Beryl Jacobsen of the C.S.U. Extension Office, and the Information Systems staff of Douglas County, of a Community Information Referral database. If you have a microcomputer and modem, you will be able to tap into this database from home. Not incidentally, you'll also be able to "dial in" to the entire catalog of library holdings. But I'll have more to say about that next week.

All the staff at the Douglas County Public Library System will miss Stephen. We wish him the best of luck at his new position!