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, December 25, 1991

December 25, 1991 - New offices

I'm moving my office and I'm not happy about it. Well, no, I'm happy about it, but it worries me a little.

But let me start at the beginning. Social Services, our former tenant at the Philip S. Miller Library, has moved to new quarters (the Moore Building on the corner of Wilcox and Plum Creek Parkway). That freed up a lot of square feet to rededicate to the library -- space we desperately need.

One corner of it, we'll use as offices. I've got four people and a noisy computer system crammed into two small meeting rooms now, and we need to stretch out.

Most of the space will go to the expansion of the library branch itself. It will be several months, however, before we figure out which walls to knock down and how to best rearrange our stacks. I'd also like to add some study and meeting rooms.

But I get a great new corner office right away. My new office will be in the southwest corner of the building. It has three big windows. I can see Pike's Peak, Dawson's Butte, and Devil's Head. And that's not all: the northbound train runs about 50 feet west of where I plan to put my desk. In an age when most of us have to work in places that don't even have windows, all this is wonderful, and okay, I'm excited about it.

So what's the problem? I'm not sure people will know where I am any more. One of the things I most enjoy about my job now is that a lot of patrons feel free to walk in and chat with me. Sometimes they have compliments, sometimes criticism, sometimes just interesting stories. But they all genuinely care about how well the library is doing. I like talking to them.

A few months ago, I sat through a "conflict resolution" presentation, where the speaker talked at some length about how bosses can get their staff members to drop in and talk about work-related problems. When she asked for questions, I wondered simply, "Is there some way to get them to stop?"

I don't know as it ever occurred to the people on my staff that they might want to keep library problems to themselves.

But I'm kidding. I like seeing THEM too. And I'm very interested in those problems.

No matter how good a boss is, it can be hard to get direct knowledge of what goes on at the front desk. That information just comes from two sources: the public and the staff.

If the people we serve and the people who provide the service don't stop in to tell me what's really going on in the world, then eventually, despite our surveys, my wandering around the county, and my too-brief stints at the front lines of library service, I'm probably not going to know, or at least know as much.

So here's what I'm going to do:

(1) Tell everybody that I've moved to a new office. Consider yourself told.

(2) Invite everybody to come back and see me: and I mean you, the reader (and your family, and your friends), and you, the staff of the Douglas Public Library District (and your family, and your friends). We can talk about what we ought to do with the rest of the space, and who knows, maybe a train will go by!

(3) Tell you how to find my office. In brief: head straight down (south) through the middle of the library. Turn right at the reference desk until you see the exit sign (to your left). Step through the open door, then jog right through another door. It's open, too. I'm in the second office to your left, smack in the corner of the building.

(4) Start scheduling myself out at the circulation and reference desks, not only at the Philip S. Miller Library, but also the other branches. Maybe I could schedule some computer catalog training sessions for the public ...

After all, this, the first full year of the Douglas Public Library District, is just about over. Maybe now I'll actually have some time to handle some books again, and talk to people about what they really need from a library. If I remember right, that was why I got into the library business in the first place.

In the meantime, come see me!

Wednesday, December 18, 1991

December 18, 1991 - Food for Fines

We're closing in on the winter solstice. That may not mean much to you, but here at the LaRue household, this is a major astronomical event.

After the winter solstice (December 21), days start getting longer and better. So does my wife's general mood. And frankly, the sooner the sun rises, and the better my wife feels, the happier I am too. I also get out of bed earlier, or at least I'm more inclined to. This is just one of the many reasons we do not live in Alaska.

The winter season, of course, is known for other things. In both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, winter is a time of giving, forgiving, and remembrance.

In keeping with these seasonal sentiments, I'd like to suggest two stocking stuffers.

1) GET YOUR CHILD A LIBRARY CARD. There are many things you can give your child, but a library card is the gift that keeps on giving. From that first proud moment that your children print their names, they can know the thrill of an INTELLECTUAL credit transaction: the borrowing of knowledge, with the understanding that the physical item itself must be returned to its source. Trust me -- getting your child a library card is the soundest and cheapest investment in your child's future that you'll ever make.

2) GIVE FOOD FOR FINES. Let's be frank. Sometimes, when you check out a book, you don't get it back on precisely the day you were supposed to. Don't fret: You are not alone.

The Douglas Public Library District has some unusually understanding policies. If you bring your books back within a week of the due date, we don't charge you anything at all.

If you don't return a book until a week AFTER it was due, we charge you a whopping nickel a day: just thirty-five cents. The most we charge for most books is just $3.00. You see, we WANT you to read.

Nonetheless, despite our shockingly generous natures, it seems that on occasion people are reluctant to return their books, especially when they fear exorbitant fines.

So from now through the end of the year, any Douglas Public Library District branch will accept a single can of food for full payment of library fines. (Although you can certainly give us MORE than one can of food, and you don't HAVE to have any fines, either.)

In other words, we're offering you the opportunity to turn the sins of your past to the blessings of someone else's future.

Why are we doing this? There are two main reasons.

For one thing, we want to keep all of our books moving. Once a year, we run a list of all of our books that haven't circulated within 12 months. Sometimes, we buy books that nobody checks out. In that case, we pull them, and recycle them through booksales. But other times, a book got checked out a long time ago and never made it back. In that case, we probably need to replace it.

In short, although we want you to take our books home, we also want to encourage you to bring them back. If, for whatever reason (and we've heard some doozies), you COULDN'T get it back on time, we want to make it easy for you to 'fess up, to bring back your books without a stiff penalty. The bottom line is that it's cheaper for us to forgive a fine than to buy a new copy.

The second reason is that we'd like to do the rest of the community some good, too. The food you give will be distributed to Douglas County families that have special needs this year.

Please note that our Food for Fines program does NOT let you clear your record of any LOST materials. You can only settle up your fines -- charges for materials brought back late.

So happy season's greetings from the Douglas Public Library District. And let's get those books back, shall we?

Wednesday, December 11, 1991

December 11, 1991 - The physically challenged Barbie

A couple of weekends ago, my wife, 4 year old daughter, and I went to see Disney's latest animated film, Beauty and the Beast.

As usual, the Disney people mucked about quite a bit with the story line. We've read about every version there is to Maddy, and haven't run across a single mention of Gaston, the handsome but arrogant braggart that plays the heavy in the movie. In the books, Beauty's real name is Beauty. In the movie, her name is Belle. In the books, Beauty has sisters; in the movie, she's an only child.

But none of that stuff really matters, because the Disney version, much to my surprise, is BETTER -- packed with drama, wringing even more nuance out of the old archetype of the sweet young girl and the enraged and ensorcelled young man. And as my wife points out, in the movie version, not only does Belle learn to love the Beast slowly, over time, but the Beast himself goes through some changes. All of this is a lot more realistic -- and a lot more sensible -- than the usual fairy tale falling in love at first sight.

Besides, I particularly liked the fact that Belle was always walking around with her head in a book. I'm all in favor of cartoon characters who encourage kids to read more. In fact, I'm strongly in favor of fairy tales generally -- for many generations now, these old yarns and legends have insinuated themselves into children's imaginations, serving many important but generally disregarded purposes. The most important, to my mind, is the bond forged between the parent reading the story and the child thrilling to every word.

Some people, such as the late Bruno Bettelheim, believe that fairy tales have an even deeper meaning. In these ancient stories, children gain their first insights into life. They learn to identify the basic human problems. From Cinderella they learn to bear the death of a loving father and the cruelty of strangers. In the Frog Prince, they learn to seek beneath the surface for the abiding love of a husband.

All that may sound fanciful to you. But consider Santa Claus. He too is a sweet story, picturesque and compelling. And in Santa's season, it may be that people are a little nicer to one another. Do not underestimate the power of the fairy tale.

But I wanted to talk some more about this idea of "realistic" fairy tales. Several times over the past couple of weeks, I've heard women talking about their deep and abiding love-hate relationship with, I'm serious, Barbie dolls, who's something of a fairy tale herself.

There was a "Kathy" cartoon about it not long ago that seems to have really captured something. In turns out that many, many women are out-and-out angry about Barbie dolls. Why? Because those pixie-featured, leggy, platinum blonde, high-bosomed caricatures, so false to fact, so rare in nature, not only weasled their way into young girls' closets -- but into their self-images as well.

Like fairy tales, this simple doll lurks almost invisibly in the unconscious memories of many women -- until suddenly, usually when women are standing in front of full-length mirrors, out leaps .. Barbie!

To a certain extent, I understand all this. Don't get me wrong, I never had a Barbie doll (although I do have a vague memory of getting stuck with a character named Poindexter -- instead of Ken -- in a board game called Barbie). But I did, and do, read comic books.

When I was almost 13, I particularly favored a series called X-Men, about a group of young people who, at about the age of puberty, suddenly developed remarkable powers. They sprouted wings, turned invisible, emitted powerful rays from their fingertips, stuff like that.

Every morning, I fully expected to wake up with one of those abilities. I'm still waiting.

My wife may not look like Barbie, but then, I don't look much like Superman.

Nonetheless, I truly don't think our daughter will have much trouble with Barbie. Mainly that's because Maddy's first glimpse of Barbie was on top of a chocolate cake, where the cake was the skirt. This is a far more realistic picture, I believe, of what happens to people as they grow older.

After we nibbled awhile, we gave Barbie a tug and discovered that she was the special Baker's Barbie -- no legs. She was designed to be poked into cake tops. Well, the baker did provide a set of legs, but they were sort of substandard. More recently, they fell off again and got lost. One of her arms, too. In short, Maddy plays with a Physically Challenged Barbie, which might not be a bad thing either.

In the meantime, we'll keep reading Maddy the classics, I'll keep reading comic books, and ladies, for the record, I think the current toystore Barbie is no Beauty.

Wednesday, December 4, 1991

December 4, 1991 - Two pieces of mail and a policy change

Sometimes your mail is so wonderful that you just want to pass it around to everybody. Today is one of those days. I'm just sorry that the second piece of it won't get out as early as it ought to.

Here's the first one, from a weekly newsletter called "Library Hotline," 11/25/91, page XX-47. "SISTERS REUNITED BY COINCIDENCE IN LIBRARY'S GENEALOGY DEPARTMENT: Two sisters from out of town went to the Pensacola Public Library, FL, looking for clues to the whereabouts of the half-sister they had never known. The two sisters had been raised in Savannah, GA, by their grandmothers after the death of their mother in 1922. Their father moved to Florida and remarried. Before she died, the grandmother told them that their father's second family lived in Gull Point, FL, an area that is now part of Pensacola. After years of delay, they decided to go to Pensacola to look for the family. By an incredible coincidence their search took them to the library on the same day that Doris Rice decided to work on her own genealogical research. Librarian Dolly Pollard found that all three women were researching family in the Gull Point area. She suggested they talk to each other. Moments later, amid hugs, tears, and exclamations of amazement, they discovered that Rice was the sought-after half-sister."

Here's the second one, from a November 18, 1991 press release: "Because reading aloud to children is so important, Newsradio 85 KOA (850 AM) wishes to share a special `reading aloud' opportunity with children via their Elementary School teachers. Starting Thursday, November 28th (Thanksgiving), Newsradio 85 KOA will air the first segment of the children's radio program, `Mrs. Bush's Story Time" from 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. `Mrs. Bush's Story Time" will feature First Lady Barbara Bush reading children's stories. Join Mrs. Bush in reading stories will be General Norman Schwarzkopf, Gloria Estefan and Peter Jennings.

"Ten weekly (10) half-hour programs will then begin on Sunday, December 8 at 8:00 p.m. and an additional four hour holiday special is also planned for Christmas Day (8:00 a.m. - noon). With young students in mind, we suggest that teachers use `Mrs. Bush's Story Time,' as it is broadcast on Newsradio 85 KOA, as a means to stimulate children's imaginations.

"Along with the lively stories, music and celebrities, Mrs. Bush will be offering reading-aloud tips based on years of training that the Children's Literacy Initiative staff (a non-profit organization) developed in Philadelphia. In the long-run, it is our hope that Newsradio 85 KOA's broadcast of `Mrs. Bush's Story Time' will encourage family reading and convey the message that reading aloud to our children can contribute to a more literate America."

Amen to that.

I've been thinking about KOA lately, anyhow, as I called them some time back (Tuesday, November 19, at about 6:30 in the morning) to report that the libraries were shutting down due to what looked to be a big and particularly nasty snowstorm. A remarkably perky gentleman took the call, and said KOA would announce the information.

The trouble was, the snow was pretty well melted by about 1:30 that afternoon, by which time it was really too late to round up any employees.

This has precipitated a policy change. I've talked it over with my branch managers, and we've decided that rather than closing libraries all over the county when we've got what looks like bad weather, we'll announce DELAYED openings -- open at noon. The county is big enough, and with enough bizarre and inconsistent weather patterns, that we'll let each branch manager decide whether or not it's safe to open our buildings after that.

I do apologize for any inconvenience on the 19th -- but hope that the new policy will make things easier, and ensure longer hours of useful service -- in the future.

Wednesday, November 27, 1991

November 27, 1991 - Final Exit

For many years, my mother was the head nurse of a geriatrics ward of a Veteran's Administration Hospital. During college, I worked for some time as a nursing home orderly.

One night, my mother and I talked about our experiences. Most of mom's patients were over 80. Many of them hadn't spoken or stirred in over a decade. And at least once a week, one of those patients started to die.

Now there are two things a nurse can do in that situation. One of them is to follow procedure: hit the Code Blue button. Instantly, a team of specialists would descend on the body to revive it, using whatever steps might be necessary.

After watching this team "restore" several people who hadn't shown any signs of life for years, my mother became more and more opposed to this practice. One day she decided that if a patient said he was ready to die, or if the patient had been comatose for a long period, then according to her own, long-seasoned judgment, she would chose the second and unsanctioned option: she would let him die. In every case, she would also sit holding that person's hand until he was long past the point of recovery. Only then would she hit the button. I don't know exactly how many people my mother allowed to die -- several dozen, I think.

All of this came back to me one day when suddenly I was the one making that decision. It was in the anxious days just after my mother's stroke. I had a dream that my mother died. I woke up, then sat shaking till dawn. Exhausted and stricken, I didn't go to the hospital to see my mother the following afternoon. So I was the only person home when the call came.

It was her doctor. He said that the only way my mother could continue to live was if he hooked her up to a life-support system. Immediately. All of my family had just left the hospital, and wouldn't be home for an hour. He was just calling to inform someone that he was about to do this.

I took a deep breath, then forbad the doctor from taking any extraordinary measures. He said, "I don't think you don't have the authority to decide this." I said, "My mother and I have discussed this issue at length. I am the executor of her will. I know her feelings. If you attach her to a life-support system, I'll sue you."
I had never made such a threat in all my life. And I don't like lawsuits. But I did know that I was honoring my mother's wishes.

After a pause, the doctor said, "All right."

Then, of course, I tried to make the drive to the hospital before she died. I was too late. But sitting in that room with her corpse, despite my sorrow, I had no regrets.

I mention all this because I recently directed the purchase of a book that is bound to upset some people. The book is called "Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying," by Derek Humphrey, which at this writing occupies the number one spot on the bestseller list (and has been requested by several of our patrons). Sponsored by the Hemlock Society, "Final Exit" tells people how to assume responsibility for their own deaths. Let's take that one step further: this book tells people how to kill themselves (although as a review in the November "Wilson Library Bulletin" points out, "the Society is careful to make it clear that it does not encourage suicide for emotional, traumatic, or financial reasons").

The publisher of the book, Stephen Schragis, has his own story. In the August 30, 1991 issue of "Publisher's Weekly," he wrote, "In 1989 my wife and I faced a nightmare I will never forget: the American medical system, which insisted on keeping our newborn child `alive' despite a near total lack of brain function or ability to think, reason, or even move. A decision that ought to have been ours alone was being made by others."

So he published a book that instructs people -- adults, in some very strictly defined circumstances -- how to end their own lives, mostly through prescription drugs.

You may not agree with the idea behind this book. Some of you surely do not. But it is the mission of a library to provide information, to set before the body politic those choices -- and opposing viewpoints -- that matter.

Naturally, the library does have materials representing more traditional viewpoints. But "the right to die" is an issue now under discussion all across the country, and "Final Exit" is a catalyst for that discussion.

Sooner or later, it's a subject that all of us will need to face.

Wednesday, November 20, 1991

November 20, 1991 - A Tale of Three Computers

In 1983, I bought my very first computer. It was called a Kaypro II, and it cost $1,795. At the time, that was a heck of a deal. Most computers cost at least $2,500 back then, and often twice that. The Kaypro even included a full complement of software: a word processor, a spreadsheet, a database program, and a couple of programming languages.

I put a lot of time into that computer. So much time, in fact, that my wife and I began calling it "Baby Kay," because I was always giving it midnight feedings.

But in retrospect, Baby Kay was pretty crude. She (it only took two days for "it" to become "her") had two disk drives, which TOGETHER provided more or less permanent storage of just 180,000 "bytes" of information. (That's 180K, as we say in computerese, where one byte equals one letter or mark of punctuation. To look at it another way, Baby Kay could work with a maximum of about 90 pages of double-spaced text at a time.) She was a "portable computer," as in portable sewing machine, weighing in at about 18 pounds.

I bought my second computer in 1987, which I put on my desk at work. This machine, also made by Kaypro, was an IBM-XT compatible, which meant that it had one 360K disk drive, and a "hard drive" that stored 20 megabytes of data -- that's 20 million, 360 bytes -- an 112-fold increase. This computer I christened "Butch" -- on account of he was a lean, mean, computing machine. Cost: $1,795. Again, I got a terrific bunch of software bundled in with him.

Well, these days, the most popular computer is something called a 386SX -- a computer whose "brain" runs rings around Butch, and usually comes with a 40 to 60 megabyte hard drive. Cost: about $1,795 (including a top notch color monitor, a snazzy new operating system called Windows, some extra "memory," and a good printer). It happens that the library will be buying a couple of these newer machines before the end of the year.

In less than a decade, the personal computer has gone from a barely legitimate and scarcely tolerated business intrusion to an absolute business necessity. In libraries, not only does our central computer system provide our circulation and cataloging system, our desktop computers are in constant use for everything from budgeting, to comprehensive and detailed policy manuals, to connecting to other library databases through phone lines.

Meanwhile, at home, I did break down and buy myself yet another computer. This one is a Toshiba "laptop."

It's not quite as "pumped up" as Butch. But it only weighs about six pounds, and folds to the size of a regular three ring notebook. It does have a 1.44 megabyte disk drive, a wonderfully legible little screen, a keyboard that is a sheer delight to use, and can run on batteries for about two hours. Cost: about $500. Now I can carry my computer into the living room, or take notes when I'm at meetings or doing research somewhere. I'm writing this column on it, right on the dining room table.

The new computer, incidentally, is called Basho -- a tribute to the Japanese poet who defined the verse form called haiku, and to the Japanese technicians who have built such a light, elegant, and compact computer.

In short, the computers of today are now smaller, faster, do more, store more, and cost less than ever before. The automation industry is at last approaching maturity: the product has not only become more affordable, it's become less intrusive, more ordinary, and as indispensable as the typewriter was just 10 years ago.

And I have decided that I have all the computers I need -- at least for now.

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

November 13, 1991 - On reading slowly

Most people don't read very fast. They "subvocalize" -- that is, they say each written word in their minds, just as if they were reading aloud. Often, their tongues actually form the sounds. (Check yourself as you read this column. Odds are, your tongue and your lips are making barely perceptible motions.) Most people read about as quickly as they speak.

I'm not really sure where the idea came from, but in fifth grade, I decided that I wanted to learn how to read faster. So I went to the Waukegan Public Library and checked out a couple of books on the subject.

According to those books, the object was to break the pattern of subvocalization. There were lots of tricks: place a ruler under a line of text, then start pulling it down the page, struggling to go faster and faster. Set your finger at the top left edge of the page, run it right along the first line of text, then left along the second line, then right along the third, alternating directions with each line. Watch your finger, not the words. Then set your finger at the exact middle of the page, and run it straight down. See how much you pick up. Always, the point was to go faster and faster.

I remember the first book I tried all this stuff on. It was a social science textbook. It was a good choice, because like many textbooks, it had two columns of text per page. Each column had fewer words on a line than the lines on an ordinary typeset page. Short lines -- like those you find in newspapers, incidentally -- are conducive to scanning.

Nonetheless, it was hard going. I got caught up in the exercises, but then would find that I'd gotten to the end of a page with scarcely a clue as to what I'd seen. It was frustrating -- sometimes I would have to go back and re-read everything at the usual speed. But that had begun to bother me, because I had glimpsed, barely, how fast I MIGHT be reading. So I'd try again.

After a couple of months of this, I began to discover how surprisingly flexible and quick the brain is, and what an incredible amount of information we can take in from our peripheral vision alone. Gradually, over time, I did break the pattern of subvocalization, splitting what I saw from how long it took me to say it.

There are lots of advantages to reading quickly. I soon learned that I could read whole textbooks in a week or so, then just skim the chapters again on the way to school. (Sometime I ought to do a column about how to read while walking through busy intersections, something else I got fairly good at.) But this kind of thing -- whether it be reading quickly, or reading and walking at the same time -- doesn't really take a whole lot of brain power. It's a skill, easily learned. It just takes practice.

I practiced a lot. So by the time I was a high school senior, I was churning through an average of 14 books a week, mostly science fiction, but with a fair sprinkling of classics, philosophy, and non-fiction, too.

More recently, I've found that reading fast is a good way to get up to speed in a new job. Or to immerse yourself in a subject: About 15 years ago, I read the Bible in three weeks, mostly on Tucson buses. And when I first dabbled with computers and modems, it was nice to discover that I could easily keep up with a 1200-characters-per-second connection.

But there's a downside to all this.

To really savor something, to really retain the flavor of a book, you don't WANT to read fast. In the past couple of years, I have found myself struggling -- particularly when I'm reading fiction -- to gear down, to go back to sounding each syllable in my mind. Strangely, the more tired I am, the faster I read.

The most satisfying reading, I've discovered, is reading aloud. Try this sometime. Check out, for instance, a book called "Sarah, Plain and Tall," by Patricia MacLachlan. Read it aloud to your spouse as he or she prepares dinner or fixes the car. The experience is utterly compelling. If you don't believe me, stop part way through, and observe your spouse's reaction.

Again, there is a lot to be said for learning to read quickly. But in this age of the sound bite, the video, even the book-on-tape, it just might be that the best entertainment to be found is listening to someone you love read from a book you're just about to love.

Wednesday, November 6, 1991

November 6, 1991 - How to Open a Book

This week's topic is deceptively simple: How to Open A Book, particularly a new book.

First, wash your hands. When you do it right, opening a book is both a blatantly sensual and profoundly intellectual experience. It demands the utmost cleanliness and attention.

Second, hold the book in both hands and examine the front cover. Some books have paper jackets, some do not. But look at the cover. Think about it. The cover is a book's face.

Third, tilt the spine (the binding, or "backbone" of the book) upward. Hold the covers of the book in one hand, one thumb on one side, the remaining fingers on the other. Now read what appears on the spine. Think about that, too. The spine is the book's soul. (The spine is also a book's profile: On a library shelf, the spine defines the book.)

Fourth, run the palm of your other hand along the length of the spine, top to bottom, firmly but gently. You might let your thumb and forefinger linger in the gutters on either side of the spine. A well-bound book should feel smooth, even, and tight.

Fifth, set the spine of the book on a smooth, flat surface, holding both covers up, your palms pressed together as if in prayer.

Sixth, gently open the covers of the book, and run your hand along the inside edges of the binding, lightly pressing down against the underlying surface. What you're doing here is breaking in the book slowly, getting it accustomed to the feel of its first reader. Too often these days, books have brittle spines. A little care now can prevent a lot of damage later.

Seventh, reach in from each side toward the middle, using your thumbs to grab a few pages at a time. Ease these sections down along the covers, then again draw your forefingers along the inside edge or gutters, slowly and thoughtfully. Now you're getting the book used to staying open, evenly and easily.

Eight, repeat this process, thumbing a little bit more of the book with each pass, working to the middle of the book. Once you reach the center, again with a firm but gentle pressure, smooth the pages down, first along the inside edge, then from the middle outward.

Ninth, close the book, setting it down on its back cover. Press down on the surface with both hands, just to let the book know for the first time what it feels like to be closed again, to take a breath, to wait.

Tenth, immediately heft the book, so that the spine nestles comfortably against your palm. Consider its weight.

Eleventh, open the book again, this time to the very first page. And page by page, with reverence, attend its words, savor its typography, contemplate its structure. Open yourself to its deep meaning.

That's how to open a book.

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

October 30, 1991 - Tao of management

Among the most popular materials in the collection of the Douglas Public Library District are those items relating to business and business management. Not only do we see a lot of activity in the BOOKS on this subject -- such as "In Search of Excellence," or the one I'm reading right now called "Odyssey," by Apple Computers, Inc.'s John Sculley -- we checkout a lot of business-related audiocassettes, presumably to those would-be executives who drive into Denver every day.

I understand the urge to better oneself, but I have a special problem with these kind of materials. You see, when I was growing up I developed a profound suspicion of anybody and everybody who happened to be in charge. There were a lot of slogans around in those days, and I believed at least two of them: "Never trust anyone over thirty," and "Question authority." Now I'm over thirty. Even worse, I'm a boss. So whenever my staff disagrees with me, I tend to want to side with them. It usually turns out that they're right anyhow.

I don't mind people disagreeing with me. It's just that when they do, I think they should at least have the good grace to be wrong.

Nonetheless, I do want to be a good boss. I've studied Theory Z, One Minute Management, Management By Objectives, even MBWA (Management by Walking Around). But none of them has quite captured the way I think things really work.

But I did finally find a book that really captures MY management style, and I think more people need to know about it. It's available in book or audiocassette format from the Douglas Public Library District, and I recommend it highly.

The book is "Tao te Ching," Chinese for "The Book of the Way." ("Tao," incidentally, is pronounced "Dow," as in the "Dow Jones Average.") The Tao te Ching was written sometime between 600 and 400 B.C. It is the basic text of a religion and/or philosophy known as Taoism.

Not much is known about the man who wrote the Tao te Ching. He was called Lao tzu -- a Chinese phrase that translates, more or less, as "Old Man." Legend has it that he was an archivist -- a kind of librarian.

The translation I recommend was published in 1988 by Stephen Mitchell, who has two unique qualifications as translator. First, he has had fourteen years of Zen training. Second, and perhaps as a consequence of the first, he has a remarkable sensitivity to what makes a good poem. His renderings of the Tao te Ching's 81 short verses are both plain and pure.

And in verse 17, I found everything I believe in as a manager. Here are the first two lines: "When the Master governs, the people / are hardly aware that he exists." This doesn't mean that just because you don't know where your boss is, he or she is Enlightened. It means that a boss shouldn't be too oppressive. Work should be as natural as play. It should be interesting, something you choose to do because it's fun - not something you're forced to do even though you hate it.

Here's the second stanza: "If you don't trust the people, / you make them untrustworthy." I've had too many bosses who hired me, then wouldn't let me do what they hired me for. This is not only counter-productive, it's humiliating.

And here's the last stanza: "When his work is done, / the people say, `Amazing: / we did it, all by ourselves!'" I know this for a fact: When I leave my staff alone, they astonish me with their creativity.

It seems that sometimes the best thing a boss can do is to stay out of his or her employees' way.

That Lao tzu, he was some librarian. Not only was he responsible for the shortest religious scripture in history - he wrote a business management classic.

Wednesday, October 23, 1991

October 23, 1991 - Halloween

I am a baby boomer. That means that nearly anything I did as a child I did in the midst of a teeming cloud of other children.

While that wasn't always such a wonderful thing, on Halloween it was magnificent, because on that one night, the whole world and all its treasures were OURS.

I can still see it: a full, harvest moon, a feckless wind with just a hint of winter, a damp and restless tide of leaves, jack-o-lanterns leering from each porch, and as far as the eye could see ... gnomes, goblins, witches, ghosts, hoboes, princesses, cowboys, animals, anything and everything. All just my height.

For one night each year, the grown-ups were banished from the streets. Instead, the Little People swarmed the sidewalks. Invincible and mysterious, we could kick at doors and demand sweet booty.

And get it.

Of course, all this was before the scares about poison and needles and other sick stuff more modern folks pack into candy. Back then, the sole concern of children -- and I took this mighty seriously, myself -- was to get the best loot possible in the shortest time. Here's how I did it: first, I scoped out the best stops in my territory (using the first, or "scouting" costume), and quickly reviewed the pickings back home (with an eye cocked for Snickers bars and Hershey's dark chocolate). Then, I changed to the serious or "real" costume, and revisited the best doorsteps. Often, I'd mumble a quick, poignant plea for an extra treat for my sick and utterly fictitious brother, who I would allege was home in bed with a fever.

It was great.

And there was the delicious thrill of terror: the old brick house at the end of the block, encircled by mutant crab-apple trees, overgrown weeds. No street lights. Three or four of us would crouch down in sight of the rotting wooden porch, whispering, "You go!" "No, you!" until finally one of us would tremble up the steps and press the doorbell.

Slowly, creakingly, we'd hear the huge, shambling steps of the unknown, never-glimpsed owner. The door would crack, and a white, palsied hand poke out over the rustling bag of the trick-or-treater. Something would drop, and the kid would leap screaming from the porch and scurry back to safety. We'd all demand -- "What was it? What'd you get?" -- then dig out, every year, a scrawny, worm-nibbled apple. We'd toss it back toward the porch and run, whooping like the savages we were.

I don't think many children today will ever know the wild -- but utterly innocent -- joy of Halloweens like that. Today parents deploy their 1.6 children along the well-ordered streets, carefully inspecting each piece of candy for signs of tampering. It's all as well-policed as a preschool party.

But we don't have to give up on Halloween yet. At each of our library branches over the next couple of weeks, you'll find a sampling of programs that seek to recapture the fun and sheer shivery excitement of this unique holiday. Check the calendar elsewhere on this page to find out when you can come listen to spooky stories, or learn how to carve pumpkins, or just enjoy the spectacle of children in costume.

Trust me. It's a treat.

Wednesday, October 16, 1991

October 16, 1991 - Daily story-times

Lately, I've been taking a daily walk, right after lunch. It's about a three mile loop and usually takes around 40 minutes. The road wiggles east from the north end of the library all the way back around to the south. For variety, I walk the loop the other way.

It's a new routine that fit itself into my life with surprising ease.

Walking the same piece of ground every day, I have learned a deep appreciation of the terrain. Every day I stumble across some new view of the mountains or hillsides, or find in the change of brightness, or cloud patterns, or dust in the air, or the sound of the wind, or the angle of the wind, a subtle and compelling difference.

I think of this stroll as a walking meditation: an opportunity to break with the usual and wake up to a wider glory.

Also -- and I hesitate to mention this -- I am doing a few "isometrics." Isometrics, in case you never sent off for the Charles Atlas book that used to be advertised in comic books (I got his special, paperback, 98-Pound Weakling Edition), involves a series of exercises wherein you systematically pit one muscle against another.

Of course, some of these exercises look pretty weird. Last week, for instance, a few golfers crested the hill just as I stepped into view -- with my arms high overhead, palms pressed together with extraordinary strength, my forehead sparkling with sweat.
For the record, I am not performing weird religious rituals. I'm walking The Charles Atlas Way.

I hasten to add that I am not associated in any way with Charles Atlas's many fine products. In fact, if Charles Atlas were to inventory my current physical condition, I'm sure HE would hasten to make the same point.

What I AM advertising here is the fact that our Highlands Ranch and Oakes Mill libraries now offer daily story times. The Parker and Castle Rock libraries will be following their lead shortly.

Imagine -- daily story times. Seven days a week. No matter what day it is, you can count on finding a regularly scheduled library program in Douglas County. Most of them, naturally, are designed for children. But not all of them. Although, come to think of it, I have found children's story times to be of extraordinary interest to me.

You see, children's literature encompasses some incredibly varied terrain. There are mountains of morals, valleys of villainy, isles of insight. There are corridors of conscience, twists of terror, peaks of the most profound peace. By walking this landscape every day, you and your child can learn to recognize not only the familiar, but also the unexpected views of the human condition.

It's the dailyness of it that can bring it all home. Here's a prediction: if you once sample this stroll through story time, I bet that soon your local library will become part of your daily routine. Your life -- and the life of your child -- will be the richer for it.

For more information about this leap in the level of our services, first consult the Library Calendar -- a new feature in the News-Press that lists everything that's happening throughout the entire Douglas Public Library District. Next, call your local DPLD library. Maybe we'll even sign you up as a volunteer reader for the day.

Daily story times: they can give those young minds muscle.

Wednesday, September 25, 1991

September 25, 1991 - Banned Books (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)

Every profession has an issue that it gets touchy about. For librarians, that issue is censorship.

Every year, usually around "Banned Books Week" (next week, as a matter of fact) librarians sound the censorship alert. Nearly everything of intellectual substance, literary merit, or social significance has been challenged or banned by somebody sometime. So once a year we round up all the naughty books -- things like "Catcher in the Rye," almost anything by Shakespeare, and more recently, the scandalous "American Heritage Dictionary" (turns out that it has some mighty bad words in it) -- and put them on display. They make our patrons chuckle, and give a little boost to our check-out statistics.

You can look them over this week at any of our branches, as a matter of fact -- if you dare!

The funniest censorship story I've heard lately concerns, of all things, a book called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: ABC's for a Better Planet." Especially considering the probable audience of the books -- youngsters -- the ecologically-minded message was a good one.

But the American Farm Bureau Federation strenuously objected to the Turtles' "M" and "P" lessons. The Turtles urged people to eat less Meat (because cows are injected with allegedly carcinogenic hormones, because grain protein could feed millions of hungry people, instead of going to cows, which produce less protein, etc.). The Turtles also warn of the dangers of Pesticides, and specifically, that some food makes it to market that isn't exactly safe.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and FoodWatch organized a nationwide letter-writing campaign suggesting, I guess, that creeping vegetarianism and the desire for organically grown produce are economically threatening to the lone, lean, reaper of the national heartland, and just possibly anti-American besides.

Here's a quote from Kevin Morgan, of the Florida Farm Bureau, in the letter he sent to Random House: "I have notified our members of your publication and asked them to contact their local schools and book clubs and ask that they do not recommend or place this publication in their library. Our children deserve to hear the truth based on scientific research and not on propaganda."

I mean, the American Farm Bureau Federation against the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Awesome.

But Troll Book Club did stop distributing the Random House title, despite the fact that it was selling well. Or, more likely, it got pulled BECAUSE it was selling well.

As far as I'm concerned, the main lesson here is that the kids are right to trust cartoon characters over real people. I know I certainly intend to buy the book for the library -- if I can still find it.

It probably doesn't hurt to remind people that offbeat, interesting, and even great writing tends to be unpopular. One lesson of Banned Books Week is tolerance. Times change. Sometimes the writer, even the very offensive writer, is saying something important. The mature mind should consider before it labels.

Some librarians like to push another message during Banned Books Week. They ask: once people ban a book, what's to stop them from burning it?

You see, librarians are bitterly and intransigently opposed to censorship in any form. Of course, that doesn't explain why so few libraries carry "Penthouse Magazine." A few years back, a major controversy raged around the title, "Show Me," a sex- education book that included pictures of nude children. Librarians leapt to its defense. Try to find a library that has the book today, though.

Librarians are dedicated to equal access to information. But what about the librarian who took an interlibary loan request from a boy she knew to be mentally disturbed? He wanted something called "The Anarchist's Cookbook." It gave recipes for making potent explosives from ordinary household chemicals. The librarian threw the request away. A few months later, the boy was arrested for stockpiling explosives in his apartment, right in the middle of a crowded complex.

Librarians like to believe that we stand 100% behind what we call "Intellectual Freedom," the right of the public to read whatever it chooses. Like most articles of faith, this is comfortingly black and white. You're against censorship or you're for burning books.

But as you can tell from the stories above, what we say we believe and what we do aren't necessarily the same. There are gray areas.

The librarian's highest credo is the First Amendment, our Holy Freedom of Speech. But not a day goes by that it doesn't get compromised. Librarians are not perfectly calibrated book-selecting automatons. We buy good books and bad books. We agonize over the difference.

I take comfort from the fact that historically, it doesn't seem to do any good to ban a book. Time either buries it, or bears it up. Neither censors nor librarians can change that.

Wednesday, September 18, 1991

September 18, 1991 - Reference

[Below, you'll find a guest column -- written by Reference Librarian Jeff Long, a relatively new member of our Philip S. Miller Library staff. Jeff does a good job of describing what reference services are all about, and I don't have much to add to his observations except to note that most of the services he mentions can also be provided over the telephone (688-5157).

The trickiest part of late twentieth century life, it seems to me, is finding the right information at the right time. Sadly, too few people even think of calling the library with a question. The smart ones, however, do -- and after reading Jeff's column, I bet you'll be one of them.

-- Jamie LaRue, Library Director]

Famed dictionary author Samuel Johnson once observed, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can find it." Although you can often find what you want in our libraries by using our public computer terminals, there are times when there is no substitute for human guidance. This is especially true if you're seeking information on an unusual, popular, or technical subject, or if you're seeking bits of information, such as population statistics, consumer agency addresses, or lists of manufacturers.

Our Reference Librarians are specifically trained in providing just such help. Besides being familiar with which subjects correspond to which Dewey Decimal numbers, Reference Librarians can often help you locate your answers in such resources as reference books, magazines, or pamphlet files. For example, aircraft markings are included in some abbreviations dictionaries. Local history buffs are often rewarded by perusing our Douglas County pamphlet file.

When researching a hot social issue like abortion or animal rights, you may find that most of the books in that area have already been checked out. Again, a Reference Librarian can often suggest alternative sources. Two weekly publications, Facts on File Weekly News Digest and CQ Researcher, contain valuable articles on controversial topics and breaking world events, like fetal tissue transplants and the failed Soviet coup. We also receive such governmental newsletters as Colorado Health Statistics, which includes such unexpected information as a ranking of the fifty most popular girls' and boys' names in Colorado.

If you need recent, localized, or somewhat obscure information, ask a Reference Librarian for the magazine indexes. For example, our Castle Rock library has them for Colorado businesses, National Geographic, American Heritage, and many more magazines. If the article you want is unavailable, we can often have it mailed or faxed from another library.

Another service supplied by Reference Librarians is Reader's Advisory assistance. If you're in the mood for a novel that's suspenseful, romantic, or historical in nature, let us show you how to use such guides as Book Review Digest or What Do I Read Next? We also subscribe to The New York Times Book Review, for library users who wish to keep up with today's most discussed new books, be they fiction, nonfiction, or juvenile.

So, whether you want to read a book that chills like Stephen King's, or you need a quotation from Barrons--or from the "Bard of Avon"--remember to ask for a Reference Librarian. As writer Robert Southey noted, "A question not to be asked is a question not to be answered."

Wednesday, September 11, 1991

September 11, 1991 - On the Opening of the Highlands Ranch Library

Back when I was in library school, I was surprised to learn that when the economy is in trouble, library use goes up.

During the Depression -- a peak period of library use -- people came to libraries to read the newspapers they couldn't afford to buy, in order to find new jobs to replace the ones they had lost.

In the 1940s, public libraries were major literacy training centers. Thousands of immigrants came to public libraries to learn how to read and speak English. And they succeeded.

These days, the homeless go to public libraries because it is the one public institution that welcomes them without question, that extends its resources as a matter of course, that recognizes the essential equality of all people, whatever their circumstances: the ability to think and the desire to learn. If, in the meantime, libraries also help them to stay warm and dry, even better!

In hard times, libraries have helped people rest and retool. We assist people as they acquire new skills or sharpen old ones.
So it is something of a shock to see the startling decline of some of our country's most impressive institutions. In New York City, half the branches of the largest public library system in the world have shut down. Most of them will never open again. In Boston, that national bastion of culture, a similar tale is told.

I have many friends in the public library world, and most of them, particularly the ones east of the Mississippi, report the same conundrum -- hard times, increased demand for library services, and drastic cuts in library funding.

I've been there. When I lived in Springfield, Illinois, where I was Assistant Director, I had to cut back library operations by 10 percent a year, three years in a row, despite a 7 percent increase in use each year. I had to buy fewer books, let people go, find new ways to stretch old bucks.

There are imporant lessons to be learned from times of fiscal austerity. You learn to rank library services. What is essential? What isn't? You learn to run a tight ship. But you also learn that there's a limit to what even the most conservative managers can do -- that at some point, you have to take your case directly to the people.

From all around the country, my friends are telling me that libraries are losing ground.

But in Douglas County, we are buying more books than ever before -- twice as many as last year. Our libraries are open more hours. On August 12, 1991, we opened a spanking new library in Highlands Ranch, and within two weeks checked out half its books, mostly to children.

As I've mentioned before, nationwide, library use inches up by about 3 percent a year. In Douglas County, library users have already checked out over 25% more books (and audiocassettes and periodicals, etc.) than they checked out last year. That's an overwhelmingly positive reflection on our county's community.

It takes time to build a great library. It takes a century to build even a good one -- to develop the staff expertise and assemble a collection that is as deep as it is broad.

In Douglas County, where our library system is just thirty-one years old, we have barely begun that process.

In New York and Boston, the incomparable glory of two great libraries is being carelessly and callously disassembled.

Why? Is library use and library funding dependent on the nation's economy -- or the values of the library's immediate community? To put it another way: does the Douglas Public Library District owe its success to Colorado's recession -- or to Douglas County's extraordinary passion for reading?

Despite what's happening elsewhere, I believe libraries can still draw their communities together, revitalize them, provide solid and enduring service that can help entertain and inform its citizenry. Consider recent events in the Soviet Union: to succeed, we have only to take our case directly to the people most effected.

Meanwhile, I count myself fortunate to live in a community that recognizes the merit of our most egalitarian public institution. And I know myself to be very fortunate to have witnessed the opening of a new library -- something many of my peers, for the entire length of their careers, can only dream of.

Wednesday, September 4, 1991

September 4, 1991 - Local History Notebook

It's like the old joke: I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that Douglas County has a fascinating history. Whole towns have vanished -- Acequia, for instance, once located north of Louviers, just off the railroad tracks.

Douglas County also has a history of legal drama. It happens that I'm writing this column on Labor Day. Douglas County was the site of the trials following Colorado's Ludlow Massacre -- precipitated by a mining strike in 1914 that involved the famous "Mother Jones" and eventually resulted in the murder by government troops of 11 women and several children.

People that have lived here for a while can tell many other stories. They can talk about the commercial center that once thrived west of Greenland, Colorado. They can talk about the flood that in more recent times nearly destroyed Larkspur, and the fire that did destroy the magnificent county courthouse in Castle Rock.

All this barely scratches the surface.

The bad news is that the character of Douglas County is changing so fast that much of this history is being lost. Some of the people that have lived here for scores of years are with us no more, and some of those who remain are trying to sell their land and move on. The records of the past -- everything from their living memories and treasured letters to the many volumes of county records that disappeared after the courthouse fire -- are in jeopardy.

As regions go, the traceable history of the west is still young. My ancestors arrived in America in 1680 -- but few pioneers made it as far as Colorado even as late as the 1850s. All the more reason, then, to let people know about the lives and times of the remarkable people who came before us, before every memory of their work, their thoughts and dreams, drifts like smoke into the irretrievable sky.

But there's more good news. Thanks to the extraordinary dedication of several library volunteers -- Joan Buttery and Sally Maguire, to name just two -- the Douglas Public Library District has compiled several shelves of local history notebooks, available at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. In these notebooks, you'll find:

* biographies of local people (we've got three notebooks alone consisting of photocopied clippings from the Douglas County News Press, State Historical books, obituaries, and any place else we could find them, all of which have been indexed by name -- again by volunteer help -- so you can find out in a matter of moments whether or not any of your kin are mentioned);

* town histories (we've got five notebooks about every town in the county, including several ghost towns);

* major events, the old courthouse, even library history;

* wildlife and geology;

* special events -- the Douglas County Fair, Centennial celebrations;

* Indian history (I mentioned above that the "traceable history of the west is still young," but long before people of European and African and Asian ancestry made it to Colorado, the Native Americans lived, loved, fought, and died here);

* the history of Douglas County schools, churches, Post Offices, railroads, and pioneer trails.

Last week I wrote that libraries do more than buy reference materials. We also create them. Thanks to the incomparable efforts of our volunteers, we are very pleased to offer these local history resources to anybody who finds them of interest.

I'd like to end this column with an appeal: if you're aware of anyone who has a unique insight into Douglas County history, whether because of something he or she might have stashed in an attic, or simply because of what that person might remember, please give the library a call.

Collecting stories, organizing information: that's our job. But we cannot do it without you. Ultimately, the stories we tell are the ones you live.

Wednesday, August 28, 1991

August 28, 1991 - Author Biography Files

As everybody knows -- or at least I hope they do by now -- libraries buy lots of reference books. There are many, many sources of information available these days, and over the past year, the Douglas Public Library District has made a concerted effort to gather at least a core collection of them.

But what people may not know is that sometimes libraries also create their own reference sources.

Gina Woods, the new branch manager of our Oakes Mill Library in the Lone Tree development, was the former manager of the "Professional Information Center" -- a special library within the SouthEast Metropolitan Board of Cooperative Services (SEMBCS).

Shortly after she started her job there, a teacher came in asking for biographical information about popular children's authors. About 40 of them.

So Gina did a sweeping search of biographical reference books and computer databases. She even wrote the publishers, asking for promotional material about the authors. By the time the second teacher came in, Gina realized that this kind of request was going to recur, so she started saving the results of her searches.

The Professional Information Center is no more; it suffered from a round of recent SEMBCS budget cuts. But fortunately for us, Gina -- and her files on more than 380 popular children's and Young Adult authors -- are very much around. The "Author Biography Files" occupy two file cabinet drawers at the Oakes Mill Library.

Thanks to the wonders of telefacsimile (FAX) technology, all of that information is instantly available from any of our other libraries as well.

I found out about this new reference source when I was doing some background study on Bret Ellis Easton, author of the young adult classic, "Less Than Zero," and his more recent, and very controversial, "American Psycho." I was amazed by how much I learned not only about what Ellis had written, but how he felt about it.

Or perhaps you've heard of Crescent Dragonwagon, author of "This Is the Bread I Baked for Ned," "I Hate My sister Maggie," "Margaret Ziegler Is Horse-Crazy," and others. How does anybody get a name like "Crescent Dragonwagon"? Gina's Author Biography Files includes the text of an interview with the writer, who used be named Ellen. But that means "the Queen." It was the 'sixties, and Ellen was decidedly anti-authoritarian. So she just gave herself a new name: Crescent, or "the growing."

As for the last name, she was about to marry a young man (once "Mark," then "Crispin") and they were trying to come up with a good, new, last name for themselves. After a long time without coming up with anything, Crescent said, "Maybe we're taking ourselves too seriously, maybe we should pick something completely frivolous." He said, "Like what?" She said, "Oh, uh, um, like Dragonwagon." Since then, she has said that we wishes she had chosen something a little less flashy.

These kinds of data can be hard to come by. And as Sharon McElmeel put it in her book "An Author a Month (For Nickels)": "There is no doubt in my mind that sharing ... information about authors, illustrators, and the books themselves has a direct impact on the joy, enthusiasm, and eagerness ... children bring to their ... reading ..."

As Gina puts it, "There's something wonderfully humanizing about learning something about the person who wrote a book you've enjoyed. I hope all of our patrons will have fun discovering some of the interesting things that are in the files."

The files, parents may note, also provide a quick way for children to gather information for school reports.

Next week I'll talk about another reference source DPLD staff have developed: local history notebooks.

Wednesday, August 21, 1991

August 21, 1991 - The decline of idleness

Occasionally science does something it can be proud of, breaking new ground and bringing a little piece of mind to the rest of us.

I'm speaking of the new branch of biology known as "time-budget analysis." According to a report in the Denver Post (August 9, 1991), the patient practitioners of this exciting new discipline have discovered that most animals (even those busy little bees and beavers) spend over 50% of their time just lying around.

How do we know this? Because animal time-budget analysts have spent hours lying around watching them. And they got paid to do it.

Even the Anna hummingbird spends 82% of its time resting. The lion is a classic lounger: 75% of his time is devoted to the demanding work of exuding a royal air.

One of the most compelling arguments for evolution I've seen lately is that the gorilla only rests 51% of the time; the chimpanzee, a mere 23 percent. This behavior is suspiciously people-like.

According to the Post, relative to other animals "human beings spend anywhere from two to four times as many hours working, particularly if family, household and social duties are taken into account."

I've been thinking long and hard about this for three or four minutes now, and I've reached a startling conclusion: RESTING IS OUR NATURAL STATE. Yes. Based on all the available evidence, work is utterly UNnatural (unless you're a rock pipit or female anolis lizard, which I would be willing to bet you are not).

So are we going to take this slur on our species standing up? The mighty walrus can put in a full day's work and still have two thirds of his day to bask his tusks in the sun. Okay, you're thinking, we only "work" about 8 hours a day -- but tell me that what YOU do for the other 16 could be described as "resting." People are smarter than walruses, right? So how come we have to be so busy all the time?

Please note that time-budget analysts stress that "animal inactivity ... serves a broad variety of purposes." That's EXACTLY what I tell my wife when I'm supposed to be changing the kitty litter, but I'm sprawled on the couch with a comic book instead. "Sure," I tell her, "it looks like I'm just flicking a page every now and then, but in reality, I am serving a broad variety of purposes, and as soon as the time-budget analysts figure out what they are, I'd be happy to share them with you."

What's wrong with us? We race pellmell from one life milestone to another, like the jump rope chant of children: "First grade, second grade, third grade ... sophomore, junior, senior, graduate school, medical school, work, work, parent, grandparent, dead, dead." What's the hurry?

Do we really need more money, a bigger house, a newer car, or bigger muscles?

Years ago, I wrote what is still one of my favorite lines in any short story: "He had the strong, deeply tanned hands of a man who had done a lot of heavy reading outdoors." What this country needs is a new idea of what's attractive. Or at least some leisure time to think about it.

You may not have noticed, but summer is almost over. Probably some of you have been doing useful things like painting your house, or changing your oil, or putting in extra hours at the office, or running marathons. What's the point?

Slow down! Now! Get up right this minute, go out in the back yard, or a park, and lie down!

If you feel the need to pretend that you're doing something, I guess you could take a book or magazine with you. In fact, you might try Witold Rybczynski's new book "Waiting for the Weekend," which should be in your library -- a major leisure center -- soon. Or you could scan the excerpts from the book in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly. Rybczynski has much to say about the decline of idleness in America, and he says it very well.

Maybe what we all need most is to let loose our animal selves for awhile, to set a new standard for lack of achievement.

It's only natural.

Wednesday, August 14, 1991

August 14, 1991 - Bats and bookmobiles

When I was about 10 years old, I found a paper bag hidden in the rafters behind my closet, beyond a little door. The bag was stuffed with old letters.

The letters turned out to be from a boy in the army, written to the daughter of the family who had lived in the house before us. At the bottom of the bag was a telegram: he had been killed in action.

That's sad. But that wasn't the story I told my sister, Mary. She was about four at the time, maybe five. No, -- and I'm not saying I'm proud of this -- I told her the letters had been written by bats. We'd had bats in the house a couple of times, I was her big brother, and she believed me wholeheartedly.

I didn't think about this for years afterward, and I doubt Mary did either, until one day in high school. A teacher commented that the one thing that separated humankind from the rest of the animals was that animals couldn't write. My sister's hand shot into the air and she blurted, "Bats can!"

Even before her 16-year-old peers started laughing, and as her face began to redden, Mary suddenly realized that her big brother was not entirely reliable. I was away at college by then, which may have saved my life.

Sometimes, you hear things when you're young, or when you're not so young, that you buy into absolutely. It can be a rude awakening to find out that you were utterly and completely wrong.

I had a feeling something like that when I got back the report about our survey of rural residents (which I mentioned in my July 24, 1991 column). One of the Library Trustees had suggested that before we spent a lot of money on a bookmobile, that we try to find out just what people in the outlying areas really wanted in the way of library service. I was sure that the bookmobile would be the preferred choice.

But overwhelmingly (by about 70% to 30%), survey respondents wanted us to improve existing services at existing locations, rather than launching something new.

I was also surprised to discover that rural residents were more likely to have library cards than people who live near our branches, and more likely to use them.

But when I spent some time interviewing our rural library users myself, I began to understand. People who live outside the towns are used to driving. They plan weekly trips to pick up groceries, and in the name of efficiency, they schedule a lot of other things at the same time. For a lot of them, one of those things is a library visit.

When we asked survey participants if they thought they would actually use a bookmobile, most people said no. When I asked some of the people I know why that might be, they told me they were already using one (or more) of our branches, and they weren't too keen on adding yet another trip somewhere else every week, especially since a bookmobile wouldn't have as many library materials as a branch anyhow.

Given those circumstances, the Library Board will re-consider purchasing a bookmobile. I have recommended that they use the money originally set aside for the bookmobile to buy more materials for our branches, and develop a mail-order service for the homebound.

We'll be announcing a public hearing on the subject soon, just to make sure we hear from the people who didn't happen to get surveyed, and I haven't happened to talk to.

Meanwhile, I'm pleased to announce that beginning August 12, we have doubled the hours of our smallest branch: the Louviers Library will be open on Monday afternoons, from 3 to 7, AND its usual Thursday afternoon, also from 3 to 7.

I probably shouldn't mention that we've had some trouble with bats at Louviers. But I've written them some stern letters, and things are better now.

You didn't know bats can read?

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

August 7, 1991 - Charles Fort

"Conservatism is our opposition," wrote Charles Fort.

"But I am in considerable sympathy with conservatives. I am often lazy, myself. It's evenings, when I'm somewhat played out, when I'm likely to be most conservative. Everything that is highest and noblest in my composition is most pronounced when I'm not good for much. I may be quite savage, mornings: but, as my energy plays out, I become nobler and nobler, and lazier, and conservativer. Most likely my last utterance will be a platitude, if I've been dying long enough. If not, I shall probably laugh."

You'd don't find writing like that very often. I had to go to Santa Fe to find this particular sample. I was combing through the shelves of a used book store on E. Palace (the establishment of Nicholas Potter, if you're ever down that way), when I saw a hardback entitled "The Books of Charles Fort." I bought it on the spot. It cost fifteen bucks -- but that got me 1,062 pages of outrageous writing and a 62 page index with entries like "Wheat, mysterious appearance of."

I've been talking about Charles Fort ever since, and reading him to anybody who will sit still long enough to listen.

But I read him when I was a kid, too. On the crammed bookshelf by my bed, nestled next to "Stranger than Science," I had a paperback version of "Lo!", one of Fort's four books. "The Book of the Damned," "New Lands," and "Wild Talents" were the others. All of them are out of print now.

Nobody I've spoken with seems to know anything about Fort. That's a shame.

Charles Hoy Fort (born in Albany, New York in 1874, died in the Bronx in 1932) was a collector. But he didn't collect things; he collected what he called "the widest possible diversity of data." His idea was to find relationships among apparently unrelated facts, and thereby, perhaps, to stumble across or invent a new cosmic order or law or formula.

And some of his data were pretty peculiar. Quoting extensively from everything from international scientific journals to small local newspapers, he produced story after story of rains of live frogs, clouds of exhausted insects that suddenly appeared from nowhere, inexplicable disappearances of people that -- coincidentally? -- coincided with inexplicable appearances of other things.

In his writing, Fort amassed staggering quantities of odd stuff, phenomena that just can't be reconciled with anything reasonable. Then he came up with explanations so patently unreasonable -- but compelling -- that you can't tell if he was serious or not.

As he admitted, "I can't quite define my motive, because to this day it has not been decided whether I am a humorist or a scientist."

Fort has often been cited by science fiction writers as a major intellectual influence. He had a freshness to his insights and his thinking, a willingness to view the universe from every conceivable angle. On the one hand, his gathering and description of data was orderly, succinct, and objective. On the other hand, his theories were just too entertaining, and his attitude too irreverent, for Fort to be well-regarded by the general public. Experts are, or are supposed to be, serious.

His recurrent theme was that everything is inter-related, that coincidences are anything but coincidental: a belief that he sometimes called theological, sometimes scientific, and sometimes, just an idle fancy that he could, or could not, support with confidence, depending on his mood and the direction of the immediate paragraph.

One of the things that bothers me most about this age (and most others) is the blank incuriosity of too many people about almost everything. We don't want to hear about choices that upset too many of our prejudices. So instead, we ignore information that doesn't confirm what we already believe.

Charles Fort still provides a rollicking antidote to intellectual complacency. He was a man who would have heartily endorsed the sentiment attributed to Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road -- take it."

Thursday, August 1, 1991

May 1, 1991 - KKK

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine went to the Anne Frank Exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History.

It touched her, changed her. She said that what she learned from the trip was this: people must not be silent when human ghouls are on the march.

It was that experience that triggered her response to the notice in the newspaper: the Ku Klux Klan was going to stage a march through downtown Denver. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League responded quickly -- "stay away," they advised. "Go to the Anne Frank Exhibit instead."

But my friend felt that belied the whole point of Anne Frank's message. She believed -- and not without cost -- that it was her humanitarian duty to show up, to visibly protest what she believed was the naked bigotry of the KKK and the Aryan Nation.
So she went to the counter-KKK demonstration.

Her first surprise came when she discovered that there were many, many more people than the 40 people she expected, or, for that matter, the 600 people later reported by the media.

No way, she said. Two thousand. Minimum.

She said that she wound up standing next to a more experienced protester who offered some surprisingly useful advice. The crowd started chanting, "No Nazis! No KKK! No Fascist USA!"

The protester told her to say just "No Nazis!" then pause while the rest of the crowd picked up the middle chant. Then, shout, "No Fascist USA!"

"If you shout everything," said the more seasoned soul, "you lose your voice in just a few hours."

Many people have been disturbed by the attention given the KKK and Aryan Nation advocates. The public should have stayed away, say some people.

But my friend had a different perspective.

"There was a moment," she said, "when I looked around me and there were white people, and African-Americans, and Chicanos, and Asians, and Native Americans, and they were all standing together. And someone told me that the Bloods and the Crips had declared a truce that day, just so they could all stand together against racism.

"And I thought .... what a great thing these KKK and Aryan Nation people had done. What else could have brought so many people together, finding themselves on the same side, when before all they knew about were their differences?"

Then my friend described something else.

For the first time in her life, she said, she found herself part of a mob. The mob has its own mind, she said, something different than the sum of its parts.

She found herself circling with several other smaller mobs around the cornered KKK marchers. At one point, she said, there were three groups of at least 200 to 400 people each, who had surrounded the skinheads. The counter-demonstraters were shouting their slogans, and my friend looked down and saw the fear, the real terror, of the KKK and Aryan Nation young people who suddenly found themselves utterly outnumbered by people who viewed them as scum, as anathema.

"I don't like to see young people who are scared," said my friend. "I don't care what they believe."

"But," she added after a moment, "maybe in that instant they understood for the first time what it might be like to be a black person, or a Jew, or any of those people that they had targeted, and to be surrounded by a gang of people who only wanted to ... hurt them. Maybe kill them."

She remembered hearing a policeman, on horseback, announce over a megaphone: "We've lost control."

The bus that finally showed up to take the marchers away was a last, desperate attempt on the part of the authorities to prevent carnage. It worked; it separated the opposing forces.

This issue is not simple. There are no quick solutions to conflict between people, not ever.

But if these issues seem important to you, you have options.

Start doing some research. The Douglas Public Library District has a number of titles worthy of your consideration. You might start with "Blood in the Face: the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture," by James Ridgeway.

If you read the paper at all, consider this: it could be that you can't just uncritically accept the things you read in the paper. Maybe it takes a little more time, a little more effort, a little more investment of yourself, to figure out what's right.

Maybe the future of this country depends on it.

Wednesday, July 31, 1991

July 31, 1991 - Six month district report card

Last night something happened to me that has never happened before. I sat down to write this column and ... absolutely nothing came to mind.

It was about time for a funny one, I thought. But you know, sometimes you just don't feel funny.

Sometimes, you feel like taking a vacation. And tomorrow, as it happens, I'm taking my family down to Santa Fe for the weekend. But last night, I just sat there in front of my computer screen for almost an hour. Didn't type a word. Finally, at nine o'clock, I read a comic book and went to bed.

When I marveled about this inexplicable writer's block to one of my Board members today, he suggested that I should tell people how the Library District has done so far this year. After all, we're a little over half way through 1991 -- now's a good time to check our progress.

Well, it's not funny. But it's not a bad idea for a column. So...

I started my job here on March 29, 1990. On April 19, 1990, the Library Board of Trustees approved some key elements of a long range plan. All of them were ambitious: the library was at that time a county department, and faced a severe funding crisis in 1991.

But the citizens of Douglas County voted to create a library district. So how well has it done?

The first key goal of the Long Range Plan was to expand library hours from five days a week to seven. On March 25, 1991, we did just that. It took a lot more people -- and training them was hectic -- but I happen to think we hired some remarkably talented folks.

Our second goal was to increase the size of our collection. At the end of 1990, we owned 104,644 volumes. As of July 23, we own 122,025 volumes -- an increase of 17,385, or 16.61 percent.

Our third goal was to promote and expand community and cultural events. This has been a record year for library programming, from the well-received travel series at the Parker Library, to the Douglas County School art show at Castle Rock, last fall's music festival at Oakes Mill, and our district-wide writer's contest.

Our fourth goal was to improve automation and networking. At the end of 1990, we had just four public computer catalog terminals in the entire library system. Now, we have thirteen, as well as a dial-in computer line. We also purchased and installed a completely upgraded computer that we manage in-house -- a move that will save us about $100,000 a year. We will be adding another eight terminals (four for the public) within the next four weeks.

Our fifth goal was "to build a new library in northern Douglas County." Opening on August 12 will be our storefront library, located at 52 W. Springer Drive in Highlands Ranch (phone number: 791-7703). Its hours will be the same as those of our other libraries.

The sixth goal was to establish an "outreach" service -- a courier or bookmobile program. First, back in May, we got daily delivery going among the existing library branches. The second part of our outreach effort, particularly the delivery of materials to people in rural or outlying areas, is still being analyzed. But we should be able to announce something within a month.

The last goal was to renovate existing library facilities, specifically, to build on to the Parker Library, finish and provide access to the basement at Oakes Mill, and renovate the space at the Philip S. Miller Library when Social Services and Tri-County Health move out sometime next year. All of these projects have been slated for 1992. (We didn't quite have the money for it this year.)

How has the public responded to all of these changes?

Nationwide, library use has increased by about 3 percent over the past five years. So far, in just the first six months of 1992, the use of the Parker Library (based on the number of materials checked out) has increased by 24.2 percent over the first six months of last year. The use of the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock has jumped by 26.4 percent. The use of the Oakes Mill Library has rocketed by 40.1 percent!

Overall, throughout the entire district, library use has increased by 28.6 percent over last year -- over nine times the national average.

So, on behalf of the Douglas Public Library District, I thank the many voters and library workers who made all of these great strides possible. It's an exciting time to be in Douglas County.

But I'm still going to Santa Fe.

Wednesday, July 24, 1991

July 24, 1991 - Rural outreach

At our house, a day without mail is like a day without sunshine. And thanks to Suzanne's many hundreds of free subscriptions, most days are positively blinding.

Frankly, I'm still a little intimidated by the sheer variety of things available by post. Like most men, I suspect, I tend to walk into a store, find something that is more or less like what I want, see if I can afford it, and if I can, walk out the door with it.

Generally speaking, I don't clip coupons, I don't read ads, and the only catalog I regularly peruse at home has to do with personal computer software. Even then, I toss it out as soon as I've looked at it.

But Suzanne saves her catalogs. She rereads them. She circles things and writes cryptic messages in the margins.

Occasionally, she even orders something, which is always promptly delivered right to our door.

Just lately I've wondered just how many people in Douglas County have similar habits. In particular, I've been wondering whether people in rural areas do more shopping by mail than people who live closer to town.

This isn't just idle musing. By the end of the year, we'd like to improve our library services to the many people in the outlying part of the county -- specifically rural southern Douglas County and the Roxborough area. We'd also like to start directly serving people who are homebound.

The question is: what's the best, most satisfying, most cost-effective way to deliver those services?

In an effort to find out, we engaged the services of a company in the business of research and sales development services (in a word, polling) to call a random but statistically valid sample of people in our outlying areas and ask them what would work best for them.

These are some of the choices the Library Board will be considering:

(a) A bookmobile. This is the traditional alternative: fill up a bus with books and drive it all over the place. That way people can browse for what they want, which we know from other surveys is the way most people prefer to look for things. This is the most expensive option.

(b) A "deposit" collection. The idea here is to seek an agreement with some other agency -- an elementary school, for instance -- and beef up its collection of materials with things from elsewhere in the library district. From time to time, we could freshen up the materials by swapping them with those of another branch. We would also, in all likelihood, provide some extra staff or money to the "host" agency. But it probably wouldn't cost as much as a bookmobile.

(c) Improved services at our existing branches. Maybe the people we're wondering about travel to our branches already, and maybe they'd be happier spending their tax money to make good services better, rather than starting a new, but more restricted service.
(d) Some kind of automated service -- a way to let people with personal computers or access to one of our terminals (and maybe we would need to put some more public terminals in non-library locations) pick out items which we could then mail to them.

(e) And, finally, a mail order book business. The idea here is that we would produce a monthly catalog of our new materials, with pictures of the book covers and short descriptions of the items, and mail it out to people. Then, patrons could either phone in a request, or mail it in. In turn, we would either mail the item back to them, or otherwise arrange for its delivery. Would this be cheaper than a bookmobile? Probably -- but it would require us to develop some new in-house expertise in desktop publishing.

In addition to asking about these service options, we have also asked people some other questions: do you have a personal computer? Do you do much shopping by mail? How often do you drive to town, and which town is it?

By the time this is printed, our research company will have already spoken with about 400 people around the county.

If you were one of the people we called, we thank you for your comments and time.

But if you did not get contacted by phone about this, don't feel left out. Just give me or your local library branch a call (I'm at 688-5157) and tell us which of these choices sounds good to you. If any.

That's catalog choice (a), (b), (c), (d), or (e).

Shipping not included. Visa and Mastercard accepted.

Wednesday, July 17, 1991

July 17, 1991 - Goals Four, Five and Six

This week I'll try to wrap up some of my comments about the Six National Goals for education -- now trickled down to us in the form of Governor Romer's "Colorado 2000."

Goal Number Four is as follows: "By the year 2000, U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement."

Technology is certainly a profound cause of change in our world, not least among libraries themselves. Just 20 years ago, the computer card catalog was little more than a barely articulated dream.

Today, people with personal computers -- also relatively rare two decades ago -- can roam through millions of book titles, read magazine articles, request full text by FAX, and much, much more, without ever leaving their homes.

Or, if they do choose to come down to the library, they'll find that new information retrieval technologies can turn what used to be the work of days into the work of just a few minutes.

Computers have not only become a major field of research and employment, they have put vast universes of data at our fingertips -- a revolution as profound and far-reaching as the one kicked off by the Gutenberg Bible.

Goal Five builds on this technological revolution: "By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship."

Literacy is an issue of great significance to me on several levels. Let's face it: my livelihood depends on it. If people can't read, they don't need libraries.

On another level, I learned when I served as a volunteer tutor and taught a man in his fifties to read, and have learned again as I help my 3 year old make sense of all those letters and sounds, the part of literacy that is just "learning how to read" is a key of incomparable power. Without this most basic level of literacy, the human mind is forever imprisoned by ignorance and hearsay.

At a recent American Library Association conference, keynote speaker Jesse Jackson reminded some 8,000 librarians that back in the times of slavery, a man could beat, rape, or kill a slave without fear of reprisal. But it was a crime, sometimes a capital crime, to teach a slave to read.

Ignorance is the essential weapon in the armament of oppression. In this, a nation founded on the principle of individual liberty, universal literacy must be a topmost concern -- as must the public library, which houses the information active citizens will seek.

In keeping with my three-week-long tradition of boldly challenging even the obvious good, however, I want to sound a note of caution.

At least part of the thrust of "America 2000" and "Colorado 2000" is that the business community needs to be more involved in public education.

There is more to literacy than simply preparing yourself for an entry level management position. Literacy is a tool in the critical examination of the world around you -- in the unending quest of every living mind to understand its environment and create or discover meaning.

Likewise, the purpose of public schools must be broader than mere vocational preparation or consumer grooming. And I for one wouldn't mind seeing U.S. students be first in the world in poetry, or music, or art.

Finally, Goal Six states that "By the year 2000, every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning."

This pressing problem in our schools has causes far more complex than can easily be dealt with here. But I will say this: some part of the answer to the drug crisis is plentiful and accessible information about the effects of drugs. Clearly, the public library is and ought to be involved in the gathering and dissemination of this knowledge.

Overall then, I've found that "Colorado 2000" has provoked me into some stimulating reading and thinking.

I'd advise anybody who's stuck through all these columns -- and still has questions and comments -- to do two things.

First, get involved in your local school system. If you don't like what you see, say so! Often, and loudly.

If you do like what's going on, let everybody know that too. We heap a lot of abuse on our teachers; in my experience, most of them deserve a lot of praise.

Second, don't forget your school and public library! I've been devouring books and magazine articles about education for weeks and have barely scratched the surface.

Ultimately, the best celebration of literacy is its use.

As I quoted in my very first column for the News-Press, Mark Twain said, "There is no difference between a man who cannot read good books, and a man who will not."

Wednesday, July 10, 1991

July 10, 1991 - Goal Three: Testing

I was 8 years old, shivering at the edge of the Findlay, Ohio public swimming pool. The deep end. In a few moments, I would have to dive in, swim to the marker, float on my back to the count of ten, then swim back.

The first three people before me had been hauled sputtering out of the water by one of the instructors.

Watching me from the side was my grandmother, who after every swimming lesson over the past three weeks, had coached me for another two or three hours. I did not want to disappoint her.

Someone called my name, and I tilted awkwardly into the drink. Swimming Johnny Weissmuller style, head out of the water, I made it to the marker. I flipped over, and just barely stayed afloat for the ten second count. I gulped a few mouthfuls of chlorine, then flipped over again and doggedly inched my way back to the edge.

As I grasped it, I turned to see my grandmother smile, a grin she maintained as the next six kids struggled and sank. Her grandson: the only one who graduated from swimming class.

Some 30 years later, a few things occur to me I didn't think of then. If only one person managed to pass the test, either the test wasn't fair, or the quality of the instruction wasn't very good. One thing was clear: My grandmother taught me to swim, not the swimming instructors.

This story illustrates just a couple of the issues bobbing about in the controversial waters of educational testing.

In some ways, most parents consider the sort of tests their children take in schools much as my grandmother looked at my swimming graduation: tests prove that you have -- or have not -- mastered a subject. But they also say something about the school.

In the face of widespread national alarm about the state of our public educational system, a lot of people have begun talking about the need for standardized national examinations.

That's one of the ideas behind Goal Three of Governor Romer's "Colorado 2000" initiative, which reads: "By the year 2000, all students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency in challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, history, and geography; and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our modern economy."

But the more I read about testing, the more confusing it all becomes. According to some estimates, schools give about 127 million tests each year. Yet within the educational community, hardly anybody is willing to assert that the tests mean anything definite.

There are two basic kinds of tests: "norm-referenced" and "criterion-referenced." A norm-referenced test compares your performance to the performance of some other group. To go back to my swimming graduation, if only three out of the ten students from the previous year made it all the way to the first marker before they sank, and this year you made it to the first marker and sank, then in a norm-referenced approach, you might be considered "above average." You still can't swim, but you did better than a lot of other people.

A "criterion-referenced" test is blunter: you can do it, or you can't, you know it, or you don't.

Most of the "standardized achievement tests" now used in America are norm-referenced. But few parents understand -- and few schools have explained -- what these tests mean.

The results of such tests utterly depend on the "norm" -- the characteristics of the group to which the students are being compared. The norm might be urban schools (the lowest scores), or rural (middle), or suburban (highest scores).

Or the "norm" may refer to student performance 10 years ago -- which can produce the peculiar result often called the "Lake Wobegon Effect" (where "all the children are above average").

Based on what I've read lately, a national consensus appears to be building toward criterion-based testing. As numerous studies have shown, it takes about 20 hours of instruction to learn how to read; about 100 to learn the basics of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. The rest is practice.

For the basics at least, it doesn't make sense to test on the "bell curve." Either the instruction happened or it didn't. Either the child knows it, or not. It's sink or swim.

Incidentally, the role of the library, in my view, is to provide an opportunity for that "practice" to take place.

Once children get the rudiments of a basic skill -- like reading -- they need to find somewhere to use it in a way that brings them personal, unmonitored satisfaction. There's a difference between practice and drill, which just might translate to the difference between an enthusiastic, lifelong learner and a bored and resentful student.

Wednesday, July 3, 1991

July 3, 1991 - Goal Two: Graduation

Lately, I've been doing a lot of reading on, and thinking about, public education.

(And where am I getting some of the outrageous ideas you'll find below? GIMME AN "L"! GIMME AN "I"! GIMME A "B"! The rest of this blatantly self-serving cheer I leave as an exercise for the student.)

Last week I prodded at the philosophy underlying Goal One of the "Colorado 2000" initiative -- Governor Romer's attempt to improve our public education system. There are Six Goals altogether.

This week I'm going to see what I can do to Goal Two: "By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent for all groups."

In 1987, Colorado had a 76 percent graduation rate. Of course, this varied from district to district, and tended to be much lower for minority students.

Drop-outs who go on to pass the GED (General Educational Development) test, which then qualifies them for a High School Equivalency Certificate, don't get counted as graduates. Too, they have to wait until they're 17 to take the test.

I have two primary responses to Goal Two.

First, both the public library and the school library can and do have a lot to do with assisting students toward the aim of graduation. Most obviously, we provide an essential resource for people gathering information for school papers and research projects. But we also provide a pool of recreational reading materials -- books and magazines that help kids change gears and enjoy exercising their skills in a more personal, less structured, less goal-oriented way.

My second response concerns the whopping big assumption buried in Goal Two, and it's about time somebody dragged it out in the open. Is it worth a young person's time and effort to stay in school?

My wife just told me about a story she heard on National Public Radio last week. Back east, there's a young man, not yet old enough to drive, who started a lawn care business. In a couple of years, he parlayed a two-bit neighborhood job into a fairly respectable concern. These days, he owns vehicles he is not licensed to drive. He employs people older than he is.

But, darn it, his grades are slipping. He admits that his business activities are more interesting to him than his high school assignments.

I'd be willing to lay odds that if there's anything this guy needs to learn, he won't need school to teach him. And I'd be willing to bet that he's not the only young person in our school system that this observation applies to.

Should we make him (and others like him) stay in school till he's 18 years old anyhow? That's the thrust of several legislative proposals making their way around the country lately -- mandated school attendance from the ages of 4 to 18. But is this either necessary or wise?

On the other hand, surely we all want to ensure that people in our public education system -- most of whom are not nationally-known entrepreneurs -- do soak up some kind of core curriculum before they leave.

So here's a truly radical alternative: suppose that we tell all our children on their first day of school that the instant they can pass the GED, they get a high school degree. They decide when they want to take the test.

I realize this swims against the current, but suppose that we were to tell our children that school has just two main jobs: to provide training in basic academic skills (reading, writing, math), and to present in an organized way a core body of knowledge that we as a nation believe our young people should master in order to get going as citizens. We would tell them we've got a pretty good idea what that body of knowledge consists of, and that they'll be fairly assessed on the test.

And if they pass, it counts. They're out. They're free -- to go to work, to go to college, whatever they want.

Now THERE'S an incentive to graduate!

Remember when I mentioned that drop-out rates vary from district to district? So does the curriculum, both as to the content and the quality of the instruction. Why ask everybody to spend the same amount of time in every school when the amount of useful or interesting or necessary work to be done varies from place to place?

If we were to take this alternative seriously -- consider the GED as high school graduation, and open it up to students of any age -- I bet we'd get up to that 90 percent graduation figure in about three years. And we'd know that our graduates had learned something besides.

On the other hand, we might have a whole new problem: what to do with all those 12 year olds who pass the test?

Right now, a high school diploma is no more a guarantee of an education than an afternoon spent in a doctor's waiting room is a guarantee of health.

Of course, all this leads to another issue -- testing. That's next week's topic, and the focus of the next two goals of Colorado 2000.