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, January 30, 1991

January 30, 1991 - Children's cassettes and videos

Last week, as I was washing my hands in a restaurant bathroom, a stranger nodded at me and said, "How's it going?"

Now there are lots of appropriate responses to polite but basically meaningless greetings. I struck out into totally new territory.

"YOU!" I shouted, which startled the heck out of him, and acutely embarrassed me.

As I say, I'd never seen this guy in my life. What I was TRYING to say, was "Fine. How are you?" in something like a regular tone of voice.

When, sheepishly, I explained this to the man, a look of weary empathy came over his face. Just that morning, he said, he poured himself a cup of coffee, then very carefully put the coffeepot in the refrigerator. Left it there all morning. Couldn't find it.

Hoping wildly that my obvious mental instability might still have some external cause, I asked the man if, by any chance, he had any preschoolers living at home.

He did.

I've given a lot of thought to this lately -- in those rare moments when one thought still manages to follow another in a more or less linear fashion -- and I believe I have unearthed a dire threat to the intellectual fitness of Adult America.

Put simply, the problem is this: children's audiocassettes and videotapes.

Like a lot of people of my generation, I've listened to thousands of hours of classic music. Really good music -- I'm thinking, for example, of anything by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul -- clarifies the mind, focuses the concentration. In those times when I didn't need to be a powerful thinker -- washing dishes, taking out the garbage, etc. -- that music would just well up and remind me of my times, my history, my Self.

Not any more.

Now, when I'm driving (for instance), I mentally hear such lyrics as "I like to oot, oot, oot, ooples and banoonoos ...." or "You know it's no trouble, you know it's a double-u, when you hear wuh, wuh, wuh, wuh!" (Those of you who know what I'm talking about recognize Raffi in the first one, and Bert and Ernie in the second. Those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, RUN! YOU CAN STILL ESCAPE!)

My daughter Maddy, a charming but slightly tone deaf child, listens to these songs with total rapture, every moment she is conscious. Over the past few months, she's amassed an awesome collection of children's audiocassettes. Recently, Suzanne, Maddy's mother, my wife, has taken to checking out roughly 500,000 new tapes each week from the library. Suzanne isn't thinking too well lately either.

More recently, Maddy has taken a liking to my collection of Disney animated films. Now -- between music tapes -- she watches the same films over and over and over and over and over.

On the whole, I think we're still responsible parents. We make sure that we read to her at least an hour every day, and sometimes twice that. But frankly, I don't think my wife and I are quite right anymore.

For instance, today Suzanne and I had a long, earnest talk about Sleeping Beauty. Why on earth did the three fairies take her back to the castle on her birthday? If WE were fairies, we decided, we would have put her in a closet, and sat in the closet with her until the day AFTER her 16th birthday. That way, Maleficent's curse could never have come true, that way ....

We went almost 15 highway miles like that, before coming to our horrified senses.

We bring this stuff home for Maddy, of course, in the belief that it's educational. And for the record, Maddy HAS learned a lot of amazing things lately. SHE'S fine.

So if you want to make your preschoolers very, very happy, and maybe even very, very smart, stop them by the library and sample the best of what's available in the incredibly vast universe of children's audiocassettes and videotapes.

But kiss your brain goodbye.

Wednesday, January 23, 1991

January 23, 1991 - Taxes and Tax Tip Workshops

It was a fine morning, flooded with that magnificent Colorado pre-dawn light. I was feeling pretty good. Then I walked through the library doors ... and there THEY were, figures from a nightmare, harbingers of the modern Inquisition.

Yes. Tax forms.

Read my lips. I don't like taxes. They're necessary, sure. Taxes buy most of this county's books, at all of its libraries, at all of its schools. Taxes pay my salary. In the abstract, I think taxes are swell.

But like most people, I despise working through incomprehensible forms whose only purpose is to separate me from as much of my money as is legally permissible - which, it turns out, can be more than I've made.

Not many people know that librarians have a special, even more twisted relationship with the IRS. To be blunt, we're their patsies.

A few years back, some IRS (Infernal Revenue Service) committee dreamed up a scheme that went like this: Let's make public libraries distribution points for tax forms! After all, libraries are supposed to be information centers.

And we fell for it. We didn't have to do it. In our naivete, we thought we would be providing a convenient new service to our patrons. We'd thought people would admire us for it.

Besides, we're used to forking over a lot of money for reference material. The IRS was going to give us thousands of the common tax forms for absolutely nothing. In a grand show of largess, they would even donate a master index to ALL the tax forms, and photo-reproducible copies of even the obscure ones. We were overwhelmed.

So all across the country, public libraries started putting out tax forms. Then the public found out about it. And then ...

Were they grateful? Did they fall to their knees before the altars of our circulation desks and cry, "Bless you! It's April 14 and NO ONE had this form! Paying taxes hurts, but it least some part of it may help support this wonderful institution!"

They were not. They did not. They tore us to pieces.

If someone had trouble filling out a form - and who doesn't? - WE got yelled at. People seemed to think that just because we had tax forms, we were tax experts. If we couldn't answer their most convoluted tax questions - even though we had received ABSOLUTELY NO TRAINING in tax laws - then WE got dumped on. People were mad at the IRS. But they took it out on us.

I'm a simple man. I just want to raise a couple of tax deductions in peace and maybe earn a nickel's worth of home equity before I die.

But I cannot tell a lie. We do have tax forms. You're welcome to them. But take it easy on the librarians, okay?

In the meantime, just because we just can't help trying to help people, even when it hurts, the library will sponsor free tax workshops for the public.

Here's the schedule:

Philip S. Miller: February 4, from 7-9 p.m.

Oakes Mill Library: February 21, from 7-9 p.m.

Parker: March 6, 7-9 p.m.

All you have to bring is yourself. Be there, and good luck.

Wednesday, January 16, 1991

January 16, 1991 - Politically Correct Art

Remember the flap over federally funded artwork a few months back? Some Congress people hemmed and hawed about the blatant indecency of some the works underwritten by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Before that was the Mapplethorpe trial, wherein the curator of a public art gallery was put on trial because the gallery was showing homoerotic photographs.

There's nothing new about the suspicion that artists and their work are dangerously and subversively sexy. People have even tried to get fig leaves painted over the naughty bits lewdly displayed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After all, if God had wanted us to be naked, no doubt He would have made us that way. (Wait, is that right?)

I'm not trying to suggest that we're all lurching into a new age of prudery. For one thing, the National Endowment for the Arts can still give money to artists without running background checks on their morals. Mapplethorpe's pictures got their showing. Nobody has pasted BVD's over Michelangelo's Adam.

But I admit that I'm a little troubled by a more subtle form of censorship: the cultural sensitivity of the well-meaning and thoughtful liberal.

For example, last week some Library Trustees, local artists and I talked about the role of art in libraries. We all agreed that it would be a good thing to have more paintings, sculptures, and other visual artwork in and around our branches.

Bobbi Lawyer, a Douglas County sculptor, showed us a portfolio of some of her works. One of the pieces, entitled "Self-Made Man," jumped right off the photograph into my heart. It captured almost everything I believe about life and about libraries. The image is simple but arresting: a young man, holding a hammer high over his head, is about to strike the chisel in his other hand, which is wedged into a block of stone that is also the whole of his lower body. In brief, he is carving himself into being.

Many of Ms. Lawyer's statues were equally fine -- I'm thinking in particular of "Emergence," wherein a woman unfolds herself from a shell, or shroud, or shadow. But "Self-Made Man" really spoke to me.

A little while later, one of my Board members raised an interesting issue. Assuming that we could raise enough money to buy some art pieces for our libraries (probably through private donations and grants), should we really have an image of a MAN outside the library? There are many, many images of heroic men throughout history. Wouldn't it be a better thing to have an image that sought to inspire women?

There are several ways to look at this. Here's one of them: I am a man; the Board member is a woman. Each of us preferred the things that spoke most precisely to us as individuals.

Here's another way to look at it: Over 70% of the people who use Douglas County libraries are women.

Ultimately, I think acquiring any piece of fine art could only improve any one of our branches. But the issue gets more complicated the more you examine it. Let's take another look, for instance, at "Emergence." The sculpture is haunting and beautiful. It also shows a woman's bare breasts.

You see the problem? If we respond to the politically correct feminist perspective that we should commission or purchase an artwork that features a woman rather than a man, then we might also have to respond to the equally politically correct perspective (at least in some quarters) that we should not display any image of a woman that might be considered exploitative or obscene.

So what do we do then? If we sidestep the issue altogether by not featuring either a woman or a man, but, I don't know, a coyote, then we open ourselves to criticism from the many farmers who believe that coyotes are nasty varmints who should be shot on sight. If, in response to that concern, we put up a frontier hunter (carefully obscured so you can't tell if it's a man or a woman), then we might rile the animal activists.

The point I'm trying to make is that politics really has no place in art.

Great art, art that endures, defies the conventions of its era. It dares to step beyond the boundaries of popular opinion. It is not concerned with how well it fits into the contemporary prejudices. Rather, it reaches through the surface, to find that part in all of us that belongs equally to yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And art is not a four letter word.

Wednesday, January 9, 1991

January 9, 1991 - Books to Russia

In 1976, my wife, Suzanne, went on a trip to Russia with a college group. She spent three weeks in Leningrad, and three weeks in Moscow.

Leningrad was once -- before the Bolshevik Revolution -- called St. Petersburg, and its citizens still stress that the city is more European than Russian. Designed by Italians, Leningrad is bright, airy, and colorful, with streets as wide as the buildings are tall.

Moscow, on the other hand, is thoroughly Russian. Suzanne remembers it as a study in grays -- bleak, heavy, oppressive. Stalinist architecture.

She remembers something else too: the people who waited around outside her hotel, hoping to practice their English by striking up conversations with foreigners.

You don't see that many Americans hanging around outside international hotels to sharpen their Russian, or Italian, or French, or even Spanish.

The other thing that impressed Suzanne about the eager would-be Russian conversationalists was their astonishing knowledge of world literature. Again and again, my wife -- a widely read woman, trust me -- found her knowledge even of American authors to be woefully inferior to people who did not have legal access to the books they discussed so avidly.

There are no public libraries in the U.S.S.R. There are research libraries -- but their patrons can't just fetch what they want from the shelves. Someone gets the books for them. But first the patron have to say why they want the books. Then -- at least until recently -- they might have to answer more questions.

Up to now, literature that didn't reflect the Party line was contraband, illegal. You'd think that would discourage a lot of unnecessary reading.

Maybe the opposite is true. Maybe the best way to stimulate a taste for literature is to ban it. Maybe if the U.S. Congress passed a law against the works of Mark Twain, and Mickey Spillane, and J.D. Salinger, and Tom Robbins, and Hunter Thompson, then the People would clamor for them unceasingly.

After all, the same basic strategy worked fine for "Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie -- a bestselling book that hardly anyone would have read had it not resulted in the author's death sentence.

But back to U.S. - U.S.S.R. relations. In 1976, America and Russia enjoyed one of their too-brief periods of detente. Things are once again more open between the two countries.

And now there's an interesting opportunity for Douglas County readers to slake the Soviet thirst for books.

A group called "One Society International" is collecting used books that will be taken to a "cafe environment" in Moscow, where many eager hands will snatch them up.

The books can be dropped off with Judy Pruim, at 510 Wilcox Street in Castle Rock, or at any monthly AAUW (American Association of University Women) meeting, or at any branch of the Douglas Public Library District (but do tell us if you want them to go to Russia, so we won't use them elsewhere).

Donate anything -- but consider especially books dealing with management, enlightenment, education, parenting, business, psychology, self-help, women's issues, and children's literature.

Can't you just imagine a gaggle of Russian intelligentsia listening intently to someone declaiming Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham"?

Wouldn't that be great?
Speaking as a librarian, I think it makes much better sense to trade books than bullets.

Wednesday, January 2, 1991

January 2, 1991 - New Year's Resolutions

On January 1 lots of people make grandiose promises to themselves and others. Come December 31, all they have to show for it is bitterness and cold despair.

Let's face it: if you're over 18 and a man, or over 35 and a woman, the only thing you can really be sure of is that twelve months from now, you're going to feel and look a little worse than you do right now.

So why fight it? Make it something you can feel good about. Make it a GOAL.

Another approach is to vow not to do something you have no intention of doing anyhow, or better yet, couldn't do if your life depended on it. Tell your friends: "No way am I going to wrestle Hulk Hogan. Not this year."

Or vow to yourself: "I don't care what happens, over the next twelve months I absolutely will not win the lottery." And stick to it. (You can still buy the tickets if you want.)

Personally, I'm a firm believer that if you set yourself low standards, you can achieve them.

Professionally, of course, my philosophy is a little different. The Board of Trustees of the new Douglas Public Library District has hitched its wagon to the stars. And so far, we're doing considerably better than, say, the Hubble Telescope.

In 1990, the survival of Douglas County's libraries depended upon its conversion to a library district. Thanks to the commanding support of the voters, we achieved that.

But what do we resolve to do in 1991?

- By March, 1991, we plan to open the Castle Rock, Parker, and Oakes Mill branch libraries seven days a week. (In the meantime, we'll define the new organization chart, then hire and train the new employees we'll need.) If we can find the right people and schedules, we'll add another day to our Louviers schedule.

- By June, 1991, we will install a new computer system, independent from the county. This will allow us to add over 20 new public terminals, and greatly expand the number of telephone connections we can support.

- By July, 1991, we plan to open a storefront library in Highlands Ranch. (For now, we're concentrating on getting the extra library books, shelving, and so on.) It too will be open seven days a week.

- By October, 1991, the library district should have a bookmobile. It will serve the residents of Douglas County's more rural areas, and the homebound. As a part of this goal, we'll investigate "satellite" libraries -- opportunities to share space with other organizations in existing buildings.

We had hoped that we'd be able to address some of our current buildings' needs in 1991. But although the residents of the County voted to give us more money, we probably won't see much of it until April or May. And the list of 1991 resolutions should keep us hopping until at least December.

But just so you know we haven't forgotten: In 1992 we'll start remodeling the space at the Castle Rock Library. Then we'll try to append another 5,000 square feet to the Parker Library, and a meeting room to the Oakes Mill Library.

Can we do all this? Of course we can!

As for me, this year I've sworn to lose a little more hair and maybe gain some weight. It won't be easy, but darn it, a man has to have something to shoot for.