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, February 27, 1991

February 27, 1991 - sniglets and Maddyisms

Almost a year ago, my daughter Maddy wandered up to ask me what I was doing. "Typing on the computer," I told her. Being two-and-a-half at the time, naturally she wanted to give it a try.

To my surprise, she very purposefully typed four letters, calling out the names of each one: G-U-R-B.

Now I try not to brag, but you name me just one other two-and-a-half year old who can type "gurb." Most kids can't even spell it.

I bring this up because it's a swell introduction to several Significant Points. Here's one of them: in the automation age typing is close to a survival skill. You can even call it a "key" ability.

The other, related Significant Point has to do with learning how to write. Small children can learn to recognize letters long before they can master the fine motor skills necessary to print them.

So why do our schools torture kids' little hands and minds into doing what they aren't quite ready to do, while at the same time trying to teach them to read? Why focus on what's difficult, associating physical cramping with the written word?

Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to encourage young children to identify and tap the letters on computer keys, and thereby move more swiftly into the joys of reading and writing? Teach them to type -- THEN teach them to print.

But the more I think about this, the more I think the most Significant Point of all doesn't really have much to do with typing. It has to do with the unalloyed delight I felt when Maddy typed a word that didn't exist until that moment -- when I witnessed yet again the astonishing capacity of the human mind at almost any age to generate language.

Here's another couple of Maddy-isms. We were driving through a snowstorm, and she observed, "You call them 'snowflakes,' but I call them 'starflakes.'" Just last weekend, she got to fooling around with a box of plastic disks someone gave her for Christmas. She poked about six yellow ones into one white one, then proudly introduced it as "a rose of sunshine."

A friend of mine back in Illinois came up with another brand new word that -- now that I've heard it -- I can't imagine doing without. You know how you sometimes start walking into somebody, then both of you step aside in the same direction, then step aside in the same direction again, then again? According to a friend of mine back East, that's "roscillating."

Here's the perfect description for those ultra-modern apartment buildings that -- the instant they're finished -- suddenly look miserable and cheap: "high-tack."

A woman who works for the City of Greeley museums told me one day how much she hates "administrivia" -- a brilliant contribution to the lexicon of American speech.

There's something funny and glorious and quietly awe-inspiring about the innate ability of human beings to come up with stuff like this.

Sometimes I think real learning takes place not when you crank out the right answers to the usual questions, but when you discover the sheer pleasure of the unexpected -- but fitting -- phrase.

But that's enough Significance for one day. Tonight I'm just typing and toodling, watching the starflakes roscillate in the evening sky, admiring a rose of sunshine prickling on the stairs, and all-in-all, feeling, well, gurby.

Wednesday, February 20, 1991

February 20, 1991 - Community Information Referral

Any social service agency or local service club faces two basic problems. The first is money: there's never enough to do what needs to be done. The second is advertising: how do you reach the people you CAN help?

The problems can feed on each other. One way to let people know what kinds of services are available is to produce a printed directory of community services. But producing a directory is expensive thrice: once to gather the information, once to organize it, and a final time to print and get it around to people. The first two just take time, and there are always plenty of volunteers for worthy causes (for a while, anyhow). But the last one takes real dollars, and sometimes the returns are small. Small organizations can wind up even poorer (and therefore less able to help folks), with no more visibility than before.

Compounding this is another difficulty: the instant a directory is published, it's out of date.

Pulling together a comprehensive service directory was just one of the problems tackled by the Douglas County Forum on the Family, a multi-agency consortium organized by Douglas County's Social Services last April. Social Services tracked down all the organizations serving Douglas County residents it could find. Then, the organizations were asked to fill out an information sheet: who were they? Where were they located? What did they do?

After all this information had been gathered into several copious notebooks, the library was contacted. Several library people met with a few bright Forum folks and started analyzing the problem.

After awhile, we realized that the purpose of a book and the purpose of a community service agency are very similar: they aim to inform and to aid. And like books, organizations have certain identifiable and consistent characteristics.

In recent years, libraries have moved their "cataloging" of books out from their card drawers and into computers. We've gotten pretty good at codifying and increasing the access to information.

So why not, we asked ourselves, treat organizations as if they were books? Why not take the information local organizations had already filled out on Social Services' data sheets and put it into our computer catalog? Why not create an electronic directory, capable of immediate updating, and costing exactly nothing to print?

We quickly created a few sample records in our database, then showed them to people. We got some good, constructive criticism, then went back to the drawing board. Finally, we defined a solid system for inputting all the information.

But then we got strapped. We needed help to get it all typed in. Beryl Jacobsen, of Colorado State Cooperative Extension, persuaded Jackie Hein to help us out.

And just a few short weeks later, the library's database swelled to encompass brief profiles of 135 organizations serving Douglas County residents.

Here's how it works.

The simplest way to use the system is to just phone the library. (Castle Rock: call 688-5157. Parker: 841-3503. Oakes Mill: 799-4446.) Our staff can quickly tell you where an organization is located, who to contact, what the organization does, and more.

If you come into the library yourself, you can perch by one of our public terminals and search for an organization by its name or initial (as either title keyword or subject), by its subject (either in a comprehensive alphabetical list of all the subjects, or individual subjects of interest), or by an alphabetical listing of all the organizations together. I've spent a lot of time testing the system, and it provides a fascinating overview of Douglas County.

If you happen to have a computer and modem at home, you can put the library's catalog on your desk, which not only gives you access to the nearly 100,000 titles owned by the Douglas Public Library District's branches, but an up-to-the-minute community service directory.

There's always a place for the printed directory. But now, the library can help shoulder some of the costs of pulling it all together and getting the word out.

For more information about the Community Information Referral system, or electronic access for your home computer, call me at 688-5157.

Wednesday, February 13, 1991

February 13, 1991 - How to find a book

Almost twenty years ago, the University of Chicago conducted a study to answer what would seem to be a simple question: what do people remember about the books they read?

This study recorded the responses of people interviewed one week, one month, six months, and one year after they'd read a test group of books. The interviewers asked questions like this: who wrote the book? What was the title? What was the book's subject? How long was it? What color was it? What did the cover look like? How big was the book?

You might stop and think about the last book you read, and see if your answers match what clearly emerged from the study.

Fact number one: after a month, often after just a week, and occasionally right after finishing a book, most people don't have a clue who wrote it. The exception, naturally enough, is when they deliberately sought the book because of the author.

Fact number two: people usually do remember titles, but not ALL of the words, or in the right order.

Fact number three: if you ask someone for the subject of a book, they'll be able to tell you SOMETHING. But it rarely has much to do with library subject headings. People remember stories, not categories. For example, they don't remember that the book was about the Lakota Tribe in 1859, they remember that it's about a white girl who is raised by an Indian tribe, and she meets this Chinese railroad worker, and they ... You get the idea.

Fact number four: the overwhelming majority of people remember the color and size of the book much better than the author, title, or subject.

If you've ever used a library at all, you've probably had to work with a card catalog at least one time. For over a hundred years, card catalogs have been organized -- in strict alphabetical order -- by author, by title, and by subject. Computer catalogs, at least until recently, followed the same logic.

In other words, librarians have spent millions of dollars and over a hundred years indexing their collections by author, title, and subject when these are precisely the things that NO ONE CAN REMEMBER.

Since computers have come along, things have gotten a little better. Most library systems now let you search by subject or title "keyword" -- that means ANY WORD that appears in the title or subject. So, based on academic research and personal experience, I strongly urge people to search our computer catalog by TITLE keyword or words -- it's faster and usually more fruitful. You can type "wind gone" and GET "Gone with the Wind." You can type "goldfish" and get the call number of at least one book on the subject, and then you can go to the shelf and see what's in.

Sometimes I think -- and one of these days I'm actually going to do this -- we should add a new data field that contains just two words: the color of the book (and I'd post a list of no more than 6 or 8 colors), plus one more word to describe the size or shape of the book (paperback, small, medium, large, skinny, fat). Then, you could sit down in front of a terminal and type "skinny red." You'd get a list of maybe 100 books. Then you could type the one or two words that you remembered from the title, and narrow it down to 2 or 3.

Or you can do what most people do: don't mess with the catalog at all. Just browse the new books section.

Sometimes, of course, that isn't good enough. Sometimes we do have to set some rules for organizing information.

But I'll talk about that next week, when I tell you about our Community Information Referral Service, a computerized introduction to Douglas County social service agencies.

Wednesday, February 6, 1991

February 6, 1991 - The stacks are alive

A lot of people still see libraries as nice, quiet places where books reside in stately somnolence and splendor. Libraries ARE nice. But quiet? Depends on the time of day and whether or not we've got any children's programs cooking. Sleepy tomes on dusty shelves? No way! The collection of a well-used library is frisky as a streamful of trout.

Have you ever gone back to a particular section to find a book you checked out maybe a year ago, but when you got there, the whole area looked different? It's not that we're trying to confuse you. It's not even a merchandising trick, like in those department stores that move everything around at irregular intervals so you'll paw through everything in the store looking for the one little thing you just popped in for. The truth is more basic than that.

The bookstacks are alive.

Library books move around a lot. For one thing, people check them out. (It's a good thing, too. Most libraries couldn't store their books if they all came back at the same time.) Some of our books are at people's homes. Some of the books are temporarily stacked on library tables. Some of them are on book carts waiting to be reshelved. And more of our books than you might think wander aimlessly around the building. Somebody walks over to the cookbooks. She picks something, then strolls over to the poetry section. Once she gets there, she sets down the cookbook, takes two books of poetry and heads for the biographies. Once there, she sets down one book of poetry, picks up three biographies ...

This can result in some disorganization. But that's not necessarily bad. It can be frustrating to look for a book that's ambled off to the "wrong" part of the library. On the other hand, you might head purposefully into the carpentry books one day and come out with a book of Woody Allen short stories. Sometimes you find what you didn't know you were looking for. It's serendipity, which Robert A. Heinlein, the late great science fiction author, defined as "digging for worms and finding gold." Serendipity makes libraries interesting.

There's another way bookstacks act alive. They breathe. They expand and contract. For example, suppose there's an explosion of publishing activity in the health sciences. Suddenly, a nice, roomy section of books is too tight. The books start spilling over into other areas. At the other end of the cycle, books have to be culled from the shelves when they get too dated. This frees up space. Before too long - about once a year for most small to medium-sized libraries - the whole library has to be "shifted" to redistribute all the books throughout the available space.

Good libraries are like big families. Some of the books are like new kids just moving in, some like older kids moving out, and everybody changing rooms and closets from time to time.

The stacks are alive!