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, 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.