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, 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.