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, 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.