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 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.

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