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, January 29, 1992

January 29, 1992 - the OED

When I was in seventh grade, one day I got stuck in a study hall with nothing to read but a paperback dictionary. I opened it, and scanned down the page looking for something interesting.

I found it. The word was "callipygian" (kal-uh-pij'-ee-an). It meant, "having beautifully proportioned buttocks."

Maybe things are different now, but when I was in seventh grade, a word like that could and did exert a powerful influence on the mind of an imaginative boy.

After giggling and snorting for a while, I read the rest of the definition, which in that particular Webster's also included word derivations -- what language or languages the word hailed or got combined from. (Incidentally, virtually all books now called "Webster's" have little or nothing to do with the long labors of Noah Webster -- Charles and George Merriam bought all rights to Webster's dictionaries in 1843, and after extensive revisions, made them the household word they are today. But anybody can slap the name "Webster's" on a dictionary. And many not-so-scrupulous publishers do just that.)

Well, the "roots" of "callipygian" got me flipping to another part of the dictionary to see what "pygidium" meant, then back to "calli-" to see what other words started with this prefix that meant "beautiful." (You can look up pygidium for yourself -- this is a family newspaper. As for "calli-" -- how about "calligraphy," literally, "beautiful writing"?)

By the end of the study hall, I was hooked. From that day to this, I have been addicted to reading dictionaries.

At the Douglas Public Library District alone, we have 397 books in which the word "dictionary" appears in the title. Interestingly, English probably has more dictionaries than any other language.

Why? In part, because we have more words. Not only do we invent a lot of them, if some other language comes up with a good one, we steal it.

Nobody really knows just how many words currently are in use in the English-speaking world. Over 200,000, however, are in COMMON parlance. In comparison, the Germans have only about 184,000 words, and the French, a paltry 100,000.

According to Charlton Laird, in his book "The Miracle of Language," English is also the only language that has -- or needs -- books of synonyms. "Most speakers of other languages are not aware that such books exist."

But to get back to dictionaries, they generally fall into one of several camps. One camp is exemplified by the so-called "Webster's Second Edition," published in 1934. It was one of those thick, heavy books that properly requires its own solid oak stand. The Second Edition is still a signpost of erudition, correctness, and scholarly fastidiousness.

A second camp was perfectly captured by the Webster's Third Edition, usually called "The Webster's Unabridged," and roundly condemned by indignant newspaper editors, English professors and even librarians, as inexcusably permissive. (The Unabridged gave the nod not only to "imply" as a synonym for "infer" but even extended an explicit linguistic sanction to "ain't".)

Ah, but the crowning glory of English lexicography (from "lexis" -- speech, and "graphy" -- the writing of) is, and ever shall be, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its original purpose was to trace and document the usage of every word used in English since 1150 A.D. In its 16 volumes and 5 supplements, the OED contains 414,825 entries, supported by 1,827,306 citations, described in 44 million words of text spread over 15,487 pages.

A second edition of the OED, the OED2, was released in 1989, ranging across 20 volumes, with 615,000 entries, 2,412,000 supporting quotations, almost 60 million words of exposition, and about 350 million keystrokes of text -- one for every native speaker of English in the world.

According to Bill Bryson's lively and readable "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way" (the source for most of the information in this week's column), the OED is the reason that "more is known about the history of English than any other language in the world. No other language has anything even remotely approaching it in scope."

It's the kind of thing that makes you proud to talk English. Ain't it?

Wednesday, January 22, 1992

January 22, 1992 - Primers : the decline of textbooks

You might expect them to be within pages of each other in the encyclopedia: McGuffey and McKee. But in fact, the educational approaches -- and ultimate legacies of William Holmes McGuffey and Paul Gordon McKee -- are universes apart.

William McGuffey was a clergyman and educator, best known for his series of "Eclectic Readers." From the mid-1830s through the mid-1850s, over 120 million of the illustrated "McGuffey readers" were sold for use by elementary students.

The McGuffey readers were liberally sprinkled with excerpts from American government and economic history. They also featured a broad pantheon of American writers. McGuffey was particularly fond of long, sonorous poems, fit for reciting.

Many scholars believe that these books exerted a profound influence on the American public. The books stressed good, old-fashioned American virtues -- self-reliance, democratic ideals, honesty, AMERICAN writing.

But there's something scholars DON'T write about. You'd probably notice it immediately. I did, when somebody donated an old McGuffey reader to us some months ago.

The book cover labeled it a fifth grade reader. By today's standards, the book was COLLEGE level material.

What's happened in the past century or so?

A good case could be made that Americans have become increasingly illiterate since about 1930. Part of the problem -- not all of it -- can be traced to a watering down, a decline in the quality, of our textbooks.

This trend began, I believe, with another educator. His name was Paul McKee. For many years he was the Dean of the College of Education, at Greeley's University of Northern Colorado.

Probably McKee's name is not familiar to you. But I'll bet his books are. Do the names "Dick" and "Jane" ring a bell?

Given the fact that almost every baby boomer I talk to remembers them, I'm willing to bet that there were at least as many Dick and Jane books as there were McGuffey readers.

Teaching young children to read was McKee's specialty. And his philosophy was based on the simple premise that literacy is incremental. That is, first you teach children the alphabet, then some basic sound combinations, then some simple words, then drill them in the words, then add words that are a little harder.

The Dick and Jane series -- which were first published in the late 1950s -- were perfect examples of this approach. "Oh. See Dick. Oh, see Dick run! Run, Dick, run!"

No doubt about it. The books were incremental. Each letter, each phrase, each sentence, each paragraph, built relentlessly on the one before it.

But they were BORING.

Since the dawn of recorded history, one of the driving forces behind the urge to learn to read has been the need -- after hearing part of an exciting story -- to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. In the Dick and Jane primers -- NOTHING happened, ever.

So how did this affect the students? Their eyes glazed over. They sat back. They looked out the window. Occasionally, they focused back on the teacher when a new character appeared. (See Spot! See Puff!)

We can only give thanks that no one has yet suggested that we send our infants to school to learn to SPEAK.

When the test scores started to roll in, surely these educators must have wondered why ever fewer children could read as well as they had under the McGuffey readers.

A scientific approach might have suggested that alternative B (controlled vocabulary teaching) just wasn't as good as alternative A (a comprehensive exposure to American literature). But McKee -- and his colleagues -- reached another conclusion. The Dick and Jane books were TOO HARD -- or maybe they built up the hard words too fast. So they sought to make their books even easier.
about the moment that this educational philosophy reached its peak, the books of Dr. Seuss made their appearance. They set the incremental vocabulary approach on its ear. Seuss too was repetitive -- but he returned a sense of play to the use of language. And his books had plots -- real stories. Not surprisingly, children loved them.

What's my point?

First, the first books your children hear are important. Don't underestimate your child's intelligence or capacity to respond to rich language. What should you read to your child? Good stories. Don't worry about them being too hard. Your children may surprise you.

Second, browse through an encyclopedia sometime. Chances are, you'll find McGuffey. You'll find Seuss. But look! No Paul McKee!

'Bye, Dick! 'Bye Jane!

Wednesday, January 15, 1992

January 15, 1992 -

[Well, I was wrong. Back at the end of September, 1991, I directed all branch managers to commence immediate, 7-day-a-week story times for children. It was a good idea, and their staff (and volunteers) came up with many magnificent programs. But the results were incontrovertible: nobody wants to bring their children to weekend story times. So I'm canceling them.

On the other hand, generally speaking, the Monday through Friday story times have been very well attended. We'll keep those going.

We have had one slow week day at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock -- our Wednesday story time for very young children. Carol Foreman, one of our librarians, is the story teller on that day, and it would be hard to imagine a more vivacious and experienced leader.

So why have children (and their parents) stayed away? Mainly, I think, because they feel either that their children are too young to "get" anything out of it, or that their children aren't quiet enough -- that they might be causing a "disturbance."

Let me state this as directly as possible: first, you can't get your kids around books soon enough. No age is too young. Second, we do not expect children under two-and-a-half to be quiet. It's not natural. But being in a library IS.

The way I see it, going to the library isn't a reward or a special privilege for the unusually mature. It is, or ought to be, both the playground and raw material for every child's fantasy life. We WANT them to come. That's why we have story times for young children, and that's why we hire librarians who like working with them.

Over the next couple of months, we're going to develop an outreach program to Castle Rock area daycares -- a shameless attempt on our part to recruit children at the earliest possible age by encouraging them to develop a taste for good books.

At any rate, this week's column is by Carol Foreman. I think you'll get a better understanding of what we're trying to do with our story times, and what kind of people you can count on finding at all our libraries.]

As I was thinking about this article and what I might say, my young daughters, Jessica and Storie, interrupted me with their play. They were pretending to be in a movie theater and needed me to do something for them.

Pretending and playing: I bet my daughters spend at least 75 percent of the day in these activities. To an adult, this can sometimes be boring and often tiring, but to a child it is mind-expanding and exhilarating.

Where, I often wonder, do my children get their material for all this fantasy? Sometimes, I hear them repeating lines from favorite movies or television programs, and sometimes they pretend to be a favorite animal. But regardless of what they pretend, I see the influence of books behind their play.

Like many of you, I have read to my children from the time they were born. Of course, they haven't always understood me, let alone sat still, but over time, I've seen a change in my children.

Jessica (my almost 6 year old) became so engrossed in "Little House in the Big Woods" that one day she was pretending to be Laura taking Charlotte shopping at the little store in town.

Lately, however, it is with Storie, my almost two year old, where I see the profound and lasting influence of reading. Her vocabulary has doubled -- mind you in a two year old that's still not a lot of words. She listens while we talk to her and actually sits still for a GOOD book. Most importantly, she often takes down a book by herself (usually in her crib) and "reads."

As parents, we all want our children to be good readers because that one skill often predicts "success" in school and learning. But reading also encourages imagination and play -- it's the grist for the mill of childhood.

The Douglas Public Library District (all branches) offers to parents a wonderful opportunity to bring their little ones (ages 1-1/2 - 2/12) to the library -- for free -- for a very special story hour every week. These programs help parents learn what they can do to set their toddler on the road to reading, singing, talking, listening, playing, and the world of imagination, and how to share books with their children.

I've listed the schedules for all branches below. We hope to see you -- and your children! -- at the library soon.

Wednesday, January 8, 1992

January 8, 1992 - statistical tidbits

I've just run off some of our 1991 statistics, and wanted to highlight some of the numbers.

For the Douglas Public Library District -- as with much of the county -- it was a year of astonishing growth.

In 1990, the library checked out (or "circulated," as librarians call it) 362,675 items through our computer system at all branches. In 1991, we checked out over half a million (506,253, to be exact) -- an increase of 39.59%.

That's as if everybody in the county (using the 1990 census figure of 60,391) checked out 8.38 books apiece, or about 3 more books per person than last year.

In 1990, we added 6,668 new patrons to our records; in 1991, we registered 9,095 people -- an increase of 36.4%. Part of the reason for that, of course, was the increase in the population of the county. On the other hand, the projected population increase was 7.42% -- so that wasn't the only reason.

The number of titles we added to our database jumped by 192.48% over last year, which isn't bad, considering that our materials budget only doubled.

The extra purchasing power, incidentally, came from our participation in a statewide school and public library buying cooperative -- which has secured for us a hefty discount on new materials. At the end of 1990, we had about 100,000 individual items in our collection (among all branches). Now we have 134,734 -- over a third more than last year.

We began so many new services in 1991 that it's a little hard to accurately calculate the effect of each one alone. For instance, in March of 1991 we opened all of the library branches 7 days a week. Throughout the entirety of 1991, our busiest day was Monday, followed by Tuesday, followed by Saturday, followed by Thursday. Throughout the entire year, our slowest day was Sunday -- but on Sunday we're only open four hours.

If we divide the number of items checked out by the number of hours the library was open on that day, however, we get a slightly different picture. On a per hour basis, Monday is still our busiest day, but then the order changes: Sunday is next, then Tuesday, then Saturday -- with Wednesday the slowest.

In 1991, the library placed 110% more reserves on items than in 1990 -- but that reflects another new service. In 1991, we changed our computer system to allow patrons to place their own holds, either from a terminal at the library, or by connecting their home computers to the library by telephone. Clearly, many patrons have found that to their liking.

I'm always interested in what people really want from a library. In 1991, Douglas County residents demonstrated some fairly strong biases.

See the attached chart for the top ten "circulators" for 1991 (which together accounted for 94% of all our checkouts). Note that just two items -- children's picture books and adult non-fiction -- together add up to over half of all items that walk out our doors.

By broad materials category, general collection BOOKS continue to be the item of choice -- 71.06% of our business. The runners-up are video tapes, paperbacks, cassettes, new books, and magazines, which together comprise another 27% of all items circulated.

I've also done some preliminary analysis on the circulation of each library branch. It's fairly obvious that the greatest single factor in library use is simply how much each branch has to offer -- that is, how many materials it has. See the attached charts for comparisons. (Note: CR stands for Castle Rock; HI for Highlands Ranch; OM for Oakes Mill; and PA for Parker.)

Finally, among all of our non-fiction materials, the most popular subject is (you'll never guess this one, especially after the holidays) ... cookbooks.

In summary, if you're looking for a New Year's resolution, you might consider this: it's far less caloric to READ about food than to eat it.

Thanks for a great year!

Thursday, January 2, 1992

January 2, 1992 - Leroy Stagg

Love is a strange thing. It's hard to say where it starts.

At about the age of four, I started getting Dr. Seuss books through the mail. Did it start then?

Or did it begin even before that, with the smell of books, the look of leather binding in the light, the books gleaming in the bookcase my mother built, occupying pride of place in the living room?

Did it start the day the bookmobile pulled up in the strip mall behind my house?

I'm not sure. I know one thing, this love of books got pretty firmly entrenched the day my grandfather took me to an auction in the Ohio countryside. I was 10, I think.

After poking around for awhile, he bought me a whole box of books. Published in the 1880s, they were just about the perfect size for my hands. They were bound with richly dyed leather, and every page was a masterpiece of typography. At the top of each page was a short, italicized phrase describing the current topic. At the frontispiece of each book, and sprinkled throughout, were beautifully detailed pen and ink drawings.

All the books were biographies, and each was written by a man named Jacob Abbott. Now Abbott, according to my grandfather, was a peculiar fellow. A man of wide learning and prodigious memory, he didn't even have to do research for his books. But he had a weakness -- for whiskey.

So his publisher worked out an unusual arrangement. He would give Abbott a case of whiskey, and lock him into a room with the case, a subject, and writing supplies. Within a week, Abbott would stumble out of the room, the last drop of whiskey fresh on his tongue, neatly coinciding with the final, scrawled word of his manuscript.

I don't know how long all this went on, and I don't really know if it's true. But I do know that I had about 20 of those books, which is a lot of whiskey.

I spent many, many hours in those clear, elegant, and luminous little books, obliterating time and distance. And in those intoxicating hours, I learned a deep appreciation for the artifact of the book, much the way a carpenter-to-be might learn the feel of fine wood.

Each one of the Abbott books had a bookplate in it. Each one was numbered: "Property of Leroy Stagg, No. ___ " The Abbott books were numbered into the thousands.

It's hard to know when love starts. But surely it is deeply connected to all our senses, and our oldest memories. For some reason, the poem on Leroy Stagg's bookplates stays with me, and at the end of the old year, and the beginning of the new, I'd like to share it with you. Here it is:

If thou art borrowed by a friend
right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
but to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge
doth diminish learning's store,
but books, I find, if often lent,
return to me no more.

For a librarian, that's tantamount to wedding vows.

May all your old loves prove as worthy as mine, and your future be as bright. Happy New Year!