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, February 26, 1992

February 26, 1992 - book selection

I'd been eyeing two comic books for seven, agonizing days. My new week's allowance hot in my pocket, I ran straight out to the newsstand. I snatched up one of the comics, then the other one.

That's when I made The Terrible Discovery. I could only afford to buy one of them.

Sometimes it's hard to be ten. And sometimes it's hard to be a librarian. The problem isn't that there aren't any good books. The problem is which ones to buy when you can't buy all of them. Books are expensive. Lately, the average non-fiction hardcover costs almost $30. Adult fiction costs about $18 a book. Kid's books aren't much better. Fiction or nonfiction, anymore they go for about $15 a pop.

So let's say a library has an allowance of $100,000 per year. Using a low estimate of $16 per volume, that means it could buy 6,250 books in one budget year. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

But the commercial presses cranked out about 53,000 books last year. The small presses published at least that many. In other words, even a library with the fairly generous budget of $100,000 can only buy about one book out of every sixteen.

So how do librarians decide which books to buy?

A small percentage -- let's say an even 1,000 -- of those books are on the bestseller list. We can find those easily -- they come out in the paper every week.

We'll buy almost anything our patrons say they want (assuming it's still in print and isn't both esoteric and exorbitantly expensive). But usually, people ask for what they see in the bookstores, meaning books that have big print runs. In such cases, the authors either have a track record or are on the talk show circuit, or both. The books may not be bestsellers, but they're bound to be popular. Those are no problem for us either. We know about them, and in many cases, order them even before they're published.

Overall, patron requests (that we haven't anticipated) probably account for another 500 titles or so annually.

Another dent in the book budget is reference books. Over the past couple of years, we've been trying to beef up our reference collection, and reference books aren't cheap. But even so, we don't buy more than 500 titles a year.

So how do we deal with the other 104,000 books published each year?

Mainly, we read reviews. Some are in newspapers. Some are in book publishers' trade periodicals. But mostly, we read reviews in magazines written by librarians for librarians.

Because libraries try to get books BEFORE people ask for them, reviewers read early copies of the book called galleys. Then they get to write 200-300 words describing the book. That's not much. This column, for example, has about 700 words. Because librarians have to read over 2,000 reviews a week just to stay even, they look for a few key words, usually in the last sentence of the review: "recommended" or "not recommended." Sometimes the reviewer's recommendation is qualified: "recommended for academic libraries," or "recommended for subject collections only."

In other words, we rely upon patron requests, patron use by subject area, and the best judgment of people we've never met. Not that they always agree with each other. Or that we always agree with them. But somehow it all works: any busy library has demonstrated that it gets a good chunk of what the community wants, and in Douglas County, our libraries are very busy indeed.

At the Douglas Public Library District, our branch managers (and some reference staff) get together about once a month to plow through all these reviews, talk about what they've read, and make some choices.

If one librarian recommends a book but is spending her budget faster than anticipated (as when she discovers a "hole" in her collection after a lot of people starting asking for things, so has to spend some money to catch up with the popular interest), then one of the other librarians can pick it up. Since we have 5 days a week delivery services anyhow, our branch managers just agree to borrow those books from each other as their patrons request them.

So for the Douglas Public Library District librarians, book selection is much like five kids buying five different comics books, then trading.

I wish I'd thought of that 27 years ago.

Wednesday, February 19, 1992

February 19, 1992 - ironies of censorship

For the past several years, I have served as the co-chairman of the Colorado Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee.

All this committee does, really, is try to track censorship attempts around the state. How do we define a "censorship attempt"? That's when someone seeks to remove a book from library shelves.

Most commonly, both in Colorado and the rest of the country, the complainant is a parent, and the library is in an elementary school.

If librarians holler for help, the Intellectual Freedom Committee trots out various noble-sounding policy statements about why removing "challenged" materials isn't a good idea. Not that most librarians contact us -- where censorship is most effective, hardly anybody talks about it.

So let's talk about it.

First, censorship has a long and illustrious history. It dates back to the earliest days of printing.

Johannes Gutenberg came up with his movable type printing process in about 1440. Before then, books had to be laboriously hand-copied -- which meant that there weren't many books. Of course, there weren't many people who could read them, either.

But once printing was established, the world saw an explosion of publishing. By far the most popular title was the Bible. Gutenberg published one himself. But literally hundreds of versions of the Bible appeared shortly thereafter, translated from the Latin.

It may surprise you to learn that in the age of printing, the very first book to be censored was ... the Bible, in fact, several Bibles. Some people believed that the new art of printing (according to the World Book Encyclopedia) was a "'black' art that came from Satan. They could not understand how books could be produced so quickly, or how all copies could look exactly alike."

There were objections from the clergy, as well. As long as the Word was both in Latin and hard to come by, people depended on priests for their Scriptural guidance. But as families eagerly snapped up their copies of the Bible, suddenly they began to have their own interpretations.

One publisher of the Bible was even put to death -- he mis-set the type in the Ten Commandments to read, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

A second irony of censorship is the basic premise that underlies every attempt to impose private morality on the public stock. Put simply, the idea is that "A book made me do it."

The most-often cited example of this perspective is based on the testimony of convicted serial killer Ted Bundy. A notorious and pathological liar, Bundy announced to the press that the REASON he became a serial killer was because he had read a lot of pornography.

It happens that many statistical studies have been done in the past twenty years that show conclusively that pornography has no causative relationship whatsoever to the incidence of violent crime, particularly sexual crimes.

The Meese Commission (under President Reagan's administration) also failed to find any causative link between pornography and sexual crimes -- then recommended sweeping restrictions on materials anyhow.

There's something odd in the fact that censors find Ted Bundy more believable than a host of highly respected researchers.

The third irony of censorship has to do with the results. Presumably, when parents demand the immediate removal of a book from a school library, they seek to reduce the harmful influence the book is supposed to exert.

But what happens when a book is challenged? Every time, a censorship attempt on a book INCREASES interest in it. More people check it out. Everybody talks about it. Libraries are compelled to buy more copies to keep up with the demand.

If the aim is to reduce a book's influence, isn't this exactly the wrong way to go about it?

The fourth irony of censorship is the current claim that there's no difference between a librarian deciding which book to buy, and a parent saying which book should be thrown out. In effect, censors say that "selection" and "censorship" are the same thing.

But that completely misses the point. If you buy a Ford Taurus because it got good reviews in Consumer Reports, that's selection, based on the best available knowledge of what's good. If you don't buy a Toyota, because you don't like anything Japanese on principle, that's a boycott. And that's censorship, a rejection of something regardless of its merits.

The difference between selection and censorship is the intent behind it. Selection tries to build library collections; censorship tries to reduce them.

I hope no one in America really believes that what's wrong with our schools is that our children are reading too much.

You know the best way to improve the quality of your local library?

Instead of asking us to remove books you object to, why not just tell us about a better one? Librarians welcome that kind of involvement, and we'll do our level best to get it on the shelves as quickly as possible.

After all, if we were to prune our shelves of all the books people object to, we wouldn't have much left but dust. And that wouldn't be much of a library, would it?

Wednesday, February 12, 1992

February 12, 1992 - the agelessness of libraries

In many of my columns for the News-Press, I have focused on the importance of children's services. That's not just because I happen to be a father of a four-year-old, but because I think public libraries -- especially these days -- need to focus on recruitment.

In America, two pervasive trends -- mounting illiteracy and ever more organized censorship attempts -- strike at the heart of our society. These trends are related.

Literacy means not only the ability to read, but to be undaunted by print, to accept the challenge of its manifold contradictions, to relish its depth and breadth. But these lessons -- if learned at all -- most often start early in life.

Ideally, every home should overflow with books and magazines. But every home does not.

Every school room should be a whirlwind of books. But every school room is not.

The early influence of books -- from as many perspectives of knowledge and opinion as possible -- is the surest way to ensure the kind of informed, intellectually vigorous nation envisioned by the framers of our Constitution. But for many, many people in this country, books are as foreign as moon rocks.

Most adult Americans don't read one book in a year. It isn't easy to get people like that into a library. For most adults, either you use the library or you don't.

There are exceptions, however -- moments when adults can break out of old patterns and build new ones. When they do, libraries are ready for them.

One pattern-breaker is the dawn of parenthood. Libraries can provide crucial information about pre-natal care, pregnancy, and those swift, miraculous years afterward. New (or about-to-be) parents have lots of questions, and quickly learn that it's much cheaper to borrow books than to buy them.

Another pattern-breaker for adults is a career change. People looking for work are consciously open to new sources of information. They tend not to want to pay for expensive, formal courses. Often, they can't travel as freely as they would like to. Sometimes, they just need to brush up on old skills.

For job-seekers, the public library is an almost perfect solution. We have numerous free materials and public programs that can help people polish their resumes, scan job opportunities elsewhere, and keep up with professional trends.

Yet another time when people can break free of old patterns is in the wake of a sudden change in lifestyle. Perhaps they get married. Or someone close to them dies. Or they buy a house. They move from the country to the city -- or the city to the country.

Or maybe they just grow old.

From family budgeting books, to the hundreds of "how to's" purporting to make a marriage better, to the wrenching accounts of grief endured, to redecorating and preservation tips, to magazines and local newspapers, to Large Type materials, to a wealth of other audio- and video-cassettes on virtually any topic -- the public library has something for everybody.

I write a lot about the perceptions, and the importance of, children. In part, that's because I know it's something all of us can relate to. After all, those of us who aren't children now, used to be.

But in the same way, the public library acknowledges and validates the experience of every human being, whatever the age.

Ultimately, the whole point of libraries is to obliterate the barriers of time -- to allow the person of one age, one culture, one moment, to speak directly to another, and thereby illuminate the life of the reader.

That's you.

Wednesday, February 5, 1992

February 5, 1992 -

I have a theory that the more important or basic something is, the fewer syllables the word has that describes it.

Take, for instance, words like "home," or "food" -- things it would be hard to live without. Compare the word "spoon" with "refrigerator." "Spoon" has been around for a while. "Refrigerator" is a relative new-comer.

If a word has too many syllables, but whatever it is gains more importance in our society, then we make the word shorter. "Refrigerator" becomes "fridge." "Horseless carriage" first got cut back to "automobile." Now, we call it a "car." "Television" is "TV;" "telephone," just "phone."

But this principle works the other way, too. The words that describe people or things with "suspect" status -- they make people uncomfortable, or somehow they wind up carrying negative connotations -- tend to get more syllables.

Once upon a time we called people who couldn't hear, "deaf," and people that couldn't walk, "halt," or "lame." These conditions have always been present in the human race. The words weren't meant to be pejorative. But over time, people began to feel that somehow they were. So the same people became "hearing impaired," or "physically challenged." It didn't effect their situation, only the way we talked about it.

An especially interesting case is how the people we once called "colored," became in the 'sixties "blacks," and now, if I read the trend correctly, are on their way to becoming "African Americans."

But the subject of this week's column is the shift of a word that I think may be an even more profound indication of the shift of values in the culture of the United States.

That word is "old."

"Old" is not a good word anymore. Why? Because of the baby boom, maybe. Since then, it has been hip to be young.

Or maybe we don't like "old" things because of the influence of movies (which used to be called "motion pictures," incidentally, although these days you're more likely to see "films"). Most of our box office stars have pretty, young bodies -- and many other movie-folks spend a lot of money making their bodies LOOK young.

Old people, meanwhile, have somehow become "senior citizens," or the even more crotchety, "elderly." The only good old things are "antiques." Old buildings are "historic" -- because if they're not, they get torn down.

Note that "young" hasn't changed much. We don't refer to people under 40 as "junior citizens." And although we don't usually talk about things and buildings as "young" we do use the word "new" -- and what's "new" almost always means something good, certainly better than "old."

Our cultural fascination, even obsession with the young, programs some people in our society to a bleak, meaningless retirement. It traps other families into a situation where they can think of no solution but to warehouse older parents in ill-equipped nursing homes.

I submit that in order to become a truly healthy society, our attitude toward age must change. We must learn to provide appropriate emphasis to the different cycles of human life.

Next week, I'll talk about how the library, alone among all our public institutions, is uniquely equipped to provide services to people of all ages. Even -- especially -- the "old" ones.