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, March 18, 1992

March 18, 1992 - Lynn's farewell party

Lynn Robertson, branch manager of the Philip S. Miller Library, will shortly be leaving us. She and her husband Jay are moving to Dolores, Colorado.

About 62,500 people -- and I -- are going to miss her. Let me give you some idea why.

In February of 1971, Lynn phoned Alden Briskey, the very first director of what was then the Douglas County Library. Why, she wanted to know, wasn't the Louviers Library open for business? The problem, Briskey told her, was lack of staff and lack of money.

There are lots of things Lynn might have said or done. But if you know Lynn, you know what happened next: she volunteered to run it. Before long, the Louviers Library was open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, from 1-5.

Sandy, Lynn's daughter, was at that time three months old. Lynn brought her to work with her. As Lynn worked, Sandy slept under the library table in a makeshift bed. Later, Lynn says, she added a playpen to the library furniture.

Incidentally, Lynn did finally get officially hired -- for fifty cents an hour.

In the early seventies, Lynn also served a five year term on the library board -- which put her in the unique position of being her boss's boss.

Lynn ran the Louviers Library until 1984. Along the way, she originated a program that is today a vital part of our operations: the Summer Reading Program. Not only did she read to the children, she took them sand painting on the Plum Creek, taught them how to gather and cook yucca pod soup, and ... the list is endless. Meanwhile, she also ran everything from library fund-raising bazaars to mom's exercise classes.

In 1983, she started working as a part-time clerk at the Castle Rock Library -- a 5,000 square foot building which was at that time located on Gilbert Street (now the site of the Children's Castle).

On February of 1984, she was hired as the manager of the Castle Rock Library. Lynn is the only person I've ever known who once had an office in an elevator -- which gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase "upwardly mobile."

"I started not long after the Gilbert Street Library addition was put on," Lynn says. "And I've been in the building process ever since."

First, she worked to gather petitions to convince the county and the city that the community needed a bigger library in a new location. Finally, on October 1, 1987, the library moved from the Gilbert Street location to a 1,000 square foot warehouse on Caprice Street. The idea was to wait there for a year until the new library could be built.

"The move," says Lynn, "didn't cost a penny. The Junior High School library was moving at same time, so we could use their boxes. We depended totally on volunteer help."

At the warehouse location, Lynn, her husband, other county workers, and volunteers begged carpet scraps and half-used paint buckets to try to spruce the place up. The carpet scraps were patched together by a carpet-layer with 90 hours of community service. All the donated paint was dumped into a big garbage can and stirred together -- it made just barely enough to put one coat on the walls.

The interim library had its problems. "My desk was by this great big garage door. It was cold in the winter. In the summer, we got whiffs off the sewer lagoon out back. But the Eagles," she said, referring to the library's near neighbors, "were really great, because they let us use meeting rooms for our summer reading programs. We continued with all our usual activities." She notes that that year was the only year since she started with the library in which the circulation statistics did not go up.

On October 1, 1987, she moved the library to its current home. Several weeks later, just after story time, she was walking out to the front desk to check out some books. "We were in a state of chaos," she said. "There were books in boxes -- all the shelving hadn't arrived. Mr. Miller walked in -- and he was in awe. Although he had come out to see the building in process, this was the first time he had seen the completed project."

Miller had been a long time supporter of the library, donating over $300,000 to the library's building fund over the years. "I'll never forget that moment," Lynn said. "Tears were coming down his cheeks. Then I started to cry. It was all coming together. We had been through so much."

At the beginning of the next year, Philip S. Miller wrote a check for over half a million dollars, canceling the debt on the building.

So what does Lynn have to say about her 21 years of library service? "Well, I've seen a lot of change. And I'm very proud to have been involved in the growth of the library. The change has been just fantastic."

"One thing about Douglas County," she said, "is that we have always had a community that has understood the importance of the library. And from the very beginning, we have had wonderful volunteers. Without them, I don't know where we would be."

As for me, I AM sure that without Lynn, this library would never have enjoyed the kind of support she talks about. Lynn has not only been an outstanding representative of the library to the community, and an example to staff, she has also been my institutional memory.

If you would like to be present for a public reception in her honor, please consider yourself invited to the public meeting room at the Philip S. Miller Library on Tuesday, March 24, from 3-6 p.m.

And Lynn, on behalf of Douglas County, my sincere thanks for a job very, very well done.

Wednesday, March 11, 1992

March 11, 1992 - Radio Rally

About ten years ago I participated in a study of "first impressions." The point to the experiment was to determine how accurate those impressions really are.

Half of us were asked to talk to a person over the phone, then fill out a questionnaire about the person we spoke with. The other half of our group actually met the person; they too filled out the questionnaires.

Then, all of the questionnaires were cross-tabulated against detailed personality profiles compiled by psychologists.

The results surprised me. By far, the telephone interviews were the most accurate.

There are no doubt many reasons for this. But one of the reasons is that when people aren't visually distracted, they not only listen better, but they also get more involved in what they hear.

Take, for instance, the difference between radio and television. A few years back, my wife and I took a long car trip. For fun, we brought along some audiotapes, among which were some tapes of old radio programs.

At the end of the day, we lay awake in the darkened motel room, huddled around our little cassette player, listening to Orson Welles intone, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? ... The Shadow knows." It was great.

Like books, good radio (or tapes of good radio) let you form your own pictures of what people look like. And somehow, the images you come up with yourself are more interesting, more evocative, more personally meaningful, then the interpretations on television or movie screens.

The American Library Association, tapping into the excitement of both radio and books, will launch a "Call for America's Libraries" campaign on March 16, 1992. It happens that March 16 is Freedom of Information Day.

Here's how the campaign will work. From March 16 to April 11, radio stations all around the country will announce a toll-free number (800-530-8888), then encourage people to call it in order to voice their support for libraries.

"Support," incidentally, does NOT mean that you will be asked for money. Anytime between 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, all people have to do is to express their interest in libraries and support of the principles upon which the public library is based. Finally, they will be asked to give their names and addresses.

These names and addresses will be presented to United States Congressional leaders on the American Library Association's Legislative day. In a time of grave national concern about public education, illiteracy, and crime, our legislators sometimes forget about the strong, positive role libraries can play. The American Library Association hopes to provide a timely reminder.

The "Call for America's Libraries" campaign, incidentally, will be based in Colorado Springs. A company called Telephone Express will donate telephone lines and office space -- a contribution worth about $25,000. An estimated 30,000 libraries will also be participating in promoting the event.

In fact, I'm going to drive down and volunteer for one of the stretches myself. If you would also like to put in a shift talking to total strangers all around the United States -- but LITERATE strangers -- give Cindy Murphy or me a call at 688-8752 and we'll sign you up.

My guess is that you'll like the people you talk to. And the message is certainly worth listening to.

Wednesday, March 4, 1992

March 4, 1992 - What every child needs to know

First published in 1987, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," was an immediate bestseller.

Citing an impressive new body of data about how people learn and remember, author E. D. Hirsch argued that Americans -- indeed, people from any culture -- require a core body of common knowledge to communicate effectively, and that public schools in the United States haven't been providing that.

He also went into some carefully reasoned and elegantly written explanations of the philosophical underpinnings of modern education. What had been left out, he said, was the whole idea of CONTENT in curriculum, and America was beginning to pay the price.

If that had been all he said, probably no one would have taken much notice. But Hirsch also included a list of some 5,000 "essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts" that made a stab at providing "a fairly reliable index to the middle-level information that is shared by most literate people but remains unfamiliar to most illiterate people."

Hirsch emphasized repeatedly that the list was preliminary, not definitive, and somewhat arbitrary by necessity. But the quick adoption of his ideas by then-Secretary of Education William Bennett, a man we may safely describe as "conservative," resulted in a kind of liberal media backlash. Just who did this Hirsch think he was, telling all Americans what they ought to know?

At the same time, people secretly enjoyed looking over the list to see how "culturally literate" THEY were, for much the same reason as they take the little quizzes at the back of newspaper supplements.

But Hirsch, a Professor at the University of Virginia, was more than a pop quiz artist. After forming the Core Knowledge Foundation, he proceeded to conduct research on successful schools in the United States and around the world. He consulted hundreds of teachers, parents, and professional organizations in an attempt to draft some kind of preliminary curriculum.

In March, 1990, a consolidated grade-by-grade sequence of instruction was presented to a national conference.

As of today, dozens of schools are working to incorporate the Core Knowledge materials into their curricula. Two books on the subject are available now: "What Your First Grader Needs to Know," and "What Your Second Grader Needs to Know." Books covering third and fourth grade will be out by this July. Books covering the fifth and sixth grade will be published in 1993.

According to John Holdren, Director of the Core Knowledge Foundation, no books are currently planned for higher grade levels. The Foundation has an exclusive focus on the age when children are best able to effortlessly absorb factual knowledge.

In a telephone interview, Holdren told me that there are a number of "usual objections" to the Core Knowledge philosophy. Most frequent is the belief that children are required to simply memorize a long list of facts.

But Core Knowledge can be easily adapted to any teaching style or approach. It just requires that at the end of instruction, the children should actually know something. And based on the experiences of those schools that have tried it, the program appears to be successful.

This evening, Hank Cotton, Director of Program for Core Knowledge Foundation, and the former principal of Cherry Creek High School, will be speaking on the subject of cultural literacy and core knowledge at the Philip S. Miller Library. The talk begins at 7:30 pm.

In a county where our school system is actively seeking a "road to world class," any well-researched approach to educational reform deserves serious consideration. To hear more about the Core Knowledge Curriculum, stop by March 4 and see what you think.

You may also want to give Core Knowledge a call. Their number is 1-800-238-3233.