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, June 24, 1992

June 24, 1992 - Greek mythology

It all started when Maddy (my four-year-old daughter), picked out a tape from the library's video shelves. It was an animated version of the story of "Pegasus," narrated by Mia Farrow.

Pegasus, for those of you whose memory of Greek mythology is a little rusty, was the winged horse, born from the blood of Medusa, and ridden by Bellerophon to slay the Chimaera. In later years, Pegasus became for a time the bearer of Zeus' thunderbolt, and was eventually placed among the stars.

Well, Maddy was utterly enthralled by the tale. Then my wife happened to run across a book called "One-Minute Greek Myths," by puppeteer Shari Lewis of "Lambchop" fame. Shari Lewis has also written several other "One-Minute" storybooks, including "One Minute Bible Stories" (Old and New Testament versions), "One Minute Jewish Stories," "One Minute Bedtime Stories," and "One-Minute Favorite Fairy Tales." All of them are pretty good introductions -- but if you get really interested, they just don't provide enough detail.

So it was on to my old copy of "Mythology" by Edith Hamilton. Now, Edith wasn't your clean-'em-up, revisionist, low-vocabulary kind of writer. She was a classical scholar. Her compendiums of stories were complete, well-documented, and sometimes, a trifle dry.

No matter. Maddy was still fascinated. And a lot better-informed.

Suddenly, we found ourselves with a four-year-old who had an alarmingly comprehensive grasp of the names (Greek and Roman) of almost everybody in classical western mythology, including who married whom, who was a regular god or goddess, who was a Titan, and how many Muses there were (nine).

Maddy got us going on a new dinner game: "I'm thinking of Someone From Greek Mythology." One of us picked somebody, and the others asked questions like, "Mortal or immortal? Did he help anybody?" On this subject, I put my four-year-old against anybody, even my wife and me, who at this point, are pretty well read.

I had almost forgotten everything I knew about Greek mythology. But because of Maddy's interest, Suzanne and I got interested all over again.

And you know what? These are GREAT stories. We went on to the "Usborn Illustrated Guide to Greek Myths and Legends," for the kind of in-depth, magnificently well-organized presentation Usborn excels at. Then we snapped up "The Legend of Odysseus," by Peter Connolly. We sought, and found, Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's "Book of Greek Myths" -- which is something of a classic itself.

Right here at the Philip S. Miller Library, we found another video: "Jason and the Argonauts," which has some of the best -- and the earliest -- special effects to hit Hollywood.

Then Suzanne found the audiocassette, "Greathall Productions Storyteller's Version of Greek Myths" as told by Jim Weiss. His telling of King Midas' desperation to turn his daughter back into flesh made me so emotional I almost drove into somebody on the highway.

Greek myths have proven to be a surprisingly broad and accurate introduction to human behavior. Not that what they say about human behavior is always flattering. Take Maddy's view of Medea, whom Maddy says she likes, although "she was kind of mean, especially after Jason dumped her."

And there are the lessons of Narcissus, of Penelope, of Pandora, of Echo, of Arachne, of Achilles. And many more.

All my life, I have had the suspicion that ANY deep childhood interest, if fanned as furiously as possible, will eventually connect to everything else. And each connection will grow ever richer, building on the previous knowledge.

Greek myths have proven to be both an entertaining and rich place to start.

Wednesday, June 17, 1992

June 17, 1992 - library media programs

Recently I got a newsletter from the Colorado State Library. One of the articles summarized the results of a two year study of 221 Colorado public schools. Here's the main point: the greatest single predictor of school test scores is the school media (library) program.

According to Keith Curry Lance, Director of the State Library Research Service, the library media center forecasts test scores "independently of all other school characteristics." In brief, the healthier the school library, the better the students perform.

So it makes sense to take a good look at local school media centers. Is our media program "healthy"? And how do you tell?

According to Lance, there are three primary factors. The first is the size of the library media center's collection. The more books, periodicals, and other materials are on hand, the better students perform on national tests.

The second factor is the number of outside materials brought into the school. Usually, those materials are what librarians call "interlibrary loans," meaning what one library borrows from another. Alternatively, these materials may be part of a rental collection. Another way to look at this factor is that the successful media center looks beyond its own resources, actively participating in state and national networks.

The third factor is the level of staffing. The more people available to run the library, the better it is able to serve its clientele: the students. While that seems fairly obvious, in some areas of the state librarians have been cut, and replaced with a single "aide," responsible for all school media operations. Some money is saved. But these schools pay the price in student performance.

Lance highlights several other findings. He states, "The instructional role of the library media specialist affects the library media collection and, in turn, student achievement." To put it another way, if librarians build school library collections that support the curriculum, and work with teachers to deliver it, the students learn more, and score higher. School librarians are essential partners in the educational process.

Lance notes that, "The degree of collaboration between library media specialist and teachers is affected by the ratio of teachers to pupils." If teachers and librarians are to work together, they have to have the time to do so. Administrators need to give teachers time to meet with librarians, and encourage them to work out cooperative projects.

"Library media expenditures affect access to the library media program and, in turn, student achievement." This one, too, is fairly obvious. As Lance elaborates, "Students who score higher on standardized tests tend to come from schools which spend more to promote access to learning resources."

That doesn't necessarily mean that good students only come from the schools that are already well-funded. It means that student "outputs"--their abilities and measurable achievement--are directly connected to the "input" of available library materials. Performance, it seems, is a demonstrable result of access to accumulated knowledge.

Our own school district, like most school districts around the state, is now engaged in some fairly tricky budget decisions. The findings of this important study may provide some significant guidance.

In the quest for educational excellence, let's not forget the importance of the library media program.

Wednesday, June 3, 1992

June 3, 1992 - Survey results

Ever since I came to Douglas County (March 29, 1990) I have required my staff, twice a year, to conduct a public survey.

They don't like it, especially. Copying, handing out, gathering, and tallying the forms are logistical hassles. But despite staff (and occasionally, public) grumbling, I believe that the surveys are both necessary and useful.

The first part of the survey is aimed at discovering something called the "Fill Rate." Put simply, that means we try to figure out how often the patron actually finds what he or she wants, right there on the shelf the day he or she comes in for it.

In theory, the more books we buy, the higher the fill rate should be no matter how patrons look for things. That's why the surveys are important: they provide a reality check on our purchasing. If we were to discover that despite increased spending, our fill rate was dropping, that would be a clue that we're not buying what the public really wants.

The second thing we do in each survey is to provide space for the public to comment on issues of the day. In our most recent survey, we asked two questions: 1) "Are there any subject areas or perspectives that you have found to be insufficiently represented on our shelves?" and 2) "Recently, some citizens expressed their belief that certain materials are inappropriate for the shelves of a public library. What is your view on this?"

We're still calculating the fill rates for this year. But I have had a chance to review and tabulate all the written comments--and the responses are fascinating.

In response to the first question, people asked for more books on everything from contemporary romance novels, to astrology, metaphysics, and the occult, to more videos on Christian parenting, to local college catalogs, and everything in between. I found one comment particularly touching: one respondent wanted more books for children of divorce, and for books about moving--written for young children. That says something about the pressures of our society, and indicates that many parents do look to the library to find some suggestions for talking with their children about difficult situations.

The responses to the second question were especially interesting to me.

The people of Douglas County are both articulate and opinionated. Here's one comment: "There are DEFINITELY some books that are inappropriate at EVERY library. Any books on witches, magic (such as dungeons and dragons), witchcraft. Any books leading to a cult of any kind are inappropriate. I think ALL the books (aside from certain section for adults) should be pure, clean, GOOD stories." Several other people echoed the belief that "Any books that cast Satanism or witchcraft in a good or positive light, even mentioning it in a children's book, I feel is inappropriate or wrong," mostly because it was felt that this might lead to "devil worship."

We got a good sample of comments along the lines of "Triple X porn is inappropriate," although as one person noted, "TOM JONES was considered scandalous at the time."

Despite the reservations expressed by some patrons about certain kinds of materials, however, by far the majority opinion was expressed in such comments as "Fooey!" and ""All printed materials are appropriate." For every person that expressed even a mild reservation about library materials ("Unless obscene or pornographic"), there were anywhere from 6 to 14 comments (depending on the branch) that were opposed to any restrictions whatsoever.

One respondent from this perspective wrote, "Libraries should present a complete spectrum of materials--even those books/magazines that are offensive to a minority of citizens. The danger is in having only one perspective or viewpoint on a topic available." Another respondent wrote, "I shouldn't be shocked by this, but I am. If a person can't be allowed access to the reading materials for their choice in the library, where might he/she obtain the knowledge they seek?"

Others were more blunt: "PLEASE don't knuckle under to the scary, holier-than-us-all people!" "First Amendment!" "No abridged library!" "Books should not be censored." "They don't like it, don't check it out." "They need to move to Iraq." "How dare they try to say what I can or cannot read."

What's the bottom line? The overwhelming majority of our public wants more materials, on as broad a variety of topics and points of view as possible.

If you're interested in seeing copies of the survey results, stop by the Philip S. Miller Library, and I'd be happy to show them to you.

Meanwhile, to the public and to my beleaguered staff, I would like to thank you for your interest, your honesty, and your patience.