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, July 29, 1992

July 29, 1992 - phonics 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about "Hooked on Phonics," the heavily advertised audiocassette and flashcard series that claims to be able to teach anyone to read in just 30 days.

The public response to the column was surprising -- greater than for any other column I have ever written. The day after the column was published, I got seven phone calls between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. alone.

The responses were also remarkably consistent. Most of the people I talked to thought that:

* The library should buy extra copies of the "Hooked on Phonics" program. As a self-described "grandmother" put it: "take the money from children's videos -- libraries are supposed to be about reading."

* There is a pendulum in public education, that swings toward phonics, then away. That same grandmother said the reason for the swing was very simple: you can sell a lot more new textbooks if there's a hot "new" reading method to justify it.

* Phonics is essential in the instruction of reading. I got several calls from people who said they grew up in the period of the "look-say" approach (recognizing words by their shape, rather than by their sounds) -- and still had reading problems because of it. I also got some calls from people who had been taught with a heavy emphasis in phonics, and appreciated it.

I heard from a fair number of teachers as well. One of them teaches science in a Littleton middle school, and remarked that she had found it necessary to teach rudimentary phonics in her science classes so the children would be able to read scientific nomenclature.

Another teacher expressed the concern that I had put out some misleading data about "whole language." She was even kind enough to lend me some school materials on the subject. One of the books, "A Research Base for Whole Language," gives this definition: "Whole language is a set of beliefs about how reading and writing are learned and how that learning can best be supported by teachers. In whole language instruction, all the systems of language (graphophonics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) are kept intact or 'whole' as students read and write. As a result, students are able to focus on the meaning of text."

It is clear from this -- and from many other articles I have read about whole language -- that phonics (or "graphophonics") was never meant to be excluded from reading instruction.

But as I have written before, there is a tendency for people to mix up educational methods and curricular content. I doubt if anybody really cares if their children get phonics instruction through workbooks or from contemporary children's literature -- so long as they get it.

I submit that when the old phonics drill sheets got tossed out, many teachers were never given anything to replace them with, or shown how to provide some kind of orderly and comprehensive introduction to this crucial element of reading instruction. The abandonment of the method has lead -- in at least some schools, or some classes within those schools -- to the loss of the content.

So what does all this have to do with the public library?

First, I have decided to purchase two more copies of "Hooked on Phonics," bringing the total number of copies in the system to five, essentially one for each branch. We will change the loan period for these items to one month. The library won't be buying any more of them.

Second, I have compiled a list of the many other materials we have that parents can use to teach their children to read, or to supplement the teaching their children already receive at school. Some of these materials may well be better for you and/or your child than the "Hooked on Phonics" program. (I'm hoping to redistribute the demand for phonics information among the entire library collection, instead of letting it bunch up on just one title.)

Third, the library will sponsor a free public program at the Philip S. Miller Library on August 4, 1992, from 7-8:30 p.m. At that meeting, I'll pass out a bibliography of DPLD materials on phonics, and introduce the main speaker, Les Simonson.

An instructor for over 25 years, Dr. Simonson has taught elementary, junior high, graduate, and post-graduate level classes. A phonics advocate, he wrote his doctorate on the subject of learning to read. Dr. Simonson will talk about how to tell if your child might need some phonics help, and give a brief overview of the principles of phonics.

The name of the program will be, "Sounding Off: Reading and Phonics."

Wednesday, July 22, 1992

July 22, 1992 - Doomsday Book

I'd like to brag a little about "Doomsday Book," the recently published offering by science fiction author Connie Willis (who happens to live in Greeley, Colorado).

Right there on the page headed "Acknowledgements," she writes, "My special thanks to Head Librarian Jamie LaRue and the rest of the staff of the Greeley Public Library for their endless and invaluable assistance."

I met Connie shortly after I took my first library director job in Greeley five years ago. But I already knew who she was. Years before, I had read one of her first science fiction stories, called "Fire Watch"--a haunting time travel piece, set in war-time England.

But in 1987, Connie was hard at work on "Doomsday Book," her second full length novel. This was the story of Kivrin, a young historian from the year 2054, with an interest in traveling back to the Middle Ages.

Kivrin gets her wish--but instead of landing (through time travel technology) outside the Oxford, England of the year 1320, she discovers that she has been deposited at the beginning of one of the most horrible periods in history, the days of "the Black Death."

Instants after her arrival, she falls ill--precisely as, back in 2054, a new super-disease springs up, perhaps through the time "drop."

Even if you're not a science fiction fan, this is a hard book to put down--my wife read it straight through my birthday, pausing only for an occasional cup of coffee.

I have an unusual perspective on, and interest in, this book, in large part because I watched Connie write it. She did all of her writing right there in the Greeley Public Library--and an impressive amount of research to boot.

As she wrote, Connie posed some hard-to-answer questions: "How do I describe the speech of the people of the Middle Ages?" That took her into the field of linguistics. "How do I describe the interior of a middle ages house?" That took her into archaeology. "How do I describe the spread of the plague?" That took her into all kinds of historical documents. All in all, it gave our library quite a work-out.

In the five years it took Connie to write the book, she did more research on the Middle Ages than, I'm sure, many post-graduate students do while writing their doctoral theses.

But how did I rate the acknowledgement? Well, (this is the bragging part), I personally provided even greater assistance than just tracking down old church liturgies and historical data.

Every time I saw her, I asked, "Is it done yet?" I feel this helped to keep her on track, much as a persistent, "Are we there yet?" from the back of the car brings a kind of focus and intensity to a long drive.

And one day--I'll never forget this--I gave her a brownie, right there in the library. Shucks, I knew she was working hard. Of course, this isn't the kind of thing they teach you in library school. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut instinct: break a rule, reach out to the writer, provide a little encouragement.

And then, one day just before last Christmas, I heard a heavy thump at my door, and a quick ring of the doorbell. It was UPS, and to my delight, they had dropped off the freshly typed, completed manuscript of Doomsday Book. I raced through it, then called Connie to congratulate her.

The book is now available, in paperback, from your local library, and all the better bookstores. I even have mine personally inscribed by the author. Connie wrote, "Yes, it's done, damn it! One lousy brownie and a lot of kibitzing..."

Hey, it's all part of the service.

Wednesday, July 15, 1992

July 15, 1992 - Hooked on phonics

I've got a dilemma.

Some months back, I started hearing the radio ads for the "Hooked On Phonics" kit -- a combination of booklets, cassettes, and flash cards that was supposed to help kids and/or adults learn how to read in just 30 days.

I directed my staff to buy a copy, thinking that people might want to examine the product before spending the money for it themselves.

Well, no sooner did we get it, than it suddenly had a big list of reserves attached to it. One of the policies I established when I got here was that when four people have requested an item, I buy another copy. That way, people don't have to wait so long for popular titles.

So I bought more Hooked on Phonics packages, bringing the total to three.

Yesterday, I discovered that we now have 20 reserves on the three copies. According to my usual policy, that means I should pick up a couple more. But I find that I'm having second thoughts about it.

The main reason I'm balking is the price: "Hooked on Phonics" sells for $179.95. The district has already spent over $500 on the kits. If I bring the total to five copies, I will have spent almost $900 out of the audiovisual line item, or about 2.5% of the entire AV budget on just one title.

It happens that a lot of people have been asking for more audiovisual materials -- mostly books on tape, but also children's videos. The average unabridged book on tape runs about $20. For every Hooked on Phonics kit the library buys, we can't buy about 9 books on tape. That bothers me.

On the other hand, public libraries should be as responsive as possible to public interests. There's a strong, continuing interest in Hooked on Phonics. According to a May 20, 1991 article in Newsweek, the kits were introduced in 1987, and had sold over 400,000 copies as of the Newsweek piece. So Hooked on Phonics isn't just a trendy little bestseller. It's got some staying power.

On the third hand, Hooked on Phonics is clearly designed to be an instructional, almost curricular tool. Is the library stepping directly into the public school territory here? Shouldn't the schools be providing this kind of item, through the District Media Center, for instance, which is available for use by the public right now?

But (on the fourth hand?) the Media Center doesn't currently own Hooked on Phonics. In fact, the current emphasis on so-called "whole language" seems to have all but eliminated phonics as an instructional approach -- at least in some local schools. The Douglas County School District may be reluctant to buy a pricey program that flies in the face of current trends -- and that some educators have already disparaged. (The Newsweek article quoted one education expert who said, "As instructional design, this really stinks." Another said, "I think it could be rather discouraging" to spend so much money and then fail. Shanahan, the developer of the program called these criticisms "sour grapes ... We can teach people to read in 30 days. They can't teach them in 12 years.")

So if people want to teach their children in ways that the school system doesn't endorse, where can they go to find what they need? The public library seems like a reasonable alternative.

I did some checking around, and found that neither the Arapahoe Library District nor the Aurora Public Library has any copies. (They do, however, have "Hooked on Polka.") The Pikes Peak Library District doesn't carry Hooked on Phonics, either.

The Denver Public Library, interestingly, has 34 copies. All but two of them are checked out.

Our own copies have been checked out since we got them. That's another problem -- the program is designed to be used over 30 days. For items that people are waiting for, our maximum checkout period is 2 weeks. So if the library really wants to meet the demand, we not only have to buy more copies, we should probably extend the checkout period for each one -- which further reduces its availability.

The patrons I've spoken with about it, say Hooked On Phonics works best with young children, even preschool children. Older kids find it a little boring. But the people that check it out are actually using it, not just previewing it for later purchase.

It appears that there is something of a groundswell of parental support for phonics. The School District might want to take note. In the meantime, I'm still pondering the precise line of demarcation between public library materials and curricular support materials. If you've got some thoughts on the matter, give me a call (688-8752), or send something to the paper.

Right now, this one is a puzzlement to me. I'd appreciate some advice.

Wednesday, July 8, 1992

July 8, 1992 - Colorado Library Card

Two historic library events are shaping up in Colorado. I'm pleased to say that the Douglas Public Library District has had a small part to play in both of them.

The first is the formation of something called Access Colorado -- an attempt to link every automated library in the state to a toll-free, state-wide computer network. I'll have more to say about that in a future column.

The second is the Colorado Library Card. We've been fielding some questions about it from our patrons lately, so apparently word has leaked out. This is a good time to let people know what we're up to.

For at least the last decade, various agreements among public libraries have allowed the patrons of one library -- let's say the Douglas Public Library District -- to walk in to another library -- let's say the Denver Public Library -- and check out books. Librarians call this a "reciprocal borrowing agreement."

But it hasn't been free. In fact, in 1991, it cost DPLD over $8,000 to let our patrons have this direct access to other library collections.

But over the past year, several people in the front range library community have had some problems with these fees. I was one of them. I argued that the chief result of these agreements was the systematic punishment of small libraries for the crimes ... of being small and/or poor.

These libraries, often fairly new systems, just didn't have enough books for their communities. So naturally enough, their patrons went elsewhere to get them. But when they did, the small library was then constrained to give up even more of its already hobbled budget. This made it even harder for them to buy more books.

Strangely, the money we spent didn't even go to buy more books for the libraries where our patrons borrowed them. Instead, it went into the general funds of the various cities where the libraries were located.

In short, if the idea was to encourage library development, increase the number of books available, and make it as easy as possible for the public of any community to get their hands on the right book, this was not a good strategy.

Sometimes, things reach a critical mass. Suddenly, everyone is ready for a better approach. There's a change in leadership. The public gets a little more vocal.

All of those things happened, I think, here in Colorado. With the strong encouragement of the Colorado State Library, a committee was formed to look into the possibility of adopting a library card that could be used anywhere in the state, at any public library that was interested in participating.

I was appointed to the committee, and in just a few short months, we hammered out a series of rules that were simple, easily understandable to the public, and did away forever with reciprocal borrowing charges throughout the state.

In September, you'll be seeing a lot more publicity about this. But at present, not only have 62 public libraries agreed to participate, but we all got so excited about it that other KINDS of libraries started clammering to participate too.

As of this writing, over a hundred elementary and secondary schools, as well as 13 university libraries, 3 institutional libraries, and a smattering of regional library systems, have agreed to participate.

Very soon, no matter where you travel in the state, there's one place you will always be welcome -- the local library.

Wednesday, July 1, 1992

July 1, 1992 - Signs and signage

In 1979 I took a job as a front desk clerk for the Graduate Library of the University of Illinois-Urbana. The same year, I observed a fascinating study.

Michael Gorman, one of the more popular lecturers for the Library Science Department, had once opined, "You can get a college student to do anything for a Snickers bar."

Based on that premise, some library science students handed out Snickers bars to every student who filled out one of their survey forms. It turned out that Professor Gorman was right: 100 percent of the surveys were completed.

The question of the study was deceptively simple: what kinds of signs do people read? The survey form was distributed to those students who had just walked out of the graduate library -- 10 acres of books encompassing well over 2 million volumes, and quite a large number of signs.

For purposes of the experiment, the students had made pink signs, orange signs, black signs, white signs, green signs, and signs of a good many other shades I cannot now recall. They had placed them throughout the graduate library: high, low, off to the right of an aisle, off to the left, and smack in the center.

Some of the signs were directional, some of them deliberately humorous. Some were obscure. Some were utterly contradictory. All of them were as conspicuous as possible.

The results, carefully tabulated for class credit, were statistically significant and universally accepted. The chief finding was breathtakingly simple.

People don't read signs.

On the one hand, that was surprising news. After all, the students of the University of Illinois Library read everything else.

For instance, each of the Graduate Library's 10 floors had two bathrooms. Not only were the walls of each of these bathrooms covered with extravagantly literate opinions about almost anything, somebody (probably a library science student) had taken on the task of making CROSS-REFERENCES for the graffiti.

You might be in the second floor bathroom, and come across a funny quote from Spinoza. Right under it, in green ink, would be the note, "See men's room, 8th floor, south wall, beginning 'Nietzsche says...'"

On the other hand, this study just proved what you instinctively know already. People will write, read, and even footnote what's written on bathroom walls. But they pay no attention whatsoever to a host of official signs.

How come? I don't have the slightest idea. But it's a shame. Sometimes library signs are hilarious.

For instance, take the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. For the past several months, at least two or three times a day, I walk past the signs we've posted on the ends of the aisles in the adult fiction section. One pair reads "DUM-GLY" -- meaning that books by authors whose last names begin with "DUM" are at the beginning of that aisle, and books by authors whose names begin with "GLY" are at the end of the aisle.

DUMGLY is one of those words that doesn't exist, but ought to. It should mean, "The state of being neither smart nor beautiful."

The very next set of bookstacks is labeled "GOD-HEY." Can you blame me for wanting the next set to read "YEAH-WHAT"? Even though I know that doesn't work out right.

One of the things I'd like to see in Douglas County is a consistent set of signs on highways and main roads that point people to the closest library branch. But you'd be surprised how hard it is to get all that coordinated.

On the highway, it's the responsibility of the state. Off the interstate, but on the paved roads, it's the province of the county. Within town limits, its the responsibility of the local municipality.

No matter how you cut it, it's confusing. But we're working on it.

On the other hand, is it really worth the trouble? Will anybody notice?

If you've got an opinion, stop by your local library and let us know. You say you don't HAVE an opinion?

Suppose we give you a Snickers bar ...