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.

Thursday, August 27, 1992

August 27, 1992 - 500 words

At the library's recent public program on phonics, "Sounding Off," a woman named Mary Floyd promised to provide the library with a list of the 100 most-used words in the English language. In fact, she gave me a list of something called "the High-Utility 500" -- 500 words that various studies have identified as the most used and presumably, most useful words, especially for students in grades 2-12.

For those of you wondering where such things come from, the initial study was called the American Heritage Word Frequency Study (conducted by Carroll, Davies, and Richman), and its findings were cross-checked in studies by Gates, Horn, Rinsland, Green, and Loomer, as well as Harris and Jacobson. Finally, the results were correlated with a 1985 study by Milton Jacobson of 22,000 students in grades 2-12.

Rather than copying the list and posting it at the library, I thought I'd print it here in the newspaper. I find the list interesting, and perhaps you will, too.

Please note that although the following are words your child must know, simply memorizing a list of words is no substitute for either phonics or other "word attack" skills.

With that caveat ...

The First 100 words (in order of frequency): the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, for, was, on, are, as, with, his, they, at, be, this, from, I, have, or, by, one, had, not, but, what, all, were, when, we, there, can, an, your, which, their, said, if, do, will, each, about, how, up, out, them, then, she, many, some, so, these, would, other, into, has, more, her, two, like, him, see, time, could, no, make, than, first, been, its, who, now, people, my, made, over, did, down, only, way, find, use, may, water, long, little, very, after, words, called, just, where, most, know.

The Second 100 words: get, through, back, much, go, good, new, write, our, me, man, too, any, day, same, right, look, think, also, around, another, came, come, work, three, must, because, does, part, even, place, well, such, here, take, why, help, put, different, away, again, off, went, old, number, great, tell, men, say, small, every, found, still, between, name, should, home, big, give, air, line, set, own, under, read, last, never, us, left, end, along, while, might, next, sound, below, saw, something, thought, both, few, those, always, show, large, often, together, asked, house, don't, world, going, want, school, important, until, form, food, keep, children.

The Third 100 words: feet, land, side, without, boy, once, animals, life, enough, took, four, head, above, kind, began, almost, live, page, got, earth, need, far, hand, high, year, mother, light, country, father, let, night, picture, being, study, second, soon, story, since, white, ever, paper, hard, near, sentence, better, best, across, during, today, however, sure, knew, it's, try, told, young, sun, thing, whole, hear, example, heard, several, change, answer, room, sea, against, top, turned, learn, point, city, play, toward, five, himself, usually, money, seen, didn't, car, morning, I'm, body, upon, family, later, turn, move, face, door, cut, done, group, true, half, red, fish, plants.

The Fourth 100 words: living, black, eat, short, United States, run, book, gave, order, open, ground, cold, really, table, remember, tree, course, front, American, space, inside, ago, sad, early, I'll, learned, brought, close, nothing, though, idea, before, lived, became, add, become, grow, draw, yet, less, wind, behind, cannot, letter, among, able, dog, shown, mean, English, rest, perhaps, certain, six, feel, fire, ready, green, yes, built, special, ran, full, town, complete, oh, person, hot, anything, hold, state, list, stood, hundred, ten, fast, felt, kept, notice, can't, strong, voice, probably, area, horse, matter, stand, box, start, that's, class, piece, surface, river, common, stop, am, talk, whether, fine.

The Fifth 100 words: round, dark, past, ball, girl, road, blue, instead, either, held, already, warm, gone, finally, summer, understand, moon, animal, mind, outside, power, problem, longer, winter, deep, heavy, carefully, follow, beautiful, everyone, leave, everything, game, system, bring, watch, shall, dry, within, floor, ice, ship, themselves, begin, fact, third, quite, carry, distance, although, sat, possible, heart, real, simple, snow, rain, suddenly, leaves, easy, lay, size, wild, weather, miss, pattern, sky, walked, main, someone, center, field, stay, itself, boat, question, wide, least, tiny, hour, happened, foot, care, low, else, gold, build, glass, rock, tall, alone, bottom, walk, check, fall, poor, map, friend, language, job.

You might post this list on your refrigerator, and spot check your children from time to time.

A follow-up to the phonics meeting, by-the-bye, is the formation of a new parents' group called the Core Knowledge Committee. The purpose of this group is to urge the adoption by Douglas County schools of the Core Knowledge Curriculum -- a clearly defined and grade-sequenced body of objective knowledge.

The first meeting of the committee will be at the Philip S. Miller Library, at 7 p.m., Tuesday night, September 1. For more information, call Laurel Iakovakis at 660-9723.

Thursday, August 20, 1992

August 20, 1992 - Sign language

Some years back, I was eating lunch in a Chicago cafeteria. Suddenly, the whole room was electrified by two people who never said a word.

A woman walked in the front door. At the other end of the room, a man leapt to the top of a table. The two of them commenced a furious argument -- with their fingers.

None of us had a clue what the dispute was about, but it was obviously intense. Everyone in the room fell silent, swinging their gazes back and forth like spectators at a tennis match.

Finally, after some 15 emotion-charged minutes, the woman signed a final, unmistakably dismissive gesture, and stormed back out the door. The man turned almost purple, then stiffly resumed his meal.

While I have seen many arguments in my life, I have never witnessed any so dramatic and eloquent. That was the first moment when I grasped that "signing" -- the gestural speech of the deaf -- was more than just a crude code for the handicapped. It was a rich and marvelously expressive language in its own right.

I recalled that incident when I ran across an article last week (in the July, 1992 issue of Smithsonian) about American Sign Language. The author details the history of sign language, and briefly reviews a body of interesting anecdotes and recent scientific studies that show that sign language is indeed a language.

Here's one of the anecdotes: the football huddle originated in the 1890s, at a school for the deaf. The team needed to talk -- sign -- to each other, without their opponents seeing what they were saying.

Wherever deaf people are found, so is sign language -- although the "dialects" around the world are as unintelligible to people outside the local region as Swahili might be to a Serb.

Where things begin to get really interesting is that deaf babies (raised in households where the adults are always signing) actually "babble" with their fingers. That is, they make experimental, not-quite-random motions with their hands, just as hearing babies coo, buzz, and otherwise tune up their voices.

Whether hearing-impaired or no, all of us go through precisely the same of stages of language acquisition. For instance, many children have trouble with the idea of "pronouns," the concepts behind "he," "she," and even "you," and "me."

Sign language would seem to be much simpler to learn, right? A child can just point to someone for "you," and point to him- or herself for "me."

But young children still learning to sign make the same kinds of mistakes. They point to themselves when the context of the "conversation" makes it clear that they mean "you." Or they point to their moms when they mean themselves.

That suggests that sign language isn't just spatial shorthand, it's conceptual. It has a GRAMMAR. Or as signers themselves put it, signing is "brain stuff."

The language center of the brain is located on the left side. And here's the clincher: When their language center is damaged, say in a car accident, deaf children lose the ability to sign. This is exactly parallel to people who suffer an immense blow to the left side of the brain and ever after, cannot talk.

Signing is speech.

Years after the cafeteria incident, I caught a National Theater of the Deaf's performance of "A Christmas in Wales," by Dylan Thomas. There was a wonderful scene where a group of carolers stood silently outside a lighted house, their hands moving in perfect, silent harmony.

The glory of libraries is that we have captured speech, set it to the page, bound it in buckram, made of it something that can be easily stacked, tracked, traded and trucked.

But how shall we preserve and disseminate the marvelous, evocative fluidity of signing?

Thursday, August 13, 1992

August 13, 1992 - Patron confidentiality

The year was 1981. A man named John W. Hinckley, Jr. tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

Within days, an enterprising writer for Newsweek called the Jefferson County Public Library to find out what kind of books Hinckley, a one-time resident of Evergreen, might have checked out. Anything on guns? Anything linking him to violent, left-wing organizations?

At that time, Colorado didn't have what librarians in other states call a "patron confidentiality law." In brief, there was nothing to stop libraries from telling anyone who asked what anyone else was reading.

So by the end of 1981, several librarians got together with a lawyer to draft House Bill No. 1114. It was signed into effect by Governor Richard Lamm on March 22, 1983.

This law, "Concerning Privacy of Library User Records," is the sort of thing most library users don't think about. At first, it all sounds kind of pointless and stupidly inconvenient.

For instance, when library staff calls a woman to tell her that the book she reserved has come in, her husband might take the call. He might ask, "What's the book? I'll tell her it's in." Or maybe the man is standing at the circulation desk and asks, "Is anything in for my wife?"

Seems harmless enough, right? Helpful, even.

But according to the law, we can't say. Why? Well, there are several reasons. For one thing, it's a class 2 petty offense, punishable by a fine of up to $300 per occurrence.

For another, it's really none of the husband's business. The book might be, "How to Throw a Surprise Birthday Party." Or it might be, "How to Divorce Your Abusive Spouse Without Him Knowing About It."

There's an interesting twist to the Colorado law. Most laws in other states just protect privacy about specific books. For instance, the public library can't tell you who had checked out a copy of a book by Jerry Brown -- or Jerry Falwell. (This stops people on either side of an ideological fence from engaging in "fishing expeditions" or witch-hunts.)

The Colorado law specifies that "a publicly-supported library or library system shall not disclose ANY record or other information" (emphasis mine) "which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials or service or as otherwise having used the library."

So with very few exceptions, ("the reasonable operation of the library," "upon written consent of the user," or "Pursuant to subpoena, upon court order, or where otherwise required by law") public libraries aren't supposed to divulge even that you've got, or have ever had, a library card.

To reflect this overriding respect for privacy, our computer system is specifically designed to forget what people check out -- as long as they return the items they have taken. (Our computer system is very, very good at remembering who didn't bring something back at all.)

And if you return a book that's damaged, the computer can, for a brief time, remember who to bill for it.

But if you bring back a book when you're supposed to, and it's in good shape, the only thing our computer system remembers about any particular title is how many times it got used, and what DATE the book was last checked out. This information is useful to us as we decide which books to keep, and which need to be cleared out to make way for new growth. Books that don't get used, ultimately don't get saved.

As a librarian in the age of automation, I am very much aware of the kinds of abuses computers might be turned to. Electronic snooping -- whether it be into your purchasing patterns, the background of your casual associates, or the books you read -- is precisely as ethical as a neighborhood peeper in the bushes, and as welcome.

At the Douglas Public Library District, we deal with the issue first by requiring only the patron information we need (your address, and an identifying number NOT your social security I.D.); second, by being very careful to erase any other information regarding your library use; and third, by reminding our staff that they are not to discuss what you're reading with anyone but you.

Protecting your intellectual privacy is not just the law. It's the right thing to do.

Saturday, August 8, 1992

August 5, 1992 - Highlands Ranch birthday

The Highlands Ranch Library opened on August 12, 1991. At that point, we didn't even have a sign for the building. In fact, we hadn't done any formal advertising at all, so didn't expect to see much of a turnout.

We were hoping to use the week between our actual opening and the official opening (featuring Colorado's First Lady, Bea Romer, reading stories to children) to iron out any procedural kinks.

But on that first day of operations, the Highlands Ranch Library accounted for 10% of the business throughout the entire library district. So we ironed out the kinks on the spot.

The location of the library -- in the convenience center kitty-corner from the Highlands Ranch Recreation Center -- quickly proved to be just about ideal. To be successful, a library really ought to be located along the usual lines of traffic -- for cars, and for kids. University Avenue, just south of C-470, sees plenty of both.

By the end of the month -- and a very short month it was -- the Highlands Ranch Library had accounted for a little over 13% of all the circulation activity throughout the district. In the last six months of 1991, the new Highlands Ranch Library accounted for 15 percent of the library's business (and remember that it didn't open until half way through August).

So how's it doing lately? In the first six months of 1992, Highlands Ranch racked up 21.7% of the district's circulation. And thanks to the contribution of the Highlands Ranch location, use of the library district overall has jumped by 46 percent over last year. (The national increase in library use was about three percent.)

In raw numbers, From January through June, 1992, Highlands Ranch checked out 72,758 library materials to our patrons, out of the total of over 335,939 items checked out at our other automated libraries. Figuring the Highlands Ranch population at roughly 15,000 people, that's as if everybody in the area checked a little more than 4 books per person.

In short, the library has enjoyed good, solid use, from the day it opened to every day since -- yet another sign that Douglas County citizens place a high value on books.

But enough numbers. Now for some ... dates!

If you'd like to stop by the Highlands Ranch Library to help celebrate its first birthday, post the following schedule some place:

On August 12, 7 p.m., I will be doing some storytelling at the library (featuring my own, slightly askew version of "The Frog Prince.") There will be a Birthday Party with cake and games. In addition, the Highlands Ranch Library will be offering Cookies and punch at the following times: Monday, August 10, at 10:30; Tuesday, at 10:30 and 4:00; and Thursday, August 13, at 9:30 and 10:30.

My compliments to the patrons of Highlands Ranch, my appreciation to the staff of the library, and finally, my sincere wishes for a happy first birthday, Highlands Ranch Library! May you see hundreds more.