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, September 30, 1992

September 30, 1992 - Information explosion

For some years now, futurists (and the people who believe them) have been predicting a new kind of mass mental illness: information overload.

The rate of increase of new information, they claim, is now so rapid that the human mind quails before it. Why, they say, the entire body of new knowledge doubles every couple of years!

Some writers believe that faced with such an enormity of data the frail human brain has little recourse but to shut itself down. I read one science fiction book, based on Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, that gave detailed instructions on mind-emptying exercises, which people had to do daily lest they forget how to find their way home.

Well, information is my business. And I say the whole notion of "future shock" and "the information explosion" is wildly exaggerated. Once, there were people who maintained that the human body could not travel faster than 40 miles per hour, else it too would explode. They were wrong.

Let's look at the sources of all this burgeoning information, starting with publications of the commercial presses. According to a chart in The Universal Almanac (1991), the number of titles produced in the U.S. increased from 42,377 in 1980, to 47,489 titles in 1988. The chart notes that the "increase is due largely to a major improvement in the recording of paperbound books between 1980 and 1985."

Nowadays, anywhere from 50,000 to 52,000 titles are published annually. As always, a good many of those titles are reprints, even more are updates or replacements of older titles (as in travel guides), and most of the remainder are fiction, children's literature, and the latest diet books.

In over a decade, then, the output of commercial publications has grown -- but not shockingly so. And some might say that most of it is only marginally informative.

But commercial presses aren't the only source of data. In Lesko's Info-Power, author Matthew Lesko states, "one little government publisher, the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), alone sells about 90,000 titles annually. And it's estimated the NTIS titles represent only a tiny portion of research that is actually published by federal agencies."

On the other hand, my Uncle Keith used to be a customs officer, and he once observed that the United States regulations concerning the importation of Mexican avocadoes were some two hundred and twenty times longer than the American Constitution, and he was including all the Amendments.

I'll grant you that the government cranks out a lot of paper, and I'll even grant that some of it is important research. But my point is that unless you happen to be in the Mexican avocado business, who cares?

In my library school days we were taught that the two biggest jumps in publishing have been in the areas of academic journals, and technical reports.

But -- with apologies to my academic colleagues -- I'd have to argue that there isn't that much real information in their writings, either. In the main, academic writing is a series of cross-citations and literature reviews -- bibliographic essays that seldom add a lot to the store of useful, practical knowledge.

As for technical publications, there is indeed some real, relentless piling up of new data going on. But let's be honest: unless you're a specialist, most of that data has no effect on your life whatsoever. Until, that is, it results in a new perfume, food additive, or media for the recording of music. And at that point, you can probably deal with it.

The way I see it, there's a big difference between the quantity of data available, and the specific data that are meaningful. When you want to buy a car, you don't read government engineering reports that analyze automobile trade deficits. You read Consumer Guide.

For most of us, those wads of government reports, academic writing, and technical data just aren't relevant, and irrelevant information doesn't pose a threat to anybody. Information doesn't lurk about in dark alleys, then leap out and force you to memorize its features. It certainly won't team up with other kinds of information to overwhelm your tiny mind.

In my judgment, the size of your essential body of significant knowledge -- the basic information you need to look after yourself in the world and to be a productive citizen -- isn't much different than it was fifty years ago. It's just more important, because without that beginning context, it's much harder to assess the difference between the wheat and the chaff -- the important data on one hand, and the informational equivalent of junk mail on the other.

In short, the total world inventory of information might be a little bigger than it use to be, but there's nothing especially explosive about it.

The important thing is that you can find your way around it -- mostly thanks to today's libraries -- far faster than at any point in human history.

And that's progress.

Wednesday, September 23, 1992

September 23, 1992 - Reference workshop

Admit it. When you were in school, you always put off doing your research paper to the last night.

And what happened? You did a lousy job.

When anyone talked to me about this when I was in school, I thought they were just yelling at me. Well, okay -- they were yelling at me. So imagine my surprise to discover: doing term papers is actually a useful life lesson.

Especially in the work-a-day world, there are often real deadlines, just like term papers. There's a big gap in your knowledge about some topic. You need to figure out what you really need to know, track down a goodly body of information about it, whip the raw data into shape, then polish it until it's presentable.

When I was in school, of course, I never approached the problem like that. I did what everyone else did: mainly, put all my effort into ... waiting till the last possible instant. Then I just yanked, more or less at random, whatever I could find off the shelves of the local library, took some hasty notes, then shuffled them into -- voila! -- a term paper.

Sometimes - not often - you can get away with that at school. But on the job, it's a lot harder. You wind up making bad decisions because you just don't know what you're talking about. Worse, you do something that brings harm to somebody else because, well, you didn't do your homework.

But the best thing about working in libraries is that I have finally learned just how easy it is to do good research. All it takes is (1) correctly defining what you need to know in the first place, (2) giving yourself enough lead time to do the job right, and (3) having a system.

Now that I'm pushing 40, I think I'd make a pretty good high school student.

On September 24, Jeff Long, reference librarian at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, will be giving a workshop entitled "Beyond the Encyclopedia: Library Research Time-Saving Tips." The workshop starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free to the public.

I highly recommend it, not only for those students who still haven't figured out a good strategy for doing school research papers, but also for the business people, who need to do topical research all the time, but have not yet grasped what the library can do for them.

Jeff has put together a good outline for the whole research process: how to pick a subject, how to tackle the world of library reference materials in a logical and efficient manner, and where to go from there.

Jeff will also provide a chart to help you decide what kinds of reference materials are likely to be most useful to you, depending on the topic you've selected. This can save you lots of time.

Altogether, "Beyond the Encyclopedia" can take some of the pain out of the never-ending battle against ignorance. So you might want to mark this one on your calendar.

Why wait until the last minute?

Wednesday, September 16, 1992

September 16, 1992 - Metro libraries online

In 1984, I decided to try what was then a very unusual idea: provide a public telephone line to the local library's computer catalog. If you had your own computer and a modem - a device that lets computers talk through phone lines - you could, effectively, put the library catalog on your desk.

I believe my library (Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois) was the first public library in the country to do this.

To promote the new service, I spent a lot of time talking to various computer users groups, most of whom didn't have modems. The ones that did, used modems that crawled along at 300 characters per second, just one-eighth the speed of today's most common modems.

In 1984, a library providing computerized access to "bibliographic data" was way ahead of the curve. But as a friend of mine and I maintained in an article we published back in 1983, that was still a long way short of the computerized library's potential.

We thought that library catalogs needed to tap into the real wealth of libraries. We needed to provide not just access to the indexes to information; we needed to provide the information itself.

Nobody responded to our article at the time, but it seems to me that Jim and I had predicted precisely the direction public libraries are headed these days, just ten years later.

In Colorado, Denver Public's CARL system, followed by the Pikes Peak Library District (also running on CARL software) has pioneered this trend. Connecting (or "dialing in") to CARL not only puts a card catalog of some five millions titles at your fingertips, it also offers an online encyclopedia, a sprinkling of magazine abstracts, and even an index to book reviews, which also includes some abstracts.

At present, the Douglas Public Library District's central computer houses Community Information Resource information, containing information about social service, civic, and not-for-profit agencies serving Douglas County residents. By the end of this year, thanks to the negotiating wizardry of Oakes Mill Branch Manager Gina Woods, we will provide computerized indexing to four years of almost 400 popular periodicals. This product is called MAS, Magazine Article Summaries, because each and every article will have a concise but comprehensive abstract, right there on the screen of every terminal in the system.

With access to this kind of current magazine data, I truly believe more and more people will choose to do their research from home, browsing through ever-larger universes of data without ever getting out of their pajamas.

Meanwhile, I thought that those of you with the necessary equipment and software (modems cost as little as $49 these days, and there are many public domain and "shareware" programs to be had for nothing) might appreciate having a directory to the public library databases available in the metropolitan Denver area.

All of the numbers below are local calls, so are absolutely free. Be aware, however, that in the CARL system, you really have to have a Denver Public or Pikes Peak Library Card to gain access to some of the most interesting data. But with the Colorado Library Card, all you have to do is take your Douglas Public Library District card with you to either of the libraries, and they'll give you the number you need.

The Douglas Public Library District phone number is: 688-1428. Modem speeds: 2400, 1200, or 300. Settings: No parity, 8 bit words, 1 stop bit. Terminal emulation: VT100. After connection: press Enter a few times to synchronize your modem with ours. Trouble: if nothing appears on the screen, try holding down your control key and pressing the letter Q. If you get a "login" prompt, type the word "library" (without quotes), being very careful to use lower case letters, then press Enter. To quit: just hang up. Note: the DPLD database also allows you to reserve titles, but have your library card handy.

The CARL phone number is 758-1551. Modem speed: 2400, 1200, 300. Settings: No parity, 8 bit words, 1 stop bit. Terminal emulation: several options available. After connection: press Enter, then just follow instructions. Trouble: hang up and start over. To quit: hang up. Note: you can connect through CARL to the Bemis Public Library, Denver Public, Boulder Public, Pikes Peak Library District, many other Colorado libraries, including both the metro area and the western slope, and beyond that, from Maryland to Hawaii. Even if you get connected to one of those libraries, it's STILL a local phone call.

The ARAPAHOE LIBRARY DISTRICT, and the AURORA PUBLIC LIBRARY phone numbers (there are two) are: 343-8635 OR 364-6355. Modem speed: 2400, 1200. Settings: No parity, 8 bit words, 1 stop bit. Terminal emulation: VT100. After connection: hold down Ctrl key and hit the letter "O". Then follow instructions. Trouble: hang up and start over. To quit: hang up. Note: at present, this system doesn't have any non-bibliographic data.

The Englewood Public Library's phone number is: 783-0038. Modem speeds: 2400, 1200, 300. Settings: Even parity, 7 bit word, 1 stop bit. Terminal emulation: VT100. After connection: at Login prompt, type #LOGIN PAC# (in caps). Then follow instructions. Terminal emulation: several available. Trouble: hang up and start over. To quit: hang up. Note: at this writing, Englewood doesn't have any non-bibliographic data either.

I hope this proves useful. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, September 9, 1992

September 9, 1992 - Trustees and Donors reception

The days of our early childhood are like water, flowing away from us with quick and careless abandon.

My earliest memory, I think, is of my sister's 2nd birthday, which would have made me about four. Of the time before that, I remember nothing, not even memories of memories.

But one of the wonders of parenthood is the way that raising your own children stirs up some faint and strangely moving almost-memories. Certain smells -- baby powder, calamine lotion, even diapers -- are particularly strong memory triggers, not so much of clear events, but of feelings, sensations. Echoes of childhood.

So even though you can never quite recapture the days of your infancy, there is compensation: you get to witness those first stirrings of personality and character in your own offspring. Only parents have the memory of life's earliest, most fleeting and therefore most precious beginnings.

The Douglas Public Library District, while not a parent, exactly, is at least a grown-up. It's not fully mature, yet -- and won't be until the current wave of population growth settles down and we've got all of our buildings and collections in place. Nonetheless, we have in some sense reached our majority.

So in an effort to recapture and commemorate the childhood of the former Douglas County Public Library System and the current Douglas Public Library District, we have sought out all of its surviving (or findable) "parents" -- all of the Trustees that have served since 1967. (Cindy Murphy, the library's Business Manager, managed to locate all but two -- not bad, out of 42.)

On September 17, the DPLD will hold a reception honoring them at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. The event will be held in the Lynn Robertson Children's Garden, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Donors to the Garden will also be honored. We'll even have the Douglas County High School Orchestra on hand.

But what do you give to the people whose time, effort and vision made the library what it is today?

The staff of the library talked about that a lot. Should we give them individual certificates? Books donated to the library in their names?

Finally, the best idea came from Esther Marie Capps, a Trustee for the County Library from 1988-1990, and for the Library District to 1991. She pointed out that individual gifts have a way of getting lost over time. She suggested that a fitting way to honor the library's many Trustees and donors was to get all of their names and dates of service, and mount the information on some kind of plaque, to be displayed in the library lobby.

That way, a generation or so from now, people can point to the names with pride and say: "That was my grandfather" (or great-aunt, etc.).

If libraries are at least in part about the preservation of historical knowledge, it's only fitting that the people who "gave birth" to and reared the institution, are acknowledged and honored.

The public is also invited to the event. Now, if I can only find all those baby pictures...

Wednesday, September 2, 1992

September 2, 1992 - boardwalks

Once, Oscar Wilde was said to have overheard a contemporary's devastatingly clever remark. He muttered, "I wish I'd said that." Another bystander immediately retorted, "Oh, you will, Oscar. You will."

Probably I shouldn't let this get out, but most libraries are similarly inclined toward plagiarism.

I don't mean (of course) that we steal things from books and claim that we thought 'em up ourselves. We're far too mindful of copyright issues to do anything like that. But when it comes to stealing good ideas from each other, we truly have no shame.

Take, for instance, this blurb in the August 24, 1992 issue of #Library Hotline#, a weekly newsletter I get:

"In an effort to learn more about the public's thoughts on library service, Jack Hicks, administrative librarian of the Deerfield Public Library, IL, and one member of his Board of Trustees will spend three hours on the first Saturday of every month meeting and greeting patrons in the front lobby of the library. Hicks is calling the program the 'in person suggestions box,' devised to counteract the voice mail revolution."

I wish the Douglas Public Library District had done that.

But we will. (See what I mean? Plagiarism.)

Admit it. You don't have a clue who your representatives are on the library Board. Probably, you're not too sure where all of the Douglas Public Library District's branches are, either.

But the members of the library Board are the ones who set policy, establish long range goals, scrutinize the budget, and hold their employees (like me) accountable for how well -- or how poorly -- things are going. And each of our branches is unique, with its own special features and collections -- all well worth a visit.

So in the fine spirit of such pioneering spirits as Jack Hicks, and with a wry nod to the tradition of Oscar Wilde, I'm pleased to announce the first of the Douglas Public Library District's "Boardwalks."

I wanted to start this on the first Saturday of the month myself, but the first Saturday in September happens to be the day Maddy, my daughter, is having her fifth birthday party. So the first Boardwalk will be on September 12, 1992, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Oakes Mill Library.

The current President of the Library Board of Trustees is Tom McKenzie. The Oakes Mill Library happens to be in his neighborhood. He will be there with me to greet patrons, offer a cup of coffee, maybe some donuts, and ask people what's on their minds about libraries. We'll also have some of our designs on display for improvements to the Oakes Mill Library, slated to occur by the end of the year.

If you've got any comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, or words of praise, stop by. The Oakes Mill Library is located at 8827 Lone Tree Parkway, on the corner of Yosemite and Lone Tree Parkway, about two country blocks north of Lincoln.

This will be very casual. You don't have to dress up. I assured Tom that I don't intend to. After all, the point is to provide a human alternative to the endless loops of voice "messaging" systems that characterize too many of our institutions and businesses these days.

In the future, I hope to schedule a Boardwalk once a month, eventually featuring all of our Board members, and each of our branches.

Tom and I look forward to seeing you on the 12th.