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, October 28, 1992

October 28, 1992 - Madonna's Sex

The subject is sex. How does it relate to public libraries? The second subject is also Sex, the latest offering of Madonna. How does it relate to this library?

Let's start with some background. Most people quite reasonably expect a public library to carry a broad variety of materials reflecting the many cross-currents of mainstream culture.

"Mainstream" doesn't mean materials that steer clear of sex. Many, many commonly available titles, from bestsellers to grocery store magazines to blockbuster videos, have quite a lot of sex in them.

You will find such items in our libraries, and I believe they belong there. These materials reflect the increasing cultural tolerance regarding human sexuality in all of its flavors. On the whole, that's probably good.

Then there are the kind of materials you probably would #not# expect public libraries to carry. I'm talking about books with titles like "The Nympho Slave Vixens of Venus," magazines like "Jugs," or videos like "Debby Does Dallas." We don't buy those, and I don't know any public library that does.

Somewhere in the middle are such magazines as #Playboy# (indexed by most periodical guides and carried by most larger libraries, although not us at present) and #Penthouse# (carried by very few libraries).

And then we have ... Madonna.

With the free, enthusiastic support of the media, she's hawking her latest venture, the aforementioned, Sex. The book comes in a heavy mylar wrapping, has a sticker on it reading "Warning! Adults only!" and at some Denver area bookstores, is sold only to people over 18 years old. The price is $49.95.

Some weeks ago, our library had decided not to purchase the book. It was expensive, had an awkward format, had received generally negative reviews, and nobody in our community had requested it.

Then came this article, on the front page of the Denver Post, October 22, 1992: "Check out Madonna at your library." The book is or will be available, according to the Post, from several metro area locations, especially Denver and Boulder.

I got 3 requests and 12 protests, all in the same morning. Most of the protests, incidentally, were an organized effort from the members of one church in the Parker area.

Now all this generated a lot of very stimulating discussion among our staff. After talking to a number of people around the community, I set the issue before our seven-member Collection Development Committee -- branch managers and some reference staff.

Our internal policy, set by me, calls for us to buy almost anything a patron requests, excepting only those items that are prohibitively expensive or whose subject matter is highly obscure or technical. Madonna's book was certainly pricey, but all of us admitted that we ourselves were curious to see it. Certainly, we have purchased expensive books before.

But did we have a need for this book? Judged on its own merits, we didn't think so. So then we went to the next question: how many public requests does it take to justify buying an expensive book of little apparent value to our collection?

Opinions were divided, although the best line of the day was from Cindy Murphy, our Business Manager: "If you have to be over 18, the district can't buy it. We're only two years old."

Finally, I decided I needed to take a look at it myself. So I drove up to Barnes and Noble's on Arapahoe Road. They had a copy available for perusal by the (adult) public. I had to stand at the counter to examine it. And after a lot of intense thinking, I came to the conclusion that Sex falls well on the other side of the line from Playboy. I think Madonna's book, by her conscious intent, fits the commonly-held definition of "pornography."

Why do I think so? The book is filled with literally hundreds of photographs of Madonna in highly charged sexual tableaus. There is some text -- maybe 10 pages out of some 120-plus -- but I would say it is more incidental than intrinsic. The high percentage of sexually explicit photographic content makes it quite unlike anything currently in our collection.

As indicated by the labeling and ID-check, the publisher clearly intended the book for an adult audience. Many parents don't feel comfortable setting out sexually-oriented photography where their children can stumble across it unsupervised. At none of our libraries do we have any distinct "adult" place to segregate such materials, and I didn't want to require ID cards at the circulation desk.

Finally, I still didn't like the format. The out-size aluminum covers were held together by a metal spiral binding. As I turned its pages, the covers came apart. Sex isn't designed as a general market library book; it's a specialty item, a novelty for collectors.

What Madonna does, and with whom, is okay with me, assuming they are all consenting adults. She has a perfect right to publish her book, booksellers have a perfect right to sell it, and people have a perfect right to read it. But erotic photographic albums don't strike me as an especially useful addition to a public library collection of our size. Other collections, other communities, might find it desirable, and that's okay with me, too.

But I don't think we should buy it.

So you tell me -- is this an act of censorship, or a thoughtful investment of limited funds? Have I imposed my prudery on a sophisticated public, or drawn a clear and defensible distinction for the purchase of library materials?

Your comments would be genuinely appreciated. Feel free to address them to me, this paper, or my Library Board.

Wednesday, October 21, 1992

October 21, 1992 - community information referral part ii

On February 20, 1991, I wrote a column about the library's Community Information Referral Files -- a computerized collection of data about civic clubs and social agencies located in and/or serving the residents of Douglas County.

This information was gathered back in 1990, and has been updated once through the annual Douglas County Forum on the Family mini- conference.

When we put all this stuff in the library's computer, we figured that two main groups of people would use it. The first group consisted of our library patrons, who would run across the information in our computer catalog while searching for other things.

For instance, the patron might type "AAUW", hoping to find a short history of the American Association of University Women. But since we also have information about the Douglas County chapter, the person at the computer terminal would also get a local contact person. In this way, the library hoped to pull together local library materials and local human resources.

The second group we thought would use the system was the social service agencies themselves. We thought they would find the computer catalog far better than the old print directories for finding appropriate referrals.

For instance, someone might approach one of the library's public terminals and choose the "Subject Keyword" search option. Then, the patron might type in something like "battered women." The computer would then fetch the listing for "Community Information Referral Battered Women," and show that 1 agency was contained under that heading.

The patron would then pick the heading to get the name, location, phone number, and a brief description of services for the "Women's Crisis Center." From there, the patron would only have to type "rw" (for "Related Works") to see all of the other related subject headings, such as "Community Information Referral Victim Assistance," and "Community Information Referral Sexual Assault." Choosing any one of these would take the patron to information about other agencies providing these services.

And of course, the database could also be searched by the name, even the partial name, of any organization.

You just can't use a printed directory like this -- directories are too hard to keep current, and too difficult to adequately cross-reference. But the computerized tool -- now featuring 185 agencies -- was wonderfully easy to use.

But how would people get to it? We designed three basic approaches: by calling the reference department of the Philip S. Miller Library, and asking someone here to look it up; by walking into any of our four full-service library branches and using the terminals by themselves; or by connecting their personal computer to the library computer through a phone line (as I have described in another column).

In theory, by providing a centralized database of social service and civic organizations, we would also make it easy for people who worked with those organizations to just call us with any changes. We, in turn, could update the information in a matter of minutes.

The good news is that many of our patrons do find the database a useful and eye-opening introduction to human resources in Douglas County.

The bad news is that very few of the social service agencies and civic clubs call us when they have new information, or, apparently, use the information we have.

Over the next several months, those of us here at the library will be working to change that. We're going to call all the people in our files and ask them if the information is correct. We're going to offer to do private demonstrations of the system for them. We're going to put together some brochures for social service staff.

Meanwhile, next time you're in the library, you might want to try the system yourself.

There's a lot going on in your own backyard. Someday, you might need to know what's out there.

Wednesday, October 14, 1992

October 14, 1992 - League of Women Voters

In 1980 I was plugging away at an assignment for library school. Suzanne, who was already a librarian (but not yet my wife), volunteered to help me with the research.

Suzanne is a much better researcher than I am. About halfway through my writing, she tossed a gem on my study carrel: a Bachelor's thesis for the same library school, written in 1898. The author, in careful, meticulous prose, traced the establishment of public libraries in Illinois.

I was frankly surprised to discover that over 90 percent of them were founded by women's groups.

But I wouldn't find that surprising today. Just take a look at the people who use libraries. Take a look at the people who attend PTA meetings.


And in this especially crowded election year, take a look at the only group that consistently puts out clear, reliable, non- partisan information about political issues: the League of Women Voters.

Founded by a $900,000 bequest in 1917 to suffragist and League founder Carrie Chapman Catt, today's League of Women Voters is dedicated to "the promotion of voter education." Why?

Well, what's the common denominator in the longstanding support of women for libraries and education? The public interest -- an abiding belief that we have a private duty to work for the public good, which in turn is based on the ready availability of unbiased information.

What does that mean for Douglas County residents?

To begin with, the local League will be sponsoring forums for county and congressional candidates, as well as some speakers on other ballot issues, on Tuesday, October 20, at the Highlands Ranch High School, and Thursday, October 22, at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. The forums will run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

If you're still making up your mind about some of the many issues on the November 6 ballot, here's an opportunity to get some pivotal information.

I am also very impressed by the State League's publication Ballot Issues 1992, a suit-coat-pocket-sized brochure that clearly spells out the election calendar, how to register, where to register, how to vote absentee, and how issues get put on the ballot in the first place.

That alone would be an important public service. But even better is what follows: a wonderfully lucid summary of the major provisions of each ballot proposal, and succinct summaries of the arguments for and against them.

These brochures, whose printing costs for Douglas County were entirely underwritten by the Mission Viejo Company, are available at no charge from any Douglas Public Library District branch.

One might argue that the common aim of public libraries and public schools is to provide to our current or potential citizens the necessary tools for informed decision-making. And surely voting is among the most important decisions we make.

Perhaps that's why the first thing Carrie Chapman Catt did with that bequest I mentioned earlier was to apply it to the cause of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

As it happens, next year the League of Women Voters will be celebrating "one hundred years of voting rights for women ... A Woman Suffrage Act was passed by the General Assembly and referred to a vote of the people in the general election held on November 7, 1893. The vote that 'let the women vote' was won by 35,789 to 29,451. Colorado was the second state (following Wyoming) to give women the right to vote in all elections."

A century later, the dedicated women (and yes, even a few men) of the League are still working for the public good. Before you exercise your right to vote, you might want to look over their research.

Wednesday, October 7, 1992

October 7, 1992 - cats in the library

I got a letter recently from a man named Michael S. M. Flanagan, of Denver. It begins, "Our family includes a 20 year old, a 22 year old, and a five year old. Currently when left to our own we go to the library very sporadically, at best. However, we would all like to. It just seems as though the motivating factors are too low, sad but true.

"However, in a recent article that I read in Cats Magazine (Oct. 1992), I found the motivating factor that would bring us all in to the library, on a very regular basis."

And what factor is that? Mr. Flanagan wants us to adopt a cat. Not a particular cat -- any cat at all.

Included with the letter was a photocopy of the article ("Library Cat Extraordinaire"), which told the inspiring tale of a public library in the northwestern Iowa town of Spencer.

It seems that one icy morning in January the staff found a kitten stuffed in the book drop. The library staff warmed, washed, fed, declawed, neutered, and vaccinated him, and after talking with the Library Board, a veterinarian, and some legal types, decided to keep him. (This is a very good reason never to be stuffed down a book drop, in my opinion.)

The cat, who after a city-wide contest was dubbed "Dewey Readmore Books," is wholly supported by public donations. As you might suspect, the soda can set out for contributions is called a "kitty."

The article also states that "Cats and libraries have been associated for hundreds of years. The animals were used primarily to eradicate rodent populations in the large, musty buildings. The practice became more and more rare as our libraries became institutionalized, sterile environments. Today, as libraries are taking on a more homey, inviting atmosphere, library cats are reappearing--not only for mouse control, but as goodwill ambassadors."

There's even a club whose primary purpose is "to encourage the establishing of a cat or cats in a library setting." My guess is that Mr. Flanagan is a charter member.

After five years of life with Dewey, the good people of Spencer say they "don't know how they ever got along without him" -- at least according to Cat Magazine, which I'm sure is utterly unbiased.

As it happens, I have worked in several libraries that have had cats. Generally speaking, it worked very well, too.

There is also some merit to the claim that there is a long collaboration between felines and libraries. After all, we have always called our main index to library materials a catalogue.

Even in these more automated times, we go out of our way to make sure that all of our new computers have mice. And our push for longer hours in the evening could be said to mimic the nocturnal timetables of our furry friends.

But the main problem with Flanagan's proposal, as I see it, is that some of my staff are violently allergic to cats.

Besides that, I shudder to think what would happen if all the people who are dog lovers, decided to donate a dog, or the people who are bird lovers...

While I consider myself a big believer in the need for ecologically-minded public libraries, even I balk at the notion of trying to replicate the entire biosphere, with dogs chasing cats through the newspapers, and birds trying to protect their nests in the fiction stacks by dive-bombing innocent browsers.

In short, Mr. Flanagan, thanks for the very entertaining suggestion. But as far as the Douglas Public Library District is concerned, if the thought of a book, magazine, audiocassette, video, storytime, adult program, or answer to a pressing question doesn't provide enough motivation for you and your family to visit the library, maybe you should "check out" the Denver Zoo.