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, February 24, 1993

February 24, 1993 - DC Media Center annual report

Sometime back, I reported on a study that found the most reliable predictor of academic success (grades K-12) was a well-funded school library or media center. That surprised some people, especially those grown-ups who used to get sent to the school library as punishment.

As for me, there was no punishment I bore more gladly.

Fortunately, today's school media center has a much better image than in the old days. In the most successful schools, the media center is a full and active partner in the teaching and learning process. Rather than being a sort of mini-public library, the vital school media center is a collection of materials and technologies that directly supports the curriculum.

I recently had the opportunity to review the annual report of Douglas County's Media Program, as prepared by Carol Paul, District Media Coordinator. It tells an impressive story.

In the K-6 level, the number of items checked out went up by 4,825 items -- a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year. In grades 7 through 12, the percentage increase was 1.8 -- 300 items more than last year. The collection of the District Media Center (located in Castle Rock) rose by 277 items, representing a jump of 67 percent.

As Carol notes, "In short, the circulation statistics reflect a consistent increase in use K-12 and a substantial increase in the use of District Media Center materials."

I was very interested in the pattern of use at the various grade levels. Based on a statistical count conducted over a 2 week period in November, Carol extrapolated some annual figures.

She found that in grades K-6, print materials (books, magazines, pamphlets, etc.) were used far more than non-print materials (filmstrips, videos, computer software). In fact, slightly over 96 percent of the materials used by students were print-based.

At the 7-12 grade level, however, the numbers are slightly different. Non-print materials make up a little over 17 percent of the circulation activity -- filmstrips, videos, and "miscellaneous" (software, records, books with tapes) accounting for most of the difference.

Another interesting difference is reflected in the use of non-fiction versus fiction. In grades K-6, the children checked out over twice as much fiction as non-fiction. But in grades 7- 12, things had swung around. Non-fiction accounted for almost 60 percent of the circulation.

Carol calculated another interesting figure. In grades K-6, the average number of items checked out per student was just under 9. For the older students, it dropped to just under 3.

All of this makes good sense, of course. You would expect younger children to spend more of their time soaking up good stories, although it's clear that they're finding some non-fiction of interest, too. And as children grow older, they naturally spend more time using non-fiction materials to work on school projects. And it is well known in the library profession that even avid readers tend to slack off in their teen years.

Carol also details the number of visits by students to the school media centers: a 66.2 percent increase at the K-6 level (or 12,507 students); a 95.3 percent increase at the 7-12 level (or 8,898 students); and various class visits.

At Douglas County, it would appear that the teachers and students have come to recognize the great value of a lively school media program, serving, as Carol puts it, "as the focal points of our instructional programs."

Congratulations, Douglas County Media Center staff, on a very good year!

Wednesday, February 17, 1993

February 17, 1993 - in praise of competence

The secret to success is to surround yourself with competence.

This week we're pulling together all the final pieces of our Oakes Mill and Philip S. Miller renovation projects.

To a certain extent, it's been, well, why mince words? It's been Chaos. Just by way of example, for a couple of weeks, I had no ceiling. I lived in a gentle rain of (non-asbestos) fire retardant dust.

Just beyond my office, the reference collection, periodicals, and paperbacks were crammed into a new center aisle. In many respects, working at the Philip S. Miller Library was much like moving all the stuff from a large house into a small apartment, while simultaneously remodeling the apartment, and holding a formal party every night.

At the Oakes Mill Library, a quarter of the library was without shelves for weeks. And there were people pounding under the floor. The wall behind the circulation desk -- where most of the library's business is condcuted -- was being patched, then painted. By the time this column comes out, the library will even have been without power for an entire day -- if not more.

And yet, somehow, the DPLD went on.

Throughout it all, the staffs at the two libraries mostly kept good humor. Most important of all, they kept providing service -- keeping the library open, maintaining story times, answering reference questions, helping people find a good mystery, ordering new books.

Sure, there was some grumbling and confusion, on the part of the public and staff alike. Some people don't deal well with utter messiness.

The way I see it, it's an acquired taste. I like Chaos. There's an energy about it, the strange glimmer of unsuspected possibilities. More often than not, it brings out the best in people.

Take Gina Woods, Oakes Mill Branch Manager, who pulled in her husband one night to assemble some temporary metal shelves. And laughed when in the middle of a particularly cacophonous story time, one young patron pulled the fire alarm.

Or consider Donna Harrison, Technical Services Manager, who marshalled her crew to complete the move into new, barely refurbished quarters in a little under two days -- a feat matched only by the two day creation of a spanking new reference room, ramrodded by Holly Deni, Philip S. Miller Branch Manager.

I don't mean to leave anybody out. I could tell similar stories about everybody who works at the library. We had people slapping books on trucks, hefting computer equipment, running vacuum cleaners, and just generally getting the job done.

Then there were our contractors. Dennis Kovatavich, a Franktown resident, and Jamie Roupp, from the Lone Tree development, were responsible for most of the action. They were here every day, including most Saturdays, cleaning up, inspecting progress, doing things they hadn't even promised to do and never asked to get paid for. They have something you don't hear much about any more -- a fierce pride in their work.

There was Ernie the electrician -- possibly the most gentlemanly tradesman I've met in some time. There was Paul Preister, rolling in his highly customized furniture exactly on schedule. There was Curt Farmer, who even after a near fatal car accident showed up, a cane in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, to completely rewire the building for computers, vastly simplifying the support of the system.

I am surrounded by competence, and I suspect all the people who demonstrate this competence never hear it often enough.

So the next time you're in either of these vastly improved libraries, do me a favor. Ask for a tour, and when it's done, take a minute to thank the staff. And if you ever run across any of the contractors I've mentioned, shake their hands. Take it from me: they deserve it.

Wednesday, February 10, 1993

February 10, 1993 - Carl's retirement

Next week, my former boss, Carl Volkmann, will retire as director of Lincoln Library, the public library of Springfield, Illinois.

I served under Carl first as a Circulation Department Head (from 1982 to 1984), then as Assistant Director (1985 to 1987), when I went to Greeley, Colorado to assume my own directorship.

For five key years, Carl Volkmann was sage advisor to me, and friend, and mentor. He also played a mean game of tennis. He's still a friend, still a mentor. (I can't speak to his tennis these days.)

But the real story of Carl Volkmann's tenure as director of the Lincoln Library is this: Carl was a preacher's kid. I believe his father's father was a minister, too. And there was never any doubt in Carl's family that he, the oldest son, would follow in the family profession.

So Carl went off to Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa -- a good Lutheran school. He soon became president of his dormitory. Even then, people looked up to him.

Just months from graduation, Carl faced an excruciating dilemma. He didn't want to be a minister. The thought of standing up in front of a congregation every week to deliver a sermon was more than this intensely idealistic, deeply religious, somewhat stage- shy young man could face.

But he confronted his father -- and his father's disappointment. Instead of the ministry, Carl chose another path.

Five jumps later -- from school teacher, to Aquisitions Librarian, to Young Adult Librarian, to Associate Director in charge of Personnel, to Director -- Carl had attained the prestigious position of leader of one of the country's finest libraries.

How did it happen? More than anyone I know, Carl has the rare ability to listen not just to people's words -- but to their hearts.

At my first interview with him, I was very impressed, and a little overwhelmed, by his attentiveness. He had this trick: he'd look at you with these big, unblinking eyes, amplified by his glasses. Like an owl, he'd ... blink.

But there was an expectancy about it. You could feel that he believed in you, believed you were just about to say something really important.

So you said it. You had to.

I remember the day I interviewed for the position as his Assistant Director."You'll find other people with more experience," I said. "But you won't find anybody better qualified."

It was an outrageous statement, with barely a shred of supporting evidence. But Carl took a gamble on me. He gave me the job.

Later, he was always there with just the right word to point out my inevitable beginner's mistakes.

And when I did something right, I could sense the pride radiating from him, as if he'd invented me. He did invent me.

But maybe that wasn't so unusual after all. He had promoted many others in the library, launching their careers with the same trusting yet thoughtful attention he gave to mine. I don't know of any time when Carl made a hiring MISTAKE. I wish I could say the same.

I'm struck by one irony of his career. It seems to me that throughout his painstaking and conscientious stewardship of the library, Carl has delivered a magnificent, beautifully articulated sermon on the value of public service, the importance of high professional and personal ethics, and the crucial role of the public library in the cultural life of a community.

I bet his father would have been proud of him. As for me, I'm privileged to count myself among Carl's grateful congregation.