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, March 31, 1993

March 31, 1993 - Controversial books for kids

After three years of renting, my wife and I have bought a house. In just a few weeks, we'll be resettling in Castle Rock.

Along about now, most people would start packing. But my wife and I are librarians. So what's our top priority? -- Check out some books on moving.

I don't mean the kind of books that guide you through the mechanics of relocation, although the library certainly has plenty of books on the subject.

The kind of books we're piling up concern something far more important: how to talk about moving with your child.

We could tell Maddy was a little worried about it. Being librarians, we are of the firm and united opinion that whenever Maddy is working through something, there are some five hundred books that will give Maddy a way to think about, talk about, and otherwise imaginatively anticipate change. So we start showering her with books, and spend as many evenings as it takes to poke through them with her.

You know what? It works. After reading that one of the Berenstain Bears had trouble getting used to the idea of leaving the family cave in the mountains, Maddy felt freer to talk about her own feelings. A score of other titles later, she was able to articulate her concerns: would we take all of our stuff with us? Would we still be able to visit friends in the old neighborhood? What if it was noisy at the new house? What if she couldn't find new friends?

So okay, our stuff isn't ready. But our daughter is. You have to pack your family first.

There's a word for the use of books to counsel your children. It's called "bibliotherapy."

Bibliotherapy is based on a few simple premises. First, there is nothing so strange that millions of other people haven't gone through exactly the same thing. Second, the more you know about something, the less power it has over you, and the more likely you are to survive it. Third, sharing books not only helps provide liberating information, it can also pull families together.

Here's just a sample of books for younger (elementary age) children, all available from the Douglas Public Library District, about all kinds of potential or actual traumas.

For instance, are you worried that your child might become one of the approximately 1.8 million children who disappear annually in the United States? Then take a look at Who Is A Stranger and What Should I Do? by Linda Walvoord Girard for some very practical, down-to-earth advice.

Is your daughter coming to grips with a divorce? Try Linda Girard's At Daddy's on Saturdays for an insight into the things that matter to a child -- and what grown-ups ought to do about it.

I know a woman in Douglas County whose husband left her -- for another man. When she was trying to help her young children understand the situation, she asked us to get a book called Daddy's Roommate, by Michael Willhoite. We did, and she says it helped.

My Sister, Then and Now, by Virginia L. Kroll, concerns a girl whose older sister is schizophrenic, another traumatic family situation that children can find hard to talk about.

The Auction, by Jan Andrews, is a sad but lovely book that describes the auction of a farm, and the efforts of a young boy to help his grandfather come to terms with it.

Another book dealing with partings is Saying Good-bye to Grandma, by Jane Resh Thomas. It's the story of seven-year-old Suzie, who goes back with her parents to attend her grandmother's funeral.

There are many titles about tough family situations, such as Tight Times, by Barbara Shook Hazen, which concerns a poor family whose husband loses his job. Judith Vigna's I Wish Daddy Didn't Drink So Much is an uncompromising look at the effects of alcoholism on a family. The Piggybook by Anthony Browne is a cautionary and occasionally hilarious tale about a working wife who finally manages to get a little respect -- and help around the house.

An especial favorite of mine is Mrs. Katz and Tush, by Patrica Polacco. This is the beguiling story of an old Jewish widow, and the young African American boy who befriends her, and restores her zest for life through the person of Tush, a tailless cat.

There are many people in America who take such children's books - - focusing on everything from the plight of the homeless, to the behavior of the mentally retarded, to environmental concerns, to dealing with nightmares, to the awkwardness of wearing glasses -- as further evidence of the moral decay of America. They believe that children's books should show only homes that are happy, lives that are uncomplicated, and a society that is just and fair.

But some homes are not happy, some lives are extremely complicated, and our society is often cruelly unjust.

The vicarious experience of fiction can inoculate our children against the larger threats of our culture. By reading about the choices others have made, children can learn to make better choices for themselves. Of equal importance, they can begin to develop a trait sadly lacking in too many Americans -- compassion based on knowledge.

So the next time you find your family facing some large -- or even not so large -- crisis, remember that a visit to a library just might be a move in the right direction.

Wednesday, March 24, 1993

March 24, 1993 - the importance of public institutions

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the challenges faced by public schools and public libraries. Some of those challenges are technological -- as in the increasing presence and power of personal computers and "teaching software."

For public schools and public libraries both, this new technology holds great promise. On the other hand, new tools are only useful if people can get to them.

This leads me to a second category of challenges: the issue of access to information.

Some parents choose to educate their children at home, and are able to dedicate sufficient time and resources to that end. And as I've mentioned in previous columns, home schooling parents do a strikingly good job.

Too, some fortunate families have enough money and expertise to purchase and make use of various kinds of computer equipment and services. These families will have an "information edge" -- a powerful path to personal and professional advancement.

But some parents are not able to teach their children at home. Some households have only one parent -- and that parent must work. Sometimes parents have their own severe educational deficiencies. There are many other economic, educational, or personal factors that might make homeschooling -- or private schooling, for that matter -- impracticable or impossible for a particular family.

Similarly, many parents will find the costs of computers, modems, phone lines, and electronic subscription fees, far beyond their reach.

For such people, public schools and public libraries are essential if we don't want to create a new subclass of society -- the "information poor," the people who will only know what TV tells them.

There is yet another challenge. In brief, I believe we have lost a clear national consensus on the role of our public entities. The national trend toward tax limitation, the new focus on "entrepreneurial" or business-oriented government, the increasing involvement of the business community in public education, all reveal a profound dissatisfaction -- or misunderstanding -- of the purpose and processes of the public sector.

Nowhere is this crisis as obvious as with our public schools.

In many respects public schools have become the dumping ground of our national conscience. If children aren't fed well enough at home, then schools must launch nutrition programs. If there's a problem with parental work schedules, then schools must provide extended daycare.

Yet somehow, schools are still expected to teach, to provide the basic cultural knowledge necessary to communicate with others, and to thrive.

Before any institution can succeed, it must maintain a clear focus on just what its job is. I fear that we have overloaded our public school system with unrealistic expectations, made of it a mishmash of conflicting purposes.

Yet I remain optimistic about public education -- whose fate, I believe, is closely tied to public libraries.

Public schools and public libraries remain the keys to self- improvement. They provide a series of opportunities for accomplishment -- whatever the socio-economic background or age of the individual. Alone among our public institutions, they help level the cultural and economic playing field.

There is certainly room for improvement in both public schools and public libraries. But as we poke and prod these institutions, we must also remember to preserve their inherent democracy, and to resist the many attempts to confound their purposes -- because there is nothing in the private sector that will or can replace them.

Wednesday, March 10, 1993

March 10, 1993 - Pronouncements of doom

When I was 25 years old, I shared a house with a man named Bill. He worked as a clerk for an academic library. I was going to library school.

Bill was a big believer that Things -- world peace, race relations, American politics generally -- were headed for total collapse. Probably by the weekend.

Bill was no dummy, either. He could reel off some fifty or sixty recent events -- which he always followed closely -- that strongly suggested not only that global disaster was imminent and unavoidable, but that we probably deserved it.

The trouble was, Bill had been carrying on like this for over 10 years. And although things weren't exactly looking up, by his 30th birthday it dawned on him that maybe they weren't that much worse, either. In the decade Bill had been predicting doom and living in near-poverty, most of his friends had pushed on to good careers, and were busily making house payments and kids.

In short, Bill had a life crisis. His girl-friend, tired of his endless cynicism, walked out on him. He started to drink too much. He became a chain-smoker. If I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, there was Bill, sitting bleak and barren in the middle of the living room floor, staring blankly into the darkness.

I'm pleased to report that he snapped out of it. These days he's married, raising a son, working at a decent day job, and writing an astonishingly good science fiction novel on the side.

But I always think of Bill when people start predicting the imminent decline of some big institution.

Take public schools. A few years back, I got interested in home schooling. After doing some research, I was surprised to discover that most homeschooling parents don't have teaching degrees, and only spend an average of one to two hours per day per child on instruction.

Even more surprising was how well their kids did. As documented in numerous studies about home schooling, homeschoolers consistently outperform public school students. Often, homeschooled children are some one-to-three grades ahead academically. They also test higher on "self esteem" and social skills.

In other words, parents with no formal training tend to do better in one hour than trained professionals can do in six. When I first read that, it struck me as a scathing indictment of our educational system.

Now consider that around the country, there are fifteen times as many homeschoolers as there were last year. Here in Colorado, a ballot issue for school vouchers made it to last November's general election. More recently, there's a strong push for "charter" schools -- or "schools within schools." And there are also many computer pundits who believe personal computers and good educational software can completely supplant real, live teachers.

Given all this, you have to ask: Are public schools doomed, destined to be swept away by a combination of private alternatives? And is that good or bad?

A similar issue arises in public libraries. It happens that I have an electronic account on something called the Internet -- a "network of networks," linking big academic and computer systems around the world.

About a year ago, I had a personal computer problem -- I couldn't get DOS 5.0 to correctly display a menu screen. I spent three weeks hunting for the answer in books and magazines. I -- a trained information professional -- couldn't find it. I flat-out failed.

So for a lark, I posted the question on the Internet. And in just under half an hour, I got the answer. Actually, I got it twice. One of them was from a teenager in the Netherlands, still in high school. The other was from a professor in New Zealand.

To look at it another way, the shortest distance to a right answer was -- all the way around the world.

If you're inclined to have an attitude about such things, you might easily assume that this is a "scathing indictment" of public libraries -- as profound a challenge to libraries as that of homeschooling to public education.

So it's only fair to ask: Are public libraries doomed, too? Some of my colleagues think so. And a lot of the people on the Internet do, too.

I'm inclined to be flip about this -- maybe because I'm about to leave on vacation for a week. Or maybe it's because I still have this image of Bill, all depressed because things weren't falling to pieces as fast as he'd said they would .

Or maybe (WARNING, bad pun about to follow), Armageddon too old to believe much of anything people tell me until I've thought about it for awhile.

See you in two weeks!

Wednesday, March 3, 1993

March 3, 1993 - volunteer data project

To some people, moving to a new town is a lot of fun. They like the challenge of change. They enjoy figuring out how the streets run. They get a keen pleasure from puzzling out a new batch of faces and personalities.

Other people -- especially those folks who moved because their spouses got new jobs -- find it very difficult to get settled. They may spend long, lonely years before they even begin to feel that they know their way around, or can go some place and be recognized.

There are many strategies for getting rooted in your new home town (or county, or state). The first, and to my mind the most important, is to read the newspaper. Of course, those of you who are reading this, already know that; and those who don't read the paper, sure won't find out here.

A second strategy is to join something: a church, a social group, a school committee, a civic club, even a library. Such organizations provide a ready mix of people, with a high probability that many of them will care about the same things you do.

A third approach -- and one of the most rewarding -- is to become a volunteer.

No one really knows for sure just how many volunteers there are in the United States. A 1989 Gallup Survey showed volunteer hours totaled 20.5 billion. More important than the numbers of volunteers is the fact that many organizations absolutely depend on them.

One such organization is the Adult Center for Training, or ACT. ACT is a Douglas County literacy program, currently serving Castle Rock, Parker, and Highlands Ranch. In brief, it pairs people who don't know how to read with people willing to donate their time to teach them.

But ACT isn't alone. Throughout the county are many other worthy organizations performing a variety of useful and interesting tasks. And volunteering for such organizations can provide a fascinating introduction to the people and services of an area.

Volunteerism can also lead to jobs. It often does lead to positions on Boards of Directors. For instance, our newest Library Trustee, Sue Meacham, volunteered in the library's Technical Services Department for several years. Now she's one of my bosses.

I'm thinking about volunteers lately for several reasons. First, the indefatigable Beryl Jacobson (Douglas County Extension Agent and fellow News Press columnist) has secured a grant to gather information about volunteer opportunities in the county. Second, it happens that Suzanne LaRue, a librarian who happens to be my wife, is the project director.

Third, after all this information is gathered, the Douglas Public Library District will add it to our Community Information Referral system. People will be able to search this database either at the library, or by "dialing in" to it via a home computer.

We'll design the system so people can search for volunteer opportunities either by a subject that interests them ("gardening," for instance), or the location ("Parker"), or both.

So if you happen to work for a not-for-profit organization located in or serving Douglas County residents, and you'd like a little electronic solicitation of volunteer assistance, give Suzanne a call at 681-3405, or at the Extension Office (688-3096).

And if you happen to be someone looking to BE a volunteer, watch this space for more information soon. In the meantime, give Kathy Walsh of ACT a call at 841-8615. Evenings are best.