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 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!

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