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 29, 1993

September 29, 1993 - books lies and videotapes

Like people in every other profession, librarians make some bad calls.

Back about the time the phonograph record debuted, there was a lot of talk about how this would completely revolutionize our library collections. The modern librarian, pundits declared, shouldn't hesitate to sweep out the books - those musty, dusty remnants of antiquity.

In their place would be tightly packed stacks of phonograph albums, because from now on, people would read books by listening to them. Why, some day soon, there might be phonograph-playing devices in every household!

Not too many years later, we went through the same kind of thing with 16 millimeter films.

Now, as we close out the 20th century, those libraries that built up big collections of phonographs and 16 mm films are, if not exactly sweeping them out, very definitely getting rid of them. Why? Well, there are lots of reasons, but the main one is that the technology that supported them isn't around anymore. The turntable has given way to the CD player; the 16 mm film projector to the VCR. On the other hand, the technology for reading a book (at least one working hand and one working eye) is still pretty much the same as it was a couple thousand years ago.

I'm not saying that those libraries were wrong to collect albums and films. But two lessons jump out at the disinterested student of library history:

1) the book has remarkable staying power, and

2) few other formats are likely to endure so long.

By far the majority of the purchases - and the uses - of Douglas Public Library District are books. Just this year (from January through August) about 70 percent of the new materials were hardback books. Together, they accounted for almost 75 percent of what got checked out. About a third of those, by the way, were books for very young children. (Thank you, moms!)

After that, though, things start to get interesting. A little over 17 percent of our new items this year were magazines, although they accounted for only 3.61 percent of our checkouts. Does that mean we shouldn't buy so many periodicals? No, because magazines are almost always the most current source of information. Too, the numbers are deceiving: a lot of magazines are used in-house, but not necessarily checked out.

Nearly 5 percent of the items added to the collection this year have been videos. While we have tried to place a strong emphasis on educational materials, we have given more than a nod to classic films, and book-related videos for children. They're popular: videos made up over 10 percent of what people actually checked out this year.

The next biggest number for new items added (4.74%) was audiocassettes: mostly unabridged books on tape. They accounted for 5.76% of our checkouts.

A mere 3.47% of our new items were paperbacks. But they accounted for even more business than our cassettes: a tad over 6 percent.

What am I driving at with all of these numbers? Mostly, I find that I'm comforted that books are still our primary draw. And I think that the surge in audiocassettes is fine too: unlike phonographs, audiocassettes really are used as substitutes for books, mostly by people who do a lot of driving.

But about those videos ... I can't help but wonder if they will prove any more long-lived in the popular mind or public shelves than phonograph albums. It's also a caution to us: we need to take care not to duplicate what's available at your local video store. There are a lot more of them than there are of us, and we need to stay focused.

And I see I haven't even touched on music CDs. Here at the library, we're still trying to figure out how much of a commitment we want to make to that format. Buying just a few CDs doesn't really offer much to our community. But buying a lot of them undercuts our ability to keep the shelves stocked with books.

And books - those magnificent, durable, wildly popular books - are still what we're really all about.

Wednesday, September 8, 1993

September 8, 1993 - charter school philosophy

I'll say this about my dad. When I was in college, he never once told me what I ought to study. But when it was all over, and I had graduated with the preposterously unlikely triple major of philosophy, creative writing, and business law, he did ask me, politely enough, just what I intended to do with it.

For a moment, I was stumped. Finally, I told him, "Argue eloquently in bars." But it turns out that philosophy is a terrific grounding for any profession. Why? Because if you can ask the question, "Why?" -- and make an honest stab at answering it -- then you can do anything.

Don't underestimate the power of philosophy. Even today, especially in the prestigious eastern universities, physics is called "natural philosophy." Philosophy's questioning spirit is the mother of all knowledge.

Philosophy can make you nervous, but it will never make you comfortable. So what's the point? Socrates said it first: "The unexamined life is not worth living." If you study philosophy, and if you're serious about it, your life will never be dull. Three little letters -- w, h, y -- will keep you forever on your guard.

There's an oddball glory to philosophic debate, too. And I've always been willing to pick up either side -- although I generally prefer the side I don't believe, because I learn so much more that way. It's harder work than just repackaging my prejudices.

And speaking of debates, I happened to attend the school board meeting on September 1. At this meeting, the School Board unanimously approved the formation of the state's second charter school. Philosophically speaking, it was a good debate, which means that both school board members and charter school enthusiasts had to do some head-scratching. But many good points were made. A key discovery of the evening was that the school district was giving to the Academy Charter school just exactly as much funding per pupil as they give to all of their other schools. As Superintendent Rick O'Connell put it, "No more, no less." The school district opted for fairness.

On the other hand, the district wanted to charge the charter school for administrative advice, which they clearly don't do with their own schools. It is true that district staff and the school board put in a lot of hours on this one -- but not nearly as many as the charter school people. And you can't charge extra just to comply with the law.

But despite a few moments of tenseness, everybody did what they were supposed to do: get involved in public education, ask some questions, defend some answers, try something new, and ultimately, make a difference.

In short, I believe this excellent example of good public debate -- to a refreshingly packed house -- resulted in a product better than either party could have accomplished alone.

Incidentally, the strong interest in charter schools around the county and state has sparked two library-related acquisitions. There is now a reference copy of the 600-page Academy Charter School application at each of our Philip S. Miller, Parker, Oakes Mill, and Highlands Ranch libraries.

In addition, the Colorado Department of Education has offered to send us a special collection of materials relating to charter schools. We'll house them at our Oakes Mill library, which has developed something of a specialty in education.

Remember: this whole idea of charter schools started as a deceptively simple philosophic question. Why shouldn't parents have more of a say in which educational experiment their children are part of?

Three little letters -- they can pack a lot of power.