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, May 25, 1994

May 25, 1994 - living for the future

Years ago, author Ayn Rand wrote, "He who lives for the future, lives in it now."

More and more of my time, I find, is spent in the not-so-simple task of anticipating the future. Sometimes, the best information is right at hand. Other times, that information is to be found in the dilemmas of libraries scattered from one ocean to another.

Why worry about something that hasn't gotten here yet? For Douglas County, now the fastest-growing county in the nation, the future is the single most significant pressure ON the present.

For any organization, it takes time to develop new services. To keep up with the many new challenges addressing publicly-funded institutions, libraries sometimes have to scramble.

If public institutions concentrate their efforts on meeting the service pressures they experience right now, then they'll never catch up. If, on the other hand, they try to address the needs they'll have to face in a somewhat longer period, then they have at least some chance to deliver the goods.

About once every three years or so, a friend of mine who's the director of a library system in New York state flies me out to talk to his colleagues and staff. I talk about the trends I've seen back here in Colorado. I talk about what we're doing to get ready for the new challenges to library service. Meanwhile, I get a chance to snoop around another library community, and see what's on people's minds.
Well, I just got back, and it will come as a surprise to no one that things are different back East, at least in one respect. According to the staff of most of the libraries in and around upstate New York, circulation (the number of books that get checked out) is dropping.

Depending on the branch, the Douglas Public Library District is anywhere from 22 to 42 percent BUSIER than last year. How come? In part, it's demographics: we have lots of well-educated, white-collar workers, whose children have an insatiable appetite for picture books. In part, it's because we are among the most shameless promoters of library services in the country.

Another New York trend is the rise of challenges to library materials. More and more people are coming in to the library to announce that they find something so offensive that NOBODY should be allowed to read it. This trend is right in keeping with what's happening here.

What I find most interesting about all these challenges is where they come from -- the Boomers, my own generation. The Flower children of the sixties are turning into moralists, energizing the mini-movements of both political correctitude and religious fundamentalism. By contrast, the next-older generations are far more tolerant of differences in lifestyle and perspective.

Another trend is alternative education. In New York as in Colorado ever-greater numbers of home schoolers are showing up at the public library, and most public libraries aren't quite sure what to do about it. In Colorado (and elsewhere around the country), we also have charter school students.

While no one knows where this trend is going, librarians are taking a critical new look at their collections, wondering if our materials are well-matched to this new demand for service. The probable outcome, at least in the short term, is lots more non-fiction for children. That isn't a bad idea anyhow.
The other big issue in New York is the Internet, the linking of more and more computers into larger and larger networks. As in Colorado, librarians are seeing the need for more training in the navigation of the still-developing "information highway." We're all convinced that there's good stuff out there. The question now is how to find it.

You can expect to see more about all these topics in the months to come. For now, it appears that the Douglas Public Library District is ahead of the curve.

But time will tell.

Thursday, May 19, 1994

Anatomy of a reference question

Ever wonder what a librarian does exactly? Then check out this week's column, written by Moira Armstrong, one of our Philip S. Miller reference librarians. I call it, "The Anatomy of a Reference Question."

May 17 - Gina Woods (Oakes Mill Branch Manager) calls with a question. "What is the symbology of the new Russian flag?" She knows that it is tri-colored. She hasn't found the information in any of the common sources including books on flags, most of which have been published before 1990. This is for a sixth grader, and the assignment is due in 5 days.

Gina and I discuss whether we would still look anything up under "Russia," or the "Commonwealth of Independent States" (CIS). I check The Statesman's Year-Book, which is our most current information on the political, economic, and social status of the nations of the world. There is no information about the flag.

I then check the various almanacs, encyclopedias, and flag books in our collection. I check the Time and Newsweek articles devoted to the events surrounding Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Coup d'Etat. In Time Magazine there is a picture of the flag, but nothing explaining the symbology.

I then call Denver Public Library�s Interlibrary Loan Department, which is usually our next step. I explain the question, and the sources that I have used to this point. DPL calls back a day later and tells us that they can find nothing.

At this point I remember that Jeff Long (another Philip S. Miller reference librarian) has, in the past, called an obscure organization found in the Encyclopedia of Associations. Listed under Flag Research Center (with a pointer to the subject heading, "Vexillology") is a phone number for Dr. Whitney Smith, who is Executive Director of the Center.

Listed under International Federation of Vexillological Associations, I find that Dr. Whitney Smith is the Secretary General. Hmmm. (I picture a small, dark, one room office, staffed by an elderly man with a handle bar mustache, wearing a boy scout uniform.) I call and leave voice mail. Dr. Smith, as it turns out, is out of town.

I consult the Washington Information Directory, and look under �Russia.� No. Soviet Union? See Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs.

Under Regional Affairs is the following: State Dept., Independent States and Commonwealth Affairs handles relations with the former Soviet Union; assists other agencies in dealings with the former Soviet Union. I call, I get voice mail, I leave a message. No return call.

Next day, I call and speak with a secretary who gives me the number of another State Department desk. I call, voice mail, no return call.

Back to the Washington Information Directory where I look up Embassies, foreign (list). Under Russian Federation I get yet another number at the State Department - a Desk Officer. I call, voice mail, no return.

I try again, and am referred to another number at the Russian Embassy where lo and behold an actual person answers with "Hello." But this is not just any "hello," this is a growly, wonderful, Russian hello. I explain my question and he tells me he doesn't speak English. He gives me another number.

I make the next call. It rings, and rings, no machines, no voice mail, just nobody there. I try again several hours later and after the eighth ring, a very hesitant, shy, female voice responds with "allo"? Again, no identifier, and This Is The Russian Embassy !!!

I go through my speech, explaining how it's so nice to finally speak to someone who can help me with this, and on and on. There is a long pause at the other end and I finally ask, "You do speak English, don't you? To which she replies, "I don't know."

Ah, but she has given me a number. I make this final call and speak with an ebullient young Russian named Gennadi Syomin, who is, as it turns out, the Managing Editor of the new publication Russian Life. Gennadi informs me that he is "most pleased to share this important information with me," and I am indeed relieved to learn that the state flag of the Russian Federation is rectangular with three horizontal stripes: white, blue, and red.

The Russian tricolor dates back to 1694, when Peter the Great chose the colors of the Dutch national flag, but in a different arrangement, for the flag that was raised on Russian trade ships. In 1883 the tricolor became the official state flag of Russia, until the revolution of 1917. At that time any mention of the flag was wiped from historical records and Gennadi told me that several generations, including his, had never heard of this flag. This, until Boris Yeltsin adopted the tri-color during the August 1991 Coup d'Etat.

Gennadi Syomin was warm and endearing and I enjoyed our conversation. He sent me the latest edition of Russian Life Magazine, explaining that the magazine had been in forced hibernation for a year and a half. The issue is at the reference desk for anyone who wants to browse. It is filled with full-color photographs, and has an interesting article on ... the history and symbology of the Russian Federation Flag.

Wednesday, May 11, 1994

May 11, 1994 - blue line

My first encounter with the public library was the summer the bookmobile came. I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen, better than an ice cream truck.

Painted all the way around the inside of the bookmobile was a dark blue line. Everything above the line was an adult book; everything below, for kids. If you had a kid's card, you weren't allowed to check out books above the blue line.

We TRIED, of course. We'd make a pile: a couple Dr. Seuss's, a story book, a science book, the thickest kid's book we could find, and one very thin book from above the blue line, something with a potentially racy title.

But it never worked. Mrs. Johnson -- she of the cat's-eye glasses, the white bangs, the soft cardigan sweather, the gentle voice, the big smile -- just quickly and quietly slipped it back out of the pile.

"But Mrs. Johnson!" I'd protest. "I found that below the blue line. Really!"

"No," she say, smiling. "It was over the line."

I sometimes think I became a librarian just to find out what was above the blue line.

And frankly, in some respects it's been a disappointment. There are a lot of boring books above the blue line. There's fluff, ephemera, and a few things that are truly brutish and nasty.

But what does any child -- and any adult -- secretly long for? Excitement, the thrill of crossing boundaries. This doesn't mean that any of us want to CROSS the boundaries, or at least not for long. It just means we want the THRILL of crossing.

For lots of people, this is the whole point of reading. They read books about things they'd never want to actually DO. There are people who love mysteries but would fall to pieces if anyone they knew were murdered. There are people who read wild west stories who wouldn't have lasted five minutes in Dodge City. There are people who love kung fu and karate books. But they could never survive (they would never ATTEMPT) the long years of concentrated effort and training that it takes to become truly proficient in any martial art.

Reading is vicarious experience. It gives you adventure without physical danger.

And in these post-AIDS days, let's remember the very safest sex: just reading about it.

As time goes on, dedicated and curious library users do finally tap into the motherlode: the rich core of materials that is genuinely controversial. Some of these things are old. Take Thomas Paine's Age of Reason: two hundred years after its publication, it still has the power to challenge, to rouse, even to infuriate. Take Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, that sly dissection of an America that practiced slavery.

Some of these things are new: Susan Faludi's Backlash: the undeclared war against American women; Amitai Etzioni's The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda; James Dobson's Children at Risk: the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of our Kids; and of course, anything at all by Dave Barry.

I'm not saying that any of these people are RIGHT, mind you (except Dave Barry). The library neither endorses nor condemns the products of our culture: we merely reflect and collect. Some of them -- not many -- endure.

What I AM saying is that true controversy is about ideas.

One of the more overt signs of the sickness of American culture is the belief that controversy is always and only about sex. But that's just part of our national obsession, ranging from the comical neo-Puritanism of the religious right to the dreary acrobatics of the entertainment industry. Fierce political and cultural battles are fought about how much skin must be covered up. The underlying idea is that the human body is itself controversial.

In a way, it's tragic. Many fine, thought-provoking books sit disintegrating on our shelves for lack of use. Meanwhile, the excitement, the arguments, the heated debate goes on about how much thigh, or how much breast, or how many "naughty bits" of any description are revealed in this or that magazine, or in this or that photograph or statue.

I sometimes think that the smartest thing a librarian could do would be to round up all the most truly radical items we've got, and paint a blue line around them. Then we could be balky about allowing any of our patrons to cross the line.

My guess is that we could queue people up for miles.

I wonder what Mrs. Johnson would think?

Wednesday, May 4, 1994

May 4, 1994 - homeschooling

In the ever-exciting world of public libraries, the debate is heating up: just what is our role in an environment where there are ever-swelling numbers of homeschoolers and charter schools students?

Here's the way I see it:

How do we respond to the needs of homeschoolers? Much as we respond to the needs of other students -- or for that matter, as we respond to any adult patron. People come in looking for stuff. If they find what they need, well and good. If they don't, they often ask for help. If, in the process of trying to help them, we discover that we can't provide very much on a topic, then naturally enough, we tend to view that as a problem.

So either we go looking for such materials, or the next time we see that they are available (in a catalog, at a publisher's exhibit, in a professional journal), we're inclined to pick them up.

It's inefficient, but it's real: we buy at least some of the books kids need for their schoolwork. We always have. We've just done it on a retail basis.

This is the process through which any public library becomes to some extent the public curriculum: a repository of information about the subjects our community tells us it is interested in.

How have charter schools changed this picture? In the past year, the children attending the Academy Charter School have had some library tours of our Philip S. Miller Library. Our staff has shown them how to use our computer catalog, and generally figure out where things are. We've had many class visits to the library since then. I'm expecting the same thing to happen in Parker now that the Core Knowledge Institute of Parker has been approved.

But we've always offered tours to students, or to any interested group. It's not a new service, just a new level of demand for the same service. Frankly, I find that encouraging. Now, we're just providing services wholesale.

One of the things that worries some public librarians is that by more consciously assuming this responsibility to support public education, two things will happen. First, we'll skew our collections in a direction that doesn't reflect our basic mission. Second, we'll undercut the good work of our colleagues in local school media centers.

But at the Douglas Public Library District, we've been watching our purchases fairly closely in this area. And in my opinion, our purchases have been perfectly appropriate for a public library.

We're not, for instance, buying workbooks. Nor are we buying enough copies of books to allow a whole class to use them at one time. The schools handle that.

On the other hand, just because people happen to be young enough to be in school, doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to find what they want in a public library. It's their library, too.

As far as our media center friends are concerned, I admit frankly that we cannot possibly be as precisely tailored to the needs of public school students as they are.

But our media centers are seeing the same kind of growth in demand and use that we are, and both of us have limits in funding and physical space. We can't do their job; they can't do ours.

But we sure can supplement each other. Larger, more active libraries at every level help each other, generating higher levels of reader enthusiasm, and providing a far richer reading environment.

We're not competitors. We're partners. For so important a task as educating our young, it just makes sense to take all the help you can get.