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 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?

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