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, August 31, 1994

August 31, 1994 - Helms Amendment

Last week I received some information from the American Library Association's "Office of Intellectual Freedom." The OIF tracks attempts (by a staggering number of groups across the nation) to get certain kinds of materials withdrawn from library collections, usually for ideological or religious reasons.

Here's the text of the message I received:

"Supporters of intellectual freedom were stunned when, during Senate floor debate on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Senate adopted on August 1 and 2 an amendment developed by Senator Robert C. Smith (R-NH) and Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). The amendment would provide that no local educational agency receiving funds under the Improving America's Schools Act (HR 6) 'shall implement or carry out a program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative.'

"The definition of program or activity, for purposes of the amendment, 'includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle.'

"The language of the amendment is vague enough to impact even neutral instructional and library materials on sex education and sexuality, because the mere provision of information is often interpreted to 'have the effect of encouraging' or endorsing the subject matter of the information. Thus, the amendment could have a serious impact on school sex education curricula and a broad array of school library materials. In addition, once the precedent is established, all controversial subjects become fair game for threats of funding cuts in both the school and public library setting. The amendment's denial of federal funds to school counseling programs for gay teens is particularly disturbing in light of some studies which suggest that gay teens are at three times greater risk for suicide."

I have no way of knowing what kinds of feelings you, the reader, may have about homosexuals. But to many librarians, this amendment is a cause for professional concern. It appears that the Smith-Helms amendment exacts a financial penalty against schools that do teach (meaning, "pass on knowledge"), and rewards those that do not (meaning, "withhold knowledge").

A good test of this kind of legislation is to pull out the word "homosexual," and see if any other word makes sense in the same context.

Suppose the word is "Nazi." Suppose this amendment said that funding would be cut from any school whose teachers mentioned Nazis, because talking about Nazism means promoting Nazism. Does that make sense?

Suppose the word is "assassination." If we provide information about political assassinations in our nation's history, aren't we encouraging our youngsters to consider this an acceptable lifestyle option?

I am by no means suggesting that either Nazism or political assassination has anything to do with homosexuality. My point is that even extreme "lifestyle choices" that most Americans believe are morally reprehensible are nonetheless part of the historical record. We can't just edit them out of the textbooks and libraries.

The word might as easily be "Jew" or "Mohammed," "Democrat," or "Republican." Or perhaps the word would vary according to changes in the Congressional religious and/or political majority.

Or suppose the word is "Depression," as in emotional malaise, and Congress decides that providing any counseling or referrals of children to support groups just encourages the problem.

No matter what your feelings about homosexuality, it is undeniable that it exists. Behind this amendment to a school finance act is two messages: first, "Let's not talk about it and maybe it will go away."

Anybody buy that?

But where the first message is naive, most librarians believe the second message is dangerous. Once we accept the notion that providing information is exactly equal to endorsement, then we have politicized all knowledge. We have made it ALL dangerous -- for who knows where it may lead? Better to say nothing.

Thus the logical consequence of this philosophy is not that all publicly-funded institutions will soon provide topnotch information about the things the United States Congress, in its collective wisdom, has decided it is safe (this particular session) for our children to know about the world around them.

Rather, it will make the federal government an aggressive promoter of something this nation already has in abundance: ignorance.

Sometime around Labor Day of this year, the Smith-Helms amendment will be decided. If you would like to voice your own opinion on the matter, contact any or all of the following Senators: Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), James Jeffords (R-VT), Dan Coats (R-IN), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Dave Durenberger (R-MN), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Harris Wofford (D-PA), and Tom Harkin (D-IA).

Any Senator's office can be reached by phone through the Senate switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Incidentally, you can be sure that the proponents of the amendment WILL call. In a democracy, those who act, prevail.

Wednesday, August 24, 1994

August 24, 1994 - staff day

Most Douglas Public Library District branches are open seven days a week. Of the 365 days in a year, we're closed for ten national holidays.

Last year, we added one more day when the library isn't open -- but the staff is still expected to come to work. On that one day, our Staff Development Day, we try to pull together the nearly 90 people on the payroll and focus on some key issues for the upcoming year.

Last year, we talked a lot about ACLIN -- the Access Colorado Library and Information Network. ACLIN linked almost every automated library in the state through one common menu, and made it available toll-free to anyone in the state of Colorado who had a computer and modem.

In turned out that the training was time well-invested. ACLIN, which is available on every one of the library's terminals through our "Gateway" option, has proved to be a powerful tool for librarians and patrons alike.

This year, our technological training will focus on three topics:

* CARL searching. Most of the larger libraries in the state use CARL software. One of our workshop leaders is a CARL trainer, and will give staff tips on how to search CARL libraries more efficiently.

* "Kid's Cat." This is something many librarians believe is the future of online searching. Developed by librarians and programmers in Denver, the Kid's Cat is a graphical front-end to the library computer catalog. It was designed with kids in mind. Instead of having to learn specialized database searching commands, children can just slide a "mouse" (a computerized pointing device) over a picture of an interesting topic, then click a mouse button to pursue that topic.

The result is no different from the current computer search: after a while, they find out whether the item is, or is not, available in the library. But the process represents a profound departure from the way libraries have organized their indexes in the past.

Automation has wrought truly revolutionary changes in the way libraries do business. Until now, the children's department has been mostly untouched. But the Kid's Cat -- which should begin to appear in Douglas County's libraries by the end of the year -- will change all that.

* Uncover. Uncover is just one of the vendors providing the full text of magazine articles, delivered either by fax, or right to the computer screen. Uncover is a company existing at the crossroads of two big issues in librarianship: the cost for access, and just what "copyright" means in the electronic age.

Traditionally, library access has been "free." Sure, your taxes support it. But all of us, no matter how wealthy or how poor, can have access to everything in the library. It doesn't cost us anything extra.

Does computerized access to magazine articles mark a change in that? What happens when you can have last week's news for nothing, or yesterday's news right now -- for a fee? Does this herald the creation of a new class -- the information elite?

Here's a related issue: just what does "copyright" mean when anybody who can see something on a computer screen can also capture that information to a computer file? How do we, as a society, ensure that the people who create information for a living are able to make a living from it?

This year's Staff Development Day will also have some fun stuff. We'll hear a talk by Joyce Meskis, the owner of Tattered Cover. (Did you know that she once ran a bookstore right here in Douglas County?) We'll hear a talk by Heather McNeil, a noted Colorado storyteller who recently had a book published, and will tell us just how that happens. We'll also hear reports from some staff committees that grew out of last year's meeting.

So people of Douglas County, my profound apologies that your library won't be open on August 26. I know from personal experience how annoying it can be when a public institution shuts down for a day.

But I think it's worth it. Next year, you'll see some things at your local library that will knock your socks off. This is how we let our staff know what's coming.

An informed staff is a vital link in the delivery of good service. As always, that's the point.

Wednesday, August 17, 1994

August 17, 1994 - historic trains

There's an old Paul Simon song with the chorus, "Everybody loves the sound / of a train in the distance. / Everybody thinks it's true."

Speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time walking along train tracks, listening to train whistles, riding, and even (when I was younger and even more foolish) hopping on trains, I know just what he means.

The train -- hurtling through tunnels, chugging around bends, chuffing into stations, then leaving it all behind in a heady blast of steam and roar -- is the very engine of our dreams, the enduring symbol of the romanticized past.

It happens that the railroads have had a lot to do with the history of Castle Rock. To find out more about the two of them, you should plan to attend the Castle Rock Historical Society's 1994 Castle Rock Historic Day.

On Saturday, August 20 (beginning in front of the Douglas County building at 9 a.m., and lasting till 4 p.m.) several activities are lined up, including:

* At 2 o'clock, the Castle Rock Historical Society will present an historic landmark plaque to the former Denver & Rio Grande railroad depot, situated at 420 Elbert Street. This will also mark the building's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

* A model railroad exhibit will be featured in the Masonic Building.

* There will be tours of a Santa Fe Railroad car.

* You'll have a chance to munch down at one of the food booths, or the Fred Harvey Style Restaurant in the Old Stone Church patio.

* You can take a walking tour of historic downtown buildings. You'll even get to see the magnificent quilt now on display at the Castle Rock Town Hall.

* You can ride on a carriage.

* You can see a live demonstration of spinning.

* You can enjoy the music of strolling folk singers.

* You can buy tickets for an oil painting of the D&RG Depot by noted local artist, Mary Cornish.

The organizers of the event have planned the day as a family event, appealing to all ages. You can come downtown, park, and enjoy the rest of the day on foot.

The purpose of the event (besides bringing families together to explore the history of Douglas County's county-seat) is to raise funds to acquire the old depot building and dedicate it to the Castle Rock and Douglas County community as a local museum and meeting center.

Beyond all the above, souvenirs will be available, including an Engineer's Cap.

And while you're downtown, look for the Douglas Public Library District's display from our Local History Collection. You'll see old photos of railroad and Castle Rock, accompanied by "companion prints" of the same scenes today. We'll also have various other materials available, including notecards featuring scenes from historic Douglas County. Johanna Harden, Conservation Specialist for the library, urges people to come down to the library after the 20th for a closer look at our treasures. She says, "Think of the DPLD as the Reading Depot. We are just east of the old D&RG Tracks (now the Southern Pacific RR). Catch a ride on the Reading Railroad!"

Wednesday, August 10, 1994

August 10, 1994 - library standards

When I was in high school, I went out for the diving team.

Our young coach was an amazing athlete. He hadn't trained as a diver, he was a gymnast. But his first time on a diving board, he sprang higher than we'd ever seen anyone spring before. On his way to the water, he did some kind of double flip with a half twist. He made it look easy.

Suffice it to say, we respected him.

While we were waiting for our turn at the pool (there were various swim teams, too), we'd work out in the gym. Mostly, he had us concentrate on the trampoline. But his own specialty was the rings.

Some years before, he had tried out for the Olympic gymnastic team. But while doing "the Iron Cross" -- arms straight sideways, legs straight down then brought up to a 90 degree angle to the rest of the body -- he dipped about an eighth of an inch.

From that position, he did the incomprehensible. He lifted himself slowly and gracefully back to the correct form.
But the dip cost him. I forget how many people were chosen that year, but he missed the cut by a tenth of a point.

The golden years in the life of an athlete are tragically short, and the opportunities to train all year for the Olympic selection trials, hard to come by. My teacher never made it to the Olympics.

But under his tutelage, a few of us turned out to be surprisingly good divers. (I wasn't one of them.) Certainly, many of us really tried, for which we received some praise, when appropriate.
Nonetheless, the example of our teacher made one thing very clear: there was such a thing as the Olympic standard. It didn't make any difference how sincere you were; what mattered was how hard you worked at it, and how close you could come to a quality of performance that was real, measurable, consistent, and mighty darn tough.

One of my concerns as a library director is trying to find a way to both set and achieve an Olympic standard for library service. We're not there.

We add a lot of items in a year, about 40,000 or so last year -- but an Olympic standard of library materials would be at least twice that, meaning that every year we would purchase at least one item for every many woman and child in the county.
Right now, we have about .38 square feet of library space per capita; when we open up our new Parker Library next year, we'll bump that to about .53 square feet per capita. That's a square footage increase of about 37 percent, which is impressive. But an Olympic standard would have been a 100 percent jump, or over .7 square feet per capita.

Yet I have always maintained that what makes a library good isn't just the tangibles. It's the people.

In this past year, we've focused on staff training, especially in the area of computer systems. We've also tried to codify and raise our expectations of staff through the creation of detailed job standards. This has meant a much more intense concentration on what and how well everyone on the staff fulfills our primary mission: to encourage people to read. We've learned that an important part of that is adopting an attitude of competent and enthusiastic service.

The Douglas Public Library District, or indeed any public library, can only succeed by being as responsive to the needs of our varied constituency as an Olympic athlete to the changing course of a track. For all public libraries, that track -- a piece of which is the Information Highway, another stretch the unpaved rural backroad of illiteracy -- is as challenging as the most grueling marathon. To run the course will take the stamina, dedication, and sheer force of will that characterizes the Olympic standard.

Will we make it? Anymore, the paying public is as stern as an Olympic judge. You'll decide.

Wednesday, August 3, 1994

August 3, 1994 - library bowling league

The first time I went bowling, I was a very new member of the Cub Scouts. And frankly, I was distracted, although I do not now remember why or by what.

How distracted was I? One time when I went to roll my ball down the lane, everybody in the building started shouting at me. I was mostly oblivious. Soon, the reason for their shouting became clear: I threw the ball just as the machinery was coming down to sweep the remaining pins of the previous bowler.

This machine -- which resembled a sort of huge dental retainer -- stopped my ball dead. Everybody in the place then watched and snickered at me as one of the staff had to saunter down the lane and fetch my ball back.

I do remember my final score. I bowled a record 17. It was a while before I bowled again.

But things have changed. The last time I bowled, about a year ago, I got 245. (A perfect score is 300.) Of course, that was almost as much a fluke as my first time. But this time, I adopted a sort of Zen-like attitude of sublime, ego-less serenity. I also actually aimed at the pins. Aiming, it turns out, makes a big difference.

My wife tells me she went "bumper bowling" once -- the bowling alley put huge, inflated bolsters in the gutters. She found that this not only eased her mind, but markedly improved her score.

The reason all this is on my mind again is that the Douglas Public Library District, as you may have read, is in the process of buying the Crossroads Lanes Bowling Alley, to be converted to a new Parker Library next summer (1995). But the bowling alley will still be in business from now until then.

And suddenly it occurred to me that what this county really needs is a Library Bowling League. Coincidentally, it happens that Crossroads Lanes has just one slot left -- Tuesday nights. I'm told that we need 24 people to make a league work. But the more, the merrier. A league involves a commitment of some 36 weeks, every Tuesday night from this Fall through next Spring.

I've never been in a bowling league before. But (assuming the deal goes through), this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go bowling at the (future) Parker Library. I just can't pass up something like that. Can you?

I hope not. Because the only way I can create a Library Bowling League is if I can get enough other people to sign up with me.
I'm absolutely serious. If you sign up to bowl with us, you'll have to pay for your own bowling, but I promise to do my best to get us all bowling shirts, which are bound to be worth a lot of money some day.

No previous bowling experience is necessary. We're doing this to have fun. On the other hand, I am perfectly prepared to buy, and read, some books about better bowling.

If you'd like to join me in this bold new adventure, just give the Parker Library a call at 841-3503. Leave your name and number. I promise we'll get back to you.

Let's show this county that when regular readers put their minds to it, almost anything is right up our alley.