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, April 19, 1995

April 19, 1995 - hacking and security

Back in 1985, I worked for a library that was among the first in the country to set up a dial-in line for folks with home computers.

Library software wasn't as sophisticated in those days as it is now. There were (in retrospect) some fairly obvious security loopholes.

But it's also true that the NUMBER of people using computers in those days was a lot smaller, and their equipment was about as unsophisticated as our software. Most of these folks used Commodore computers and 300 baud modems.

But I was a little worried about the security issue. So what I did was to contact all the computer clubs in town, and ask to speak to them. I offered them all packets of information about how to connect to the system, how to search it efficiently, and how to gracefully disengage from it.

I reminded them that this was a service the library was offering absolutely without charge, because we believed that people had a right to free information, and we were committed as a local library, and as a profession, to making use of the latest technologies to ENSURE that people had access to information.

Then I gave them another talk: I needed their help. I needed their consciences and their collective good behavior. I said our belief in freedom of information was hedged by some other important ethical considerations: the confidentiality of patron information and the reliability of the data. That argument made sense to them. And why not? It was based on simple respect, for them as much as anyone.

I said If I had to start battling viruses and attempts to compromise the security of library records, I'd have to shut the access down. Then all of us would lose.

Well, it worked. There were definitely some hackers in the crowd, at least one of whom had already discovered the phone line before I'd announced it, and left some digital footprints to prove it. But here's the good news: after I assured those early computer users that the library LIVED by the hacker ethic -- free information -- those attempts abruptly ceased.

It is now ten years later. I'm struggling to bring up a new software tool to provide access to the much ballyhooed World Wide Web. And I'm running about 6 weeks behind my own schedule.

What's slowing me down? For one thing, the software is a lot more sophisticated these days, which means there are a lot more options for connections, as well as ways to break those connections. I'm depending on some expert (and volunteer) help, and some additional software utilities that didn't come with our system and have been hard to track down. I'm also trying to do some stringent testing of the security of the whole set-up.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that there's been a jump in electronic vandalism in recent years. Computer users are no longer dedicated enthusiasts reading obscure magazines. They're a big consumer market. In some ways, the trend is not encouraging. When I browse computer stores, I almost always find machines where some twerp has erased or re-formatted the hard drive. Har. Har.

It's a sad comment on our times, the dawn of the digital age. No librarian can appeal to the common good and threaten the loss of a service that will shortly become indispensable to our communities. The hacker ethic has gone retail -- which means that many information providers now have to deal with the electronic equivalent of shoplifting and graffiti.

So I'm taking the extra time to do the thing right. Despite the hassles, I still believe that putting some of the newer technologies to the task of delivering information is an important part of the library's job, and that most folks both deserve, and will not abuse it.

Wednesday, April 12, 1995

April 12, 1995 - I'm not dead

Last week I returned from a speaking engagement in Dallas, Texas to discover that several of our library branches had been flooded with anxious phone calls. (And by flooded I mean, "three or more.")

Some people thought I had been fired. Others thought I was dead.

Why? Because at the end of last week's column (with a headline featuring the words "killer squirrels") was the sentence, "Jamie LaRue is the late director of the Douglas Public Library District."

I'm tempted, of course, to foist off all the confusion on somebody else -- the News Press, for instance. "Killer squirrels?" "The late director?" Isn't this just exactly the kind of wild, unverified, sensationalistic journalism that has made so many tabloid publishers obscenely wealthy?

Not that I'd blame them.

But the truth is, I DID write an article that strongly suggested that I had been killed by vindictive squirrels. Moreover, I am myself responsible for the part about the "late director."

One of the things that I appreciate about the News Press is that they don't mess with my words. The entire content of my articles, with very rare exceptions, is solely attributable to me.

So I must resort to employing a Mark Twain quote I never imagined I'd have the chance to use: "The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Except for a small calcium deposit on my left tricep, and a torn chest muscle from an old bicycling accident, I'm in relatively fine fettle.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that like most executives of public institutions, I don't have a whole lot of job security. It was, I suppose, remotely possible that my board could have decided I wasn't demonstrating the kind of dignified demeanor they demanded of a director, and invited me to leave.

For those people who thought this was the case, my profound thanks. I appreciate your concern. As of this writing, I am still employed.

As for those of you who thought I was dead ... what can I say?

On the one hand, I guess it's mostly good news that people actually read even the italicized blurbs at the end of columns on page 10 of the newspaper.

On the other hand, if "killer squirrels" in the headline and "AAHGH!" in the second to last paragraph, and "the late director" in the final paragraph aren't enough to tip people off that -- pay close attention, now -- I was JOKING -- then I can only suggest that (1) although I again appreciate the concern, (2) these people need to get out more.

Incidentally, when I was in Texas, I was talking about the psychology of censorship. A flood of folks (by which I mean, "more than 15 people") spontaneously revealed to me their attempts to deal with patrons seeking to remove books from libraries. In almost all of these cases, the books in question were books I'd read myself, and struck me as funny.

One of the things I discovered in Texas was that there's a dearth of humor in the nation. People are far too quick to take offense, far too slow to laugh.

When I got back to Colorado, many of our staff and public were still chuckling about the killer squirrels of Colorado.

It was a great comfort to me.

Wednesday, April 5, 1995

April 5, 1995 - attack of the killer squirrels

When I was a kid, we had a huge elm tree behind our house -- a rare survivor of the Dutch Elm disease. Or almost a survivor -- before our eyes it began to rot. Finally, because of its great height, my parents decided it had to be CUT down before it FELL down.

Behind our house we also had an old brick garage, in which lived about a score of black squirrels. Black squirrels were rare in that part of the country.

It could be that their rarity made them complacent. They slept late. I never saw one of those squirrels before about 10 a.m.

Although they spent most of their time in or around the garage, scurrying around the perimeter of the garage and dancing like circus performers along the power lines, they also made some spectacular leaps back and forth between the garage roof and the tree. It'd5s a vivid childhood memory: the squirrels against the branches and bark, the squirrels scratching against the roofing.

Well, very early one fall morning, a group of men came to saw down the tree. They had a variety of very impressive power tools. The whole job took maybe half an hour. They were done by 8:30 a.m. at the latest.

An hour or so later, I was sitting on a ladder in the backyard, looking stunned at the stump, squinting against the sunlight -- sunlight where there had always been shade.

I was pretty somber.

Then, out from a hole in the garage came a squirrel. He looked slow and chubby -- like a child in too-big pajamas, all but rubbing his eyes.

Suddenly, his whole body went absolutely rigid. He blinked. He stared. he blinked again. He scampered back into the hole.

A few seconds later, he was joined by another squirrel, who repeated the whole performance. The two of them chattered at each other with an air of complete astonishment. Then the first one again wriggled back into the hole.

Within a couple of minutes, the whole squirrel community was on the roof, staring, squalling, arguing, pointing. I went inside and got my mom, who thought it was the funniest thing she had ever seen.

Here's the strange part of the story: from then on, the squirrels got up early. No matter what time of day I got up, I never again saw that garage roof bare. It was almost as if at least one squirrel stood sentry, on look against the sudden removal of trees.

And I never shook the impression that from that day forth, whenever I went alone into the garage they ... watched me, they encircled me from above. It was as if somehow they BLAMED me.

OK. Maybe you think this story is a little ... squirrely. But it's just another reason to be aware of this year's Arbor Day. This year, several activities are going in to celebrate the day, and volunteers are needed.

To volunteer in Castle Rock, call Bruff Shea (660-1015) or Steve Boand (688-8386). In Franktown, call Janice Rattray (688-5792). In Highlands Ranch call the Highlands Ranch Recreation Center (791-2500). In Parker, call Don Walsh (840-9546).

For anywhere else in Douglas County, call Joe Julian or Ann Ghorbani of the CSU Extension Service (688-8184).

Please understand that I'm not suggested that squirrels can pass along their interpretation of events long past and long distant. Surely, they've forgiven me by now.

Still, it's better to be on the safe side. Let's get up as many trees as possible.

And oh yes, we have lots of books about trees at the library. You'll enjoy reading about them. Of course, these books -- ALL our books -- are MADE from trees. Hmm.

Do you hear something scratching on the roof? Say, you don't think they ....AAHGH!

[Jamie LaRue is the late director of the Douglas Public Library District.]