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 31, 1995

May 31, 1995 - media center programs and California

In recent months, a lot of Californians have moved to Colorado. This column is for them. And it may contain a lesson for the rest of us, too.

On June 17, 1992, I summarized in this column a comprehensive two year study, conducted in Colorado. This study conclusively demonstrated that the greatest single predictor of school test scores -- beyond all other school characteristics -- is the school media (library) program. The stronger the school library (as reflected by the size of the collection and the ratio of staff to students), the better the academic achievement of the student.

Now let's talk about the great California "Tax Revolt" -- Proposition 13, adopted by California voters in 1978.

According to a recent article by Michael Gorman in a magazine called "School Library Journal," "More than half of California's school libraries closed between 1982 and 1992; the state is dead last in the ratio of librarians to students (it would take more than 3,000 additional school librarians to move the state to 49th place); and, only 32 percent of school libraries have a certified librarian on staff (in elementary schools, 21 percent). The ratio of librarians to students is 1:6,248 (the national average is 1:722). The national average school library book budget per student is $7.47 -- in California it is 78 cents. Eighty-five percent of non-fiction titles in our school libraries are more than 10 years old. The truth is that a prison inmate in California has a much better chance of good library service than a public school student."

The effect of Prop 13 on many other institutions -- public libraries among them -- is now indisputable. To quote from a book called "California and the American Tax Revolt," published way back in 1984, "California's public libraries have weathered the financial setbacks about as well as books left in the rain."

Gorman, dean of library services at the California State University in Fresno, points up another problem: the need for "remedial reading" courses at the university, students who lack the most basic of library skills, and incoming freshman whose sole experience with computers is ... Nintendo.

Now I don't know exactly what brought folks from California to Douglas County. Certainly, the county has much to offer: great natural beauty, still largely unspoiled; homes that are far more affordable than homes in California; relatively few earthquakes; generally speaking, little crime; schools and libraries that have, I believe, good reputations.

All of these things are worthwhile. And as a transplant from out-of-state myself (I hail from Illinois), I'm not about to say Californians aren't welcome. No one is so rich that he or she can't afford a few more good neighbors.

But it's all too easy, in times abuzz with talk of "growth management," to focus on such things as roads and bridges; it's all too easy to ignore such pains in the pocket book as public education expenditures -- which includes libraries.

After all, you see the effect of a pothole right away. (Which reminds me, a big thanks to the Schmidt Construction folks, who during a brief moment of calm between snow storms, rainstorms, and sunny weather last week, managed to patch our Philip S. Miller Library parking lot.)

Potholes are obvious. But it takes a little longer to find out the hidden cost of skimping on literacy.

Maybe thanks to the California experience, Colorado won't have to.

Wednesday, May 10, 1995

May 10, 1995 - the library and the poor

There was a time -- after I got my undergraduate degree but before I figured out what to do with my life -- when I was very poor. I had struck out on my own, just inches ahead of one of the coldest winters in the midwest, for the sweet, benevolent warmth of Arizona.

I was utterly confident that I could find work. After all, I didn't think anything was beneath me, and I was willing to work hard. I was young, healthy, fearless, and completely enthusiastic about the prospect of learning a whole new city and regional lifestyle.

But it turns out that I wasn't the only midwesterner with that particular destination that year. After some 100 job applications, 26 interviews and 100 percent rejection rate, I began to panic.

The public library saved me. On the days (or evenings) when I had no money, but had to get out of my little hovel or scream, I could go sit in a cool, calm, unhurried space. I could read the newspaper (and comb through the job ads for the next round of applications). I could make (a few) calls from a public pay phone.

But even better than that, I could think about things that didn't have anything to do with my situation. I could read Japanese poetry, or French science fiction, or sample Native American mythology.

I could people-watch by the circulation desk. I could even listen to music. Once, I got to play chess.

In a city full of strangers, I had one place I could go that didn't cost a dime, where people began to know me, and where they even trusted me with treasures I could take home with me.

Eventually, things changed. But it took almost four months before I went from calculating whether I'd have enough food for the day to having the great luxury of knowing I had enough food for a whole week.

Of course, not all poor people are just starting out. Some get spit out of the gears of commerce just when they thought they were safe. Others scrape along the bottom their whole lives. Still others lose their security through disaster.

Whatever their ages, whatever the cause, these people still find their way to the library. And they are still welcome.

Beyond all the services I've already named, the Douglas Public Library District has some additional offerings. One of these is our Community Information Resource Files, accessible from any of our terminals. This is a listing -- always being updated -- of social service agencies in the county, as well as many other not-for-profit, civic, counseling, and educational agencies. More recently, we have added volunteer opportunities (type "volunteer" as a subject keyword search).

Another service is our literature stand. Often in several places in our libraries, we have locations where we stock free material from many organizations.

Yet another service is our meeting rooms. Some programs -- like Social Services' Commodities Exchange -- provide direct aid to people.

There are also many other agencies who have public meetings. Here, people can begin to find out about the area, make connections, get help -- or give it.

Whether our patrons are just passing through a bad time, or coming to grips with a permanent change, the library offers what is sometimes the hardest thing to come by: a safe haven, populated with employees whose very purpose is to provide information.

Or, sometimes, just the name of a good book.

Wednesday, May 3, 1995

May 3, OKC

It's been an odd week.

First, I got flown out to Boston (with about 50 other folks) to attend a 2 day focus group on a new electronic product -- full text periodical and reference information, delivered to your computer screen or fax. You'll be seeing it at DPLD this July.

Second, after just one night at home, I got flown to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I was a last minute substitute speaker for Dennis Day. Dennis is the City Librarian of Salt Lake City, and one of the most respected leaders in librarianship. Recently he was discovered to have an inoperable brain tumor. He is 52 years old.

Originally and ironically, Dennis had been asked by the Oklahoma Library Association to address their annual conference about a terrorist attack at his library some months ago. An armed gunman took several staff and patrons hostage. In the background, some courageous and remarkably cool-headed employees quietly whisked every child and most adults out of the building. Finally, one of the hostages -- an off-duty law enforcement professional -- subdued the terrorist. No one was injured.

My talk wasn't about anything so interesting. Thank God. But I sure heard a lot about terrorism.

One of the librarians in my session had lost three friends in the Oklahoma City bombing. Fighting back tears, she described a "torment" in her soul.

On the one hand, she said she still recognized her professional obligation to maintain full access to the wide world of print materials, even including the gun books, the mercenary magazines, and the detailed techno-thrillers that are often requested by some patrons, and therefore stocked by some libraries.

On the other hand, she said she wanted to throw on a bonfire every scrap of paper that advocated the violent destruction of human beings. She set she'd set it ablaze herself.

On my way back, I set off the Tulsa airport security alarm, even though I had emptied all my pockets, and taken off my watch. It turned out that the alarm had been set off by the steel shanks in my boots.

"That's a pretty sensitive detector," I said to the guard, who finally cleared me.

"Since Oklahoma City," he said, then stopped. "We don't want anything like that to happen here."

As I had a cup of coffee, I met another librarian, waiting for her flight to western Oklahoma. She was worried. "It was a great tragedy," she said. "But I'm concerned by the kinds of things I hear people talking about -- the influence of talk radio, the need for broader police powers, the disturbing messages of some books in some libraries. I think many -- maybe too many -- Oklahomans want to do SOMETHING so desperately that they'll trade away all their civil liberties for the illusion of safety."

Like every place else I've been, Oklahoma has some wonderful people. Most of the folks I met were wide open -- friendly, funny, warm and often wise.

But the horrifying death of over 100 neighbors and friends has hit them hard. And it will take some time to work it all through.