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, June 21, 1995

June 28, 1995 - castle rock centennial quilt

[Author's note: I write this column, but I don't get to write the headlines. I don't know who DOES write the headlines, frankly, although whoever it is does a great job. But this time, just this once, I'm hoping that my suggestion (I sometimes do turn in suggestions) will be picked up.

My headline: "Castle Rock Quilters Keep History in Stitches."]

Over the past several years, I've begun to develop a feel for history. It's come slowly.

Part of the reason may be the way history is taught, or at least the way it was taught to me. Everything was so distant, so objective, so monotone and matter of fact.

Or maybe the problem was more personal. Maybe I was just incapable of empathizing with people who died before I was born. After all, what could we possibly have in common?

I have since learned that there's more to history than I thought. For one thing, history is a lot closer to me than I expected. Last week, a month ago, a year ago, a score of years ago -- these are now periods of time within my memory, close at hand. The older I get, the more my sense of time collapses.

For another thing, one day I realized that when I listen to or read what other people think about events I lived through, I often disagree with them.

And that's when I realized that history is the collection of INDIVIDUAL interpretations of past events. As such, it is no more sacred than is any other exchange with people.

In other worlds, history is equal parts faulty recollection and unfounded bias -- AND reflections of the tellers' unique talents. Some people have a flair for characterization; some for plot. Some, alas, have no talents at all.

They're the ones who write the history books.

I have often thought that what we really need is a history book that doesn't have any words. We need a kind of tapestry -- a real, tangible demonstration of how the past felt to people, a sample of the threads of people's lives woven into the larger events, a symbolic representation of the forces that warped and woofed them together.

Well, my wish is your reality.

As of June 14, 1995, the Castle Rock 1881-1991 Centennial Quilt is on display at the Philip S. Miller Library. It's hard to miss: walk toward our circulation desk, then glance over to the left. This massive group-artpiece consists of 21 twelve-inch squares, and one larger center square.

This centerpiece, designed by Girl Scout Troop 820, depicts the Rock itself, in subtle shifts that capture all four seasons in a single profile.

And the remaining scenes? My favorites have to do with a rich, invitingly contoured Old County Courthouse -- contrasted with a jarringly crass, cold, and boxy New Courthouse. Gee, how DID people feel about that?

You'll also see many other snippets of just what life was like in the earlier days of the capital seat of Douglas County.

The quilt, formerly on display at the Town of Castle Rock offices, will be at the library for up to two years. It's worth more than a short look -- every time I spend some time with it, I catch another insight, another joke.

I don't have at hand the names of the many women whose vision and hands made this magnificent artifact. But I am deeply grateful to them.

Do stop by and see it.

Wednesday, June 14, 1995

June 14, 1995 - Philip S. Miller dies

When I was a boy, my grandfather -- a white-haired gentleman who always wore a suit and tie, even on his days off (even when he mowed the lawn) -- would take me around to the various civic offices of Findlay, Ohio, and introduce me to folks.

They always knew him. They had always worked together on one thing or another.

Granddad encouraged me to ask them questions. I enjoyed that part of it. If I didn't get all the answers the questions deserved, he took me to the library.

At the time, I thought all this stuff was alternately boring and strangely interesting. (And I was always proud to go anywhere with my Granddad).

In retrospect, I think he was trying to lay the groundwork for a life of public service -- a cross-generational lesson.

I've been thinking about these and other things since the death of Philip S. Miller last week. As I've looked over the historical record (much of it at the Douglas Public Library District) and as I've listened to his friends talk about him, I find myself thinking that I haven't met even a handful of men like Phil Miller.

The litany of one man's life is a solemn thing. Try writing your own obituary to see just how rapidly your life can be summed, and how rare it is to do great good.

It's a sobering exercise. I've never known anyone else who brought electric lights or a sewer system to a town. I've never known any other survivors of international depressions who became founders and executive directors of remarkably vital small town banks -- and stayed late to sweep the floors.

Phil Miller was INVOLVED. He was active in the Lions, the Masons, the fire department. He served on the Town Council. And as I'm sure everyone in Castle Rock knows, he donated stupendous sums of money (over $800,000) to the public libraries of Douglas County.

It happens that I had a chance to meet Mr. Miller. He was 94, and living in a nursing home.

He treated me with courtly grace, a selfless majesty. He spoke with great feeling and intelligence about the value of the public library to the community of 30 years ago.

I admired him. These days, I admire him even more.

A persistent human myth is the idea that "giants once walked among us." In every way that matters, Philip Simon Miller was just such a giant.

He worked WITH people to do good.

Behind him I can detect not a trace of acrimony or pettiness, can witness neither vainglory nor boasting. Rather, he left a legacy of hard work, selfless vision, and an abiding testimony from his many friends.

Too often in our times, our public debate is too harsh, too quick to criticize, too slow to offer the simple solution of willing human labor.

I know that for me and for others, Phil Miller is both cultural antidote and shining example.

If you're interested in discovering more about the life of a man whose life spanned one century and whose works will resound into another, you might want to visit the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, Colorado.

He would have been pleased to meet you there.

Wednesday, June 7, 1995

June 7, 1995 - public turning nasty?

Once every other month, I attend a meeting of a group called the Front Range Public Library Directors.

Sometimes we have specific agenda items. Past topics have included the changing role of the State Library, the intelligent use of federal grant monies, long range planning for Colorado libraries, and cooperative purchasing agreements.

Sometimes, we just get an inside report on what's really going on at our neighboring libraries. All of us are famous for stealing any idea that appears to be working; we try to steer clear of the ones that didn't pan out elsewhere.

The meetings also alert us to trends.

At our last meeting, one of the directors brought up a subject like this: "Is it just me, or does it seem that the public is getting a little nastier lately?"

Then the stories began. Here's one that stuck in my mind: a patron strolled into a neighboring library to use the copy machine. Apparently, he had some trouble with it -- it seems the copy wasn't quite to his standard of clarity.

Put yourself in this man's place. What would you do?

Let's hope it's not what he did: he picked up his walking stick, and smashed through the glass. Then he calmly began walking toward the door.

The director of the library happened to be there, and called the police immediately. The cane-wielding patron didn't understand why people were mad at him. After all, he said, he was a taxpayer. He'd paid for the copy machine!

Said the library director: "You paid for the police cars, too. Do you think they'd let you take one out for a drive?"

It turned out that all the directors had recent stories: some funny, some bordering on frightening. But after awhile, it did seem that this kind of stuff is picking up all over Colorado.

I do understand that everybody gets a little peeved sometimes. There are times when anger is understandable -- somebody insults you, ignores you, gives you bad and/or expensive advice, or otherwise disturbs your peace of mind.

But some folks seem to think a public institution ought to be perfect. We are not ever supposed to make any kind of mistake. We must never fail to anticipate each and every patron's needs and special circumstances. We are expected to accede immediately to any taxpayer's demands, however unreasonable.

Now please understand that here at this library we do, in fact, try very hard not to make mistakes. Moreover, many of our staff invest a great deal of time trying to figure out how to make our operations as patron-friendly and convenient as possible. After all, the reason we got into this business in the first place is because we really believe in excellent public service.

Too, I want to be clear that the vast majority of our patrons are perfectly reasonable people, who are a pleasure to serve.

But because any institution -- public or private -- is run by people, mistakes do happen sometimes. They always will. WHEN they happen, I have instructed our staff to admit it, lay out some options, and try to set things right.

But based on anecdotal evidence, it seems that sometimes, for a growing (?) number of people, that isn't enough.

I want people to understand that library staff are public servants. They are not, however, doormats.

Is there a trend toward hyper-critical responses to inevitable foul-ups in the workings of public institutions? Take a look around, and decide for yourself.

But just in case there is, the next time something goes wrong, let's strive to recall a little elementary etiquette.

None of us can be perfect. But we can try to be polite.