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, October 25, 1995

October 25, 1995 - vacation

I just got back from a vacation. I mean I stepped out of the car about ten minutes ago. My family went on a long-overdue visit with my wife's family in Arizona. I also chased a few ghosts of my own past in that area.

Long car trips are disorienting. When we sped reckless out of Phoenix two days ago, it was edging toward 100 degrees. This evening, we edged cautiously over Monument Hill, which was under about an inch and a half of snow and ice. It's hard to piece that together with a Mass Ascension (wherein 20% of the balloons in the entire world were launched at dawn over a dusty field north of Albuquerque), and a late morning when the entire LaRue Nuclear Family, in an ultimately fruitless attempt to find a pair of huaraches that fit me, strolled the surreal streets of Old Mexico.

So my mind is filled with the usual observations of the traveler returned. It all seems profound to me. But I just crawled out of a car. I suspect that for most folks, this column is best described as "Revelations of the Obvious."

For instance:

1) It is good to leave home.

2) It is good to get back.

3) Weather -- and climate -- are very odd things. Since I was traveling with a 20 month old child, I have learned that the body deals with rapid changes in altitude and temperature primarily through the production of snot. I still don't know why.

4) Different people behave differently, or seem to. On the way back, we got stuck in Tuba City, Arizona. We spent two hours waiting for (we thought) the light to change. It turns out that there really was a "Pow Wow," snarling traffic for miles in many directions. We stopped at a local McDonald's for some ice cream and I observed that for about 20 minutes, not one Navajo, of any age or sex, smiled. Then a bee buzzed a family gathered at an outside table, and everybody not only smiled, but laughed outright. It turns out that most Arizonan bees now have some genetic contribution from the more aggressive African bees. But what I find myself wondering is this: if I were to sit at a table at a Douglas County McDonald's, how many people would be smiling?

5) Douglas County has good libraries. As usual, I wandered into public libraries at almost every opportunity. In one Arizona town, the building was spanking new, an obvious testament to civic pride. But I stood at the front desk for almost 10 minutes before someone deigned to make eye contact with me. And then, this person gave curt, impersonal service. I saw the library director, lurking in his office, oblivious to the poor service around him. I was overcome with anger, then with pride. Every single one of the people who works at the Douglas Public Library District is smarter, more alert, more alive, than any of the people working in that library. While all of the other libraries I visited were certainly better than that first one, I'd happily place our staff against any of theirs, any day, any time.

6) Time doesn't matter much when you don't wear a watch. You wake up when you wake up. You go to sleep when you're tired. You eat when you're hungry. At this writing, I don't even know what day of the month it is, and I'm a little uncertain about the hour. But I suspect that a library column is due.

Here's hoping that this one provides at least some shadow of the diversion my vacation provided me ...

Wednesday, October 18, 1995

October 18, 1995 - fort collins and ya

Recently I was asked to stop by the Fort Collins Public Library to help evaluate a federal grant. The purpose of this grant was to highlight Young Adult (YA) services at a new "mini-library" that opened up a couple of months ago.

I spent a day talking with staff at the little store front branch, with the project team that wrote and administered the grant, with a couple of teenage girls (sophomores in high school) who served as a sort of focus group for the project, and finally, with the library director and her Board President.

It was fascinating. In Fort Collins, just as in Douglas County, a lot of children -- even children who used to be big readers -- fall away from the library once they get to be about 12 years old.

To turn that around, the Fort Collins Public Library took about $25,000 of federal money and tried to build some resources that would pull in the YA audience (usually defined as people between the ages of 12 and 18.)

For a little over $6,000, the library bought roughly 3,000 paperback books. It reminded me of the opening of our own Highlands Ranch Library, which was also heavily stocked with paperbacks (and also located in a storefront). It may not be a coincidence that Highlands Ranch soon became, on a square foot basis, the busiest library we've got.

Next, the Fort Collins mini-branch bought some audio and video tapes. Finally, for another $6,000, the library bought two PCs, one to serve as a public terminal, and one to run the CD-ROM program called SIRS. SIRS is a collection of clippings on popular topics for junior and senior high school research papers. (We have it in paper at Castle Rock, and the CD-ROM version at Oakes Mill.)

As a class of people, young adults have a sort of nebulous status in our society. But in the process of talking about the project, writing the grant, then trying to live up to it, the Fort Collins Public Library staff learned to pay closer attention to this often invisible but nonetheless important segment of the library community -- the Lost Ones.

Based on preliminary surveys and follow up interviews, Fort Collins young adults, well, don't like to be stereotyped. Their interests can be no more accurately predicted than the reading interests of older adults. While they appreciated the effort to collect the usual YA bestsellers -- a lot of relatively tame horror stories -- by the age of 13, most teenagers weren't all that interested in that stuff anymore.

In fact, they weren't much interested in recreational reading period. They just didn't have the time. These were kids with Day- Timers. They viewed the library much as adults view a grocery store -- a place that you go to do what needs to be done. Adults go to grocery stores to buy food. Young adults go to libraries to do school assignments.

The young women I spoke with were mildly interested in having a comfortable and segregated section to hang out in the library, but mostly they wanted what all the other workers want: tools useful to their tasks.

I asked these young women if the library had met their expectations. Both of them assured me quickly (and with rare politeness) that the library had indeed. They liked the brightness of the place, the friendliness of the staff, and their unusual willingness to seek out the opinion of real young people.

They added, "But we never expected that much."

And there's the cautionary tale for the modern librarian. It may be that we are sometimes led astray in our effort to woo back our Lost Ones, to persuade them to love our wares, our classics, our Best Books, as fiercely as we do.

Maybe we just need to give them the materials they need to do their jobs -- and so establish an expectation that the library knows how to do that.

On the other hand, it still strikes me as sad. Even our brightest young people have trouble finding the time to laze about and know the comfy pleasure of a good yarn, slowly unspun.

Wednesday, October 4, 1995

October 4, 1995 - libraries are anti-family

I subscribe to Citizen, a magazine produced by Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry and political advocacy group in Colorado Springs. The cover article of the latest issue (Volume 9, Number 9, also available at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock) was entitled, "What Lurks in the Library?" The subtitle: "The American Library Association believes children should have access to all material, no matter how violent or obscene."

The thesis of the article is pretty straightforward: public libraries are "anti-family."

But it turns out that there's some good news, too, at least according to the article's author. In Loudon County, Virginia, the chairman of the library board persuaded his colleagues to drop an American Library Association policy. This policy, called "the Library Bill of Rights," states that the public library should strive to make available "the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority."

The author appends this interesting statement: "The board also stripped the so-called 'anti-censorship' provisions of LBR [the Library Bill of Rights]."

I do not consider this good news. In fact, I consider this dangerous not only for libraries, but for families.

Why is the library "no longer" family friendly? (The article doesn't say when it used to be, or when that changed, or even what "family friendly" means.)

The issue seems to be that some libraries actually carry R-rated movies, and that these libraries don't automatically refuse to check the videos out to children. The unquestioned assumption, of course, is that children are eager to check them out, and do. For the record, this flatly contradicts my experience.

But since Focus on the Family has many dedicated readers and listeners, I'd like to lay my cards on the table.

First, I believe the public library is among the most "family friendly" institutions in the nation. In Douglas County, we offer public buildings that are physically attractive, determinedly welcoming, and open 68 hours a week. We have lavished our attention on acquiring a rich collection of picture books for pre-schoolers, contemporary and classic fiction for young people and adults, a broad spectrum of non-fiction for students of all ages, popular videos and audio tapes, and a good representation of general interest periodicals. We sponsor programs aimed at young people, middle aged people, and old people. We sponsor school visits. We provide public meeting space at no cost.

It is significant that over 70% of the residents of Douglas County have, and have used in the past year, a library card.

Thanks to the Friends of the Library, one of our libraries even has a changing table. Speaking as the father of a 19 month old child, it doesn't get any more family friendly than that.

Think about it: how many places can you take all of your family, for free, spend hours of time, have all the people in your family find something that suits them, and then get to take it all home?

Second, yes, we do have a few R-rated videos -- those videos that have received or been nominated for an Academy Award. Such items are the focal points of many articles, essays, and books. They deserve inclusion in a public library.

On the other hand, these items constitute a tiny fraction of our holdings. We have far more Focus on the Family publications, for instance, than R-rated movies.

Third, no, we don't examine each item at the point of check out to determine whether or not it's appropriate for the patron. It is our experience that our patrons have a pretty good idea why they want the material they do. We respect that, and do not feel it is our place (as a governmental entity) to tell them that they can't have it. That's the job of the parent, and based on my observations, "family values" get communicated pretty quickly to children. Most of the time, children live by them. If they stray, it's not because the library has seduced them.

So consider this the Douglas Public Library District's official response to the Focus on the Family allegation that we're anti-family. We believe that knowledge is better than ignorance. We believe that literacy is better than illiteracy. We believe that parents, not government employees, should decide what's appropriate for children to borrow from the public library.

And I respectfully submit that the way to determine the value of a public library is to examine it to see if you can find materials you agree with -- not just materials that you don't.