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, November 15, 1995

November 15, 1995 - patrons v customers

I seem to be the only librarian in the state these days who still uses the word "patrons" to refer to the people who use a library. Everyone else wants to call them "customers."

Probably that's because so many librarians have gone to workshops lately about "customer service." They seem to believe that if libraries would just act more as businesses do, libraries would therefore deliver better service.

I disagree. The implication is that libraries don't deliver good service right now. In my experience, the library that DOESN'T deliver good service sticks out, is odd, you notice it, it's rare.

I'll go farther than that. As a rule, the service I get at almost any public library is far better than the service I get from most for-profit businesses. Library staff tend to be more alert to people's presence, quicker to respond to a request, more likely to be well-trained, and in general, more committed to making the patron walk out happy.

How come? It's no big mystery. Libraries generally attract people who are interested in people and interested in books. Taken together, those two interests make a person, well, interesting. Interesting people tend to be lively, able, and fun to be around.

Likewise, hooking up other people with interesting books (or a good story, or a timely bit of information) is a lot of fun.

Consistently competent employees, an often-entertaining and educational task, and generally pleasant working conditions -- that adds up to the sort of work situation most businesses can only dream about.

Too, most for-profit businesses are owned by somebody specific, "the boss," somebody who often has little connection to the employee, and whose ultimate success may or may not be of sharp interest to the worker. In the case of the public library, the owners are both the people who walk in the door AND the people providing the service.

The closest thing to that in the business world is a work force where everybody owns stock in the company. It happens, but it's rare. In public libraries, it's the norm.

I suspect that my profession's increasing emphasis on "customers" has at least two origins. The first can be found in the country's swing to the Republican side of our two-party system, a side that generally focuses on the private sector.

The second origin, perhaps related, is what I believe is our time's deep misunderstanding of the whole meaning of "the public sector." I sense in some of my colleagues an increasing shame for "feeding at the public trough," as if the desire for public service itself bespeaks a failure of character. (Remember the old post-war wisecrack: "If he's so smart, why ain't he rich?")

But that way lies community and cultural collapse. At the heart of our civic lives there must be sound and intelligently managed institutions, open to all, responsive to all, served by a core group of proud and industrious public servants. Not all of these institutions are tax-supported (churches and civic groups, for instance), but some of them have to be (schools, libraries, water and sanitation, police, and so on).

Why? I could give you the dollar and "sense" argument (and no doubt will, one of these days). But here's the short answer: Because there is more to life than consumerism, and more to a culture than credit cards.

Wednesday, November 8, 1995

November 8, 1995 - cleaning out the room of the public library

My wife, Suzanne, was the youngest of three children - the baby of the family. She was 33 years old when she finally got The Call. Her parents wanted her to come home and clean out her room. Her brothers called it "the Shrine."

It's a bittersweet moment, whether you're 17 or 33. On the one hand, you know perfectly well that your parents have got new and legitimate uses for the space. After all, it isn't reasonable to expect that a Museum of Your Childhood will be maintained in pristine condition forever. Parents aren't curators - they have lives of their own to lead.

You know, too, that you don't really USE anything in your old room anymore.

But on the other hand, it's painful. It's somehow comforting to know that all your old stuff -- usually a shelf or two of yellowed paperbacks, a half-dozen tape-marked Beatles posters, and a couple tons of LPs (that's Long Playing 33 rpm records for you kids out there) -- is still around some place.

Then, on the day that you have to decide whether YOU actually want to give floor space to all of this treasure, you discover that ... you'd rather not. Some fraction gets worked into your current life, but the rest gets tossed. It's a little depressing.

In some ways, libraries, especially public libraries, find themselves in a similar situation. With the exception of children's materials, most of the items that get checked out from a library have been published within the past five years. The public wants new materials -- the latest best-sellers, the controversial new non-fiction titles, and current periodicals.

On the other hand, the public also wants to think that there will always be some place to go to find all the stuff they don't save themselves any more: college textbooks from 1968, Carlos Castenada, Herman Hesse paperbacks. For many people, the public library is the Happy Hunting Ground, where all good books live out their twilight time, forever.

It is true that libraries of all types do have some obligation to maintain a link with the past. Hence our determined effort to gather, at reasonably decent intervals, fresh copies of all the classics that we can still track down from publishers.

But that isn't as easy as it was 20 years ago. Thanks to something called the "Thor Decision" back in the late 70's, publishers' "back stock" or inventory is considered taxable. Since then, publishers tend to print smaller runs, and destroy the stock after just a year or two. This makes it much harder to pick up core titles in some subject areas, or to replace titles that have been withdrawn due to damage or theft.

But if that's the case, shouldn't libraries hang on to everything?

I once worked in a public library that hadn't pulled older materials from the shelf in over 75 years. Were people grateful? No. They avoided the place. So the staff did a "weeding project" -- we removed from the collection some 20,000 items that no one had checked out in over 15 years.

Guess what happened? The public did NOT come storming in to protest our casual disregard of our common intellectual history. People DID begin coming in regularly, and asking, "When did you get all this new stuff?"

With the freed up space, we were able to set up attractive displays. We were able to highlight new collections. We were able to more easily identify those areas that needed an infusion of new selections.

Is there some loss through this process? Yes. But that's why there are other kinds of libraries -- academic libraries, museum libraries -- or, sometimes, special sections WITHIN libraries, like Local History Collections, or Rare Books Rooms. That's why libraries often borrow materials from other libraries. It isn't that older materials aren't sometimes valuable to our patrons; it's that historic preservation isn't the PRIMARY purpose of a public library.

In short, good public libraries come to the same realization as those parents whose kids have grown up and moved out: we aren't running a museum. A good public library is USED, and that means that it regularly requires its older decades to clean out their rooms.

Wednesday, November 1, 1995

November 1, 1995 - halloween

Although it usually either rained or snowed on me, I have always loved Halloween.

I do have one very clear memory of a "good" Halloween night: a tide of leaves, a wanton wind, a harvest moon, and hordes of little people in outrageous costumes, jostling up and down the streets with their bags of booty. For a child, Halloween is a wonderful, thrilling opportunity: to dress up, to walk in the dark, to MAKE adults give you candy.

At another level, Halloween worked on me as a strong seasonal song: the last hours of autumn, the harbinger of winter. (The purpose of the candy, I now imagine, was to build up the fat reserves required to survive the Midwest cold.)

So part of me is deeply puzzled by the strong resistance of some people to the very idea of Halloween. Some people object to its description as a holiday. They argue that "holiday" means "holy day," and Halloween isn't -- although it often incorporates "occult" elements (witches, goblins, ghosts) which are seen by some as contrary to certain Christian beliefs.

Yet we call many other days "holidays" that don't have any particular religious significance, but do have a part in our national or cultural life. "Halloween" to me is just what my encyclopedia calls it: "a festival."

Like many other festivals, Halloween picks up and transforms many bits of folklore. For instance, "Jack-o'-Lanterns," which in England and Ireland were made of carved beets, potatoes, and turnips, in America became candled pumpkins.

Where did the term "Jack-o'-Lanterns" come from? According to World Book, they were named for a man called Jack, who was such a miser that he couldn't enter heaven; but because he'd played jokes on the devil, couldn't enter hell either. As a result, Jack had to walk the earth with his lantern until Judgment Day.

Probably the earliest source of Halloween was the Celtic, or Druidic, festival called Samhain, celebrated more than 2,000 years ago. The Celts believed that Samhain, the Celtic lord of death, allowed the deceased to roam the earth for one night each year.

But the Catholic Church, as it did in so many cases, appropriated the cultural practice, and incorporated it into its own theology. In 800 A.D., the Church established All Saint's Day on November 1, for which a Mass was said called Allhallowmass. The evening before was called All Hallow e'en -- Halloween.

But I can assure you that as a child I never knew (nor would I have cared) about either of these historical tidbits. Even now that I do know, carving a pumpkin doesn't make me a Catholic, and trick-or-treating doesn't make my children little Druids.

These days I'm on the giving, rather than the receiving end of Halloween. But just as I take pleasure in the festival itself, I also take pleasure in learning a little bit more about it. Libraries are good for stuff like that, incidentally.

On both sides of a vast ocean, for one night each year, millions of children have touched that same sense of magic and mystery and the unfurling of time -- all through a festival that is itself more than two millennia old.

In my book, that's a traditional family value.