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, January 31, 1996

January 31, 1996 - R-rated Videos in Schools

I read with interest an article in the January 26, 1996 Rocky Mountain News about a teacher who wanted to show an R-rated video to his high school class.

The issue is not new. It has been raised by parents in Adams County, Jefferson County, and is under consideration right now in Douglas County.

Because movie ratings have come to be regarded as a culturally- sanctioned label -- something like the nutritional content labels on canned goods -- some parents believe anything beyond a PG rating should be absolutely forbidden in our public schools. If a national movie industry standard states that something isn't appropriate for a particular age group, why not respect it?

Of course, even an R-rated movie may be viewed by an teenager -- or an infant, for that matter. All that's required is that the parent or guardian give permission.

But the topic raises at least two interesting questions.

First, can a movie of disturbing content -- language, sexual behavior, violence -- ever be appropriate for a classroom? Second (and this is always the trick question), who decides?

First question: imagine a class covering World War II. To put a sharper edge on this, imagine a school where there is a trend toward anti-Semitism, and a recurrent claim that the Holocaust was a hoax. A viewing and discussion of "Schindler's List" might make some sense. In other words, it could have direct bearing on the curriculum of the school, not to mention its intellectual environment generally.

"Schindler's List" is R-rated.

Yet if an R-rated movie might sometimes be appropriate, then the significant issue here isn't the rating at all -- it's the "appropriateness." To put it another way, ratings of Hollywood movies have little to do with either the theme or the quality of the product. Further, they have nothing at all to do with local standards, or the appropriateness of the material for a specific classroom, subject, or student.

So let's tackle the second question: who decides what is appropriate? One idea is that local communities should simply abide by national standards -- in this case, the standards adopted by some unknown Hollywood types.

Unfortunately, there are no agreed upon national standards for either curriculum or teaching materials. In Colorado, curriculum is the broad responsibility of the local school board; in practical terms, it is the individual responsibility of the specific teacher. This is what some people see as the strength of public education in America: local control. The local Board sets content; local teachers deliver it.

Clearly, it doesn't make sense for the Board to dictate teaching methodology, any more than a layman should tell a doctor which tools to use for an appendectomy. (On the other hand, both the patient and the student should be able to demonstrate that the operation was a success. That's just simple accountability -- for Board and teacher alike.)

But back to R-rated movies, or indeed, commercial movies of any kind in the classroom.

It's true that Hollywood isn't the most reliable interpreter of history.

On the other hand, neither are our textbooks. As two recent and thought-provoking books have argued (What Johnny Shouldn't Read, and Lies My Teacher Told Me, both available from the Douglas Public Library District), American textbook publishers deal with controversy by exclusion. That is, if somebody objects to something, it doesn't get corrected, or expanded in the next edition. It gets left out.

Hollywood may be justly accused of over-dramatizing or distorting history. But our textbooks must answer the charge of suppressing the facts altogether.

If history isn't Hollywood, neither is it G-rated. History is messy. War, for instance, is full of excessive violence, a large dose of nasty language, and (based on my conversations with veterans) even a surprising amount of sex. Just how cleaned up should we make these things for our children? If we do sanitize the presentation to a rating of "G," are we still teaching history?

Movies are such a popular art form precisely because they have the ability to do what many textbooks fail to do: emotionally engage the student, make real and tangible what might otherwise be a dry recitation of facts.

It could be that sometimes -- if the teacher judges that it's appropriate, and the parents sign off -- a movie could make the difference between a good educational experience, and a great one.

Wednesday, January 24, 1996

January 24, 1996 - Citizen Confidence in Government

Recently, national and local League of Women Voters groups have begun to talk about the need to restore faith in government.

Have people in fact LOST faith in government?

Yes. According to an article called "America Today" in the December, 1995 issue of Current, written by Seymour Martin Lipset, "Opinion surveys indicate that confidence in U.S. political institutions has declined precipitously and steadily since the mid-1960s. The Louis Harris Poll, which has investigated the subject since 1966, reported in 1994 the lowest level of confidence ever in political leaders."

This lack of confidence expresses itself in many ways, the most obvious being voter participation. Again according to Lipset, "At one time, the United States could boast that the overwhelming majority of eligible voters cast ballots. ... the United States now has the lowest rate of voter participation in national elections of all the established democracies except Switzerland" -- just over 50 percent.

What caused this sharp drop in democratic activity? Lipset links the decline of voter participation with the decline of newspaper readership and the ascendancy of television viewership. He writes, "Those looking at the tube for four hours or more each day climbed from 19 percent in 1964 to 28 percent in 1993. At the same time, the proportion reading a newspaper every day fell from 73 percent in 1967 to 46 percent in 1993." Too, political candidates now put about 60% of their campaign budgets into television (17% in 1950). These days, the average political sound bite is down to fewer than 10 seconds.

The lack of in-depth coverage, plus the tendency of the media to cover bad news (good news is dull), together tends toward a discouraging picture of public life.

One of my Board members thinks that another issue is the inflated promises of political candidates. To get the 10 second sound bite, the challenger promises to end welfare, generate jobs, educate all children, eradicate poverty, increase defense spending, AND reduce taxes. The probability of one person accomplishing all this is vanishingly small; disaffected voter cynicism is the result. Yet, more honest and modest politicians don't get the TV time they need to win.

There's another cause. Many people of my generation came to political consciousness just as even the highest public office -- Nixon's Presidency -- was in utter disgrace, exposed as a den of venality and self-serving dishonesty. Since then, the relentless scrutiny of public figures' private lives has made it even more difficult to maintain respect for elected officials -- and even less encouraging to consider public service as a career.

In many respects, an innate distrust of government is a distinctly American trait; it's the other side of the coin of a belief in individual liberty.

Yet "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Clearly, political vigilance in the 90's does NOT consist of spending more time watching TV, but of spending more time in front of a newspaper, magazine, or book, the better to form a less superficial and more mature view of the issues and people in the public eye.

The road to restoring confidence in government just might start at your local public library.

Wednesday, January 17, 1996

January 17, 1996 - 1995 Statistics

When I first got started in libraries, I had a very narrow view of what it was all about. I stayed focused on the things I was responsible for: the number on the spine of a book to be re-shelved, the card to be stamped in the book, the card to be filed in the daily circ (circulation) drawer.

But after awhile, I began to be aware of larger patterns of use: the number of inches in the daily circ drawer that represented kid's picture books, for instance. As I started moving into the management end of things, I realized that those little clues provided valuable information for such things as staffing, or for the number of shelves needed in a particular area of the library.

Thanks to computers, gathering such data has gotten easier over the past 15 years. Everything you check out from the library has a statistical code, and every checkout equals one tally. We have a fair number of categories: from which broad kind of material it is (book, video, periodical), to what specific call number range it belongs to (640's, for instance). Together, all these numbers give librarians a remarkably comprehensive view of what walks out the door.

Now I realize this sounds strange, but library statistics can be strangely seductive. These days, I can hardly wait for the end of the year to start cranking out reports.

As you might expect, there are some differences from branch to branch both in numbers of items checked out, and kinds of items. These differences greatly assist our branch managers as we start divvying up our book budget for the next year.

But for me, the real fascination comes in trying to see how library use is changing overall.

I could list pages of numbers, and charts for all of them. Instead, I'll just offer the Big Picture from 1995 (and previous years) statistics:

1. Library use continues to climb. Despite our change from a two-week to a three-week loan period for most materials, and a longer loan period for videos, we again checked out over a million items. I had predicted a slight decline from 1994 (because of the loan period changes). In fact, we saw a modest increase of just under 1% overall. Next year, I expect us to return to our more usual, and very aggressive, jumps in annual use. In 1994, we were the fifth busiest public library in the state (and we are NOT the fifth largest in either collection or population). When other libraries start chiming in with their stats, I'll let you know how we ranked in 1995.

2. Our collection has grown. We now have about 227,000 items in our library district. Since 1990, the year the district was approved by Douglas County voters, that's an increase of over 249 percent.

3. As a result of our rapidly expanding collection, we're beginning to narrow the gap between what our patrons request from other libraries (Interlibrary Loans), and what other library patrons request from ours. In 1991, we borrowed about 6 books for every book we loaned. Now the ratio is closer to 3 to 1.

4. Use in all categories is up. I track six broad categories of library materials: Adult fiction, Adult Non-fiction, Juvenile Fiction, Juvenile Non-fiction, Audiovisual (including books on tape and video), and Other (periodicals, pamphlets, interlibrary loans, etc.). In each area, the number of items checked out has shown a sharp and consistent increase, year after year.

5. As a percentage of the total circulation, however, all of the categories have in fact declined with two exceptions: audiovisual, and juvenile non-fiction. This is a little misleading. Videos have a much shorter loan period, which means they're available sooner, which means that they go out again.

In sum: Douglas County residents are big time library supporters, and every year our library is better able to serve them. The kids who grew up in our children's rooms are moving from the easy books to the world of non-fiction, and all of us are taking out more videos and books on tape.

Wednesday, January 10, 1996

January 10, 1996 - EBSCOhost

Over the past year, the Douglas Public Library District has conducted several experiments. Our aim was to provide direct public access to electronic magazine indexes and full text.

Three years ago, we tested, at no charge, a CD-ROM based product. It was OK, but in my judgment, surprisingly expensive. We would have had to buy a PC for it; only one person could use it at a time; and the annual charge for 12 CD updates was several times the cost of a paper index. Too, the product did not include full text. I decided not to invest in it.

Two years ago, we loaded the index information right onto our own computer system, headquartered in Castle Rock. But there were problems. The updates were supposed to be monthly; in fact, they were annual. Then we ran out of storage space on our hard drive. Indexes eat up a lot of space.

But in that year of local access, the industry moved on. Instead of mailing out tapes and CDs with the data, vendors hit upon a way to distribute it more efficiently: load it onto their own machines, then open the machines to the Internet. I'd been predicting this for a while, so was glad to see it -- or I would have been, if the price didn't take another jump, even above the cost of the CD-ROM product. In Colorado, there are two big public library vendors in the automated magazine index and full text business: one is IAC; the other is EBSCO. IAC has tied up the big contracts for CARL (the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries). I've spent a lot of time talking to EBSCO, mostly because I think competition helps to keep prices down, and I've been troubled by the way every significant reduction in costs for vendors has meant increased costs for libraries.

How much a vendor charges a library varies, of course. But there's no consistent formula. Some base their charges on the size of the library's budget for materials. Others charge on the number of branches. Still others tack on a "simultaneous user" fee (based on the maximum number of terminals that are predicted to be connected at any given moment). None of these has much to do with the cost of producing the product, or paying the copyright use fees to the companies that publish the magazines in the first place.

So in 1995, we tried two basic approaches: the first was through a product called "Vista," the second was through something called "EBSCOhost." Again, because they were trial periods, they didn't cost us anything.

Vista is a middleman: the company receives the EBSCO data, generates proprietary indexes on it, then loads the data and indexes on its own Internet machine. The people who run Vista also run Ameritech Library Services -- the same folks who make our library software. The advantage to this approach is that the product LOOKS like the rest of our software. That makes it generally easier to use for most of our patrons.

But the disadvantages to Vista are that we STILL have to buy the data from EBSCO, plus a markup, plus simultaneous user fees. Under that scenario, we would soon be paying more for electronic magazine articles than we currently pay for the paper product. We would, in effect, be buying the data twice.

The second product, EBSCOhost, is a direct Internet connection to the people who gathered the data. Advantages: the product offers some powerful searching and printing options; it allows an unlimited number of users; and I've negotiated a price that's about a quarter of the usual market cost, and locked it in for 3 years. Disadvantages: it doesn't look like our usual library software, and the interface itself is still evolving. In effect, we're getting a price break for helping EBSCO develop a very competitive product. This means that we have either the challenge or the opportunity (depending on whether you're the sort who sees the glass half-empty or half-full) of customizing its look and feel to our needs, and of influencing both the pricing and the features of an important new tool for libraries across the country.

What's the bottom line? Vista will soon be gone from our computer screens. In its place, you'll see EBSCOhost. Now that we've made our decision, we'll start cranking out some guides to help people get used to the new software. For those of you who have been a little confused by our multiple approaches, my apologies. But as I hope this column points out, sometimes it's worth a little exploration before we start writing checks with your money.

Wednesday, January 3, 1996

January 3, 1996 - Nicky Mead

The December 30, 1995 News Press carried a story about the death of Genevieve Mead. To her Douglas County friends, she was Nicky. As one of her long-time associates put it, "Genevieve was for checks and legal papers."

But when she left Douglas County for Denver, she introduced herself as Genevieve. When I met her in 1992 -- and was immediately captivated by her resolutely cheerful and gracious persona -- she called herself Genevieve. So she will remain for me.

Back in 1966, when the population of the county was about 5,000 people, it was Nicky who started talking about the need for a library in Douglas County. There were, as is always the case, many other people involved.

But it was Nicky who formed the Douglas County Friends of the Library. Membership cost $1 -- and in 6 weeks, 143 people anted up.

It was Nicky who organized the first public meeting to discuss school library bookmobile service and organize a library planning board.

It was Nicky who served as the first President of the new Douglas County Friends of the Library.

It was Nicky who solicited and received written support from the elementary schools toward the goal of a county library system.

It was Nicky who served on the Douglas County Library Planning Commission, and organized the Douglas County Public Library Development Fund.

It was Nicky who lobbied County Commissioners for the first $5,000 of county money to start and maintain a public library in Douglas County.

That's all in one year, folks.

In 1967, she organized the Douglas County History Roundtable. It was attended by 350 people. Many of the local historical societies sprang from this meeting.

The same year, she was appointed to the first Board of Trustees of the new library system. Shortly thereafter, she accepted a letter of commitment from Mr. and Mrs. Philip S. Miller for a donation of $25,000 for a new library building. (Nicky's son, Jay, recalls that in the heady weeks after this commitment, his mother lettered his lunch sack with the word "Miller!" instead of his own name.)

In 1968, the new Douglas County Library won the prestigious, national 23rd Annual John Cotton Dana Publicity Award "for winning community support for establishment of county library service in a sparsely populated area."

In 1969, Nicky served as President of the Board of Trustees, and helped organize "Douglas County on Parade." This home tour fundraiser was featured in most front-range newspapers, and became the premier social event of the county.

In 1972, she was honored for outstanding contributions by the Douglas County Friends of the Library, and completed her term on the Board of Trustees.

After this, Nicky and her four children left for Denver, where she worked at the Virginia Village Branch of the Denver Public Library. There, as Genevieve, she served as beloved colleague and mentor to many, many librarians. She also provided warm, intelligent service to tens of thousands of library patrons. Genevieve was the first to propose the now-thriving DPL docent program.

In 1994, the Douglas Public Library District and the Denver Public Library jointly nominated Genevieve Mead for the Colorado Library Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. She won. I had the honor of accompanying her to the stage, where some 600 librarians gave her a standing ovation and thunderous applause. She had earned it.

That's one of my special memories of Genevieve. The other was back in 1992, when the Douglas Public Library District invited her to a Local History celebration. Genevieve and I literally danced in the stacks, which I had always wanted to do, and she certainly deserved.

All of this, of course, is just one facet of a lovely and lively woman's very complex life. But like Mr. Miller, who also died in 1995, Genevieve Mead's contribution to library development in Douglas County was both extraordinary and absolutely pivotal.

She was greatly loved, even by those of us who knew her for a short time. My biggest regret is that I couldn't have known her longer.

The family has requested that memorials be sent to the Genevieve Nichols Mead Memorial Fund, c/o Denver Public Library, Development Department, 10 West 10th Avenue Parkway, Denver CO 80204. Gifts may be designated for either the Denver Public Library Children's Collection or the Philip S. Miller Library.