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, February 28, 1996

February 28, 1996 - computers in libraries too much?

As I write this, I'm off for a week-long conference called "Computers in Libraries." As always before a long trip, I'm grappling with an essential question: which books should I pack?

There are many dimensions to the question. This trip, I have two main concerns. First, how much will they weigh? (I've got to lug them in and out of airports.) Second, can I find something that will go the distance, something that will both last 5 days AND engage me enough to partially address the absence of wife and children?

The more I've thought about this, the more I've learned about myself. I've decided that I read for just four reasons.

Here's one of them: I gotta. This is perfectly captured by the protagonist in science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein's "Glory Road," first published in 1963: "The truth is, I've got a monkey on my back, a habit worse than marijuana though not as expensive as heroin. I can stiff it out and get to sleep anyway, but .... The fact is I am a compulsive reader. Thirty-five cents' worth of Gold Medal Original will put me right to sleep. Or Perry Mason. But I'll read the ads in an old Paris-Match that has been used to wrap herring before I'll do without."

Here's the second reason: to share. For the past 8 years I've read children's literature aloud to my children, nearly every day. Maddy is our first child (8 years old now). These days, we're reading the American Girls series and Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby books.

Then came Perry (just 2 years old). We're starting all over again with some of the favorites -- "Good Night Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown, to name one of the very best. But Perry has a different take on some of these things. In "Good Night Moon" he looks for the mouse. Maddy looked at the colors.

There may be better moments in life than having the flesh of your flesh snuggle up against you and say, "book!" But there aren't many.

Here's the third reason: to dream. Some folks call it "escapism." But this suggests that reading is running from life. That's wrong.

I think that when people dive into a work of fiction -- whether it be science fiction, or mystery, or historical romance, or best seller -- they're not running away from anything. Instead, they're looking to live in a world where things happen because they are meant to happen, a world where the logic is clear. They are looking for something more than the random incidents that make up so much of our waking lives.

In just the same way, we close our eyes each night, and our marvelous minds generate stories -- little plays in which everything stands for something. We wake up refreshed, a little wiser, a little more hopeful than we went to sleep, whether we realize it or not.

The fourth reason is to learn. There are times when I am overwhelmed by my own ignorance. I work in a library, and just to walk from my office to the circulation desk -- a distance of a few hundred feet -- is a profoundly humbling experience.

Most of us, even if willing and able to dedicate a lifetime to concentrated effort, won't read as much as a single range of shelves.

One shelf is 3 feet long. A range -- both sides of a set of shelving, or an "aisle" -- equals approximately 84 shelves.

Yet one range contains such a small portion of what the human race has so painfully discovered in its recorded history.

I've settled on two books for my trip. One is "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler. I bought it for two bucks from Hooked on Books in Castle Rock. The second is "Future Libraries" by Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman. I've decided this trip should be educational.

Here's hoping to learn something.

Wednesday, February 21, 1996

February 21, 1996 - Community Networks

It happens that I'm near-sighted -- possibly the result of too much reading under haphazard lighting. (Listen to your mothers, children!)

Far away, I see just fine -- with glasses. But for the past few months, especially in the evening, my eyes play tricks on me. I have to take off my glasses to read something right in front of me. I have to put on my glasses to see somebody across the table. It's a matter, I'm told, of the changing focal length of older eyeballs.

The World Wide Web is another example. I have e-mail correspondents scattered across the globe. On the other hand, local information, local news, what's going on in my own back yard -- is of great interest to me, too.

The rollicking growth of the Internet pulls my professional, librarian eye toward the horizon. But the surprising depth of local information tugs my gaze closer.

So what's a librarian to do? Work on a comprehensive collection of planet-wide resources? Or try to build an organized overview of the local data neighborhood?

As usual, it's not an either-or proposition. The right answer is, "Both." Physiologically, psychologically, and professionally, it's a good idea to vary your focus every now and then.

In other columns, I've talked about how to connect through your local library to larger resources. This week, I'd like to talk about attempts to organize more regional information.

Here's a good question: Just what DO you need to know, locally? Well, the News Press does a good job of this in its annual publication, "Guide to Douglas County."

You can look up the names, addresses, and principals of local schools. You can get the name and phone numbers of elected officials. You can find out where to register your car.

But the problem with printed directories is that much of the information in them is out of date almost immediately. And as good as "The guide to Douglas County" is, it doesn't have everything.

So over the past several weeks, library staff has been doing two things.

First, we've taken some of our old approaches to local information and put a new spin on them. One of these is something we call the "Community Information Referral" files -- a collection of records describing the various civic, social service, and non-profit organizations serving the citizens of Douglas County. This information has for 5 years now been an integral part of the library's catalog. It's proved very useful for library staff (who may need to quickly determine the name of the local Rotary Club president, or get the phone number of Colorado Representative Jeanne Adkins). It's a flexible and powerful tool for tracking down local data.

But as near as I can figure, nobody ELSE used it. We designed the system to be especially useful to social service agencies. But a tool that requires you to dial into a library catalog (meaning you have the computer, modem, phone line, and time to do all this) isn't especially convenient for people who are striving mightily to solve what is usually a crisis. What they need (I think) is two things: powerful searching tools, yes, but also the ability to generate their own comprehensive, up-to-date print-outs, without a lot of extra steps.

So our latest automation experiment -- library "home pages" -- will still let you search for data on-line. But it will also let you print it all out, or grab the whole file to your own computer, where you can edit it, THEN print it. Not only that, we're going to make it available as a text file: you bring us a disk, we'll get you the data. You say you don't have a computer at all? Statistically, you're in the minority in Douglas County. But even then -- we're thinking about doing an annual printed directory.

It turns out that this process of taking a text file and turning it into a World Wide Web page is really pretty easy. Over the next couple of months, the library will be trying to work with others to build an electronic community network. Some of the people we're talking to include the county, the school district (which is about to bring up its own WWW site, in conjunction with the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce), the towns of Castle Rock and Parker, the League of Women Voters, and even your local newspaper.

The idea is to make it possible to make a "virtual visit" to any one of these places, and find a set of logical, well-thought-out links to all of the other sources of information. Of course, we'll also have links to the rest of the web. I think of it like this: Your community network -- the network with bifocals.

Wednesday, February 14, 1996

February 14, 1996 - Too Fast?

I've been asked to speak at a national conference called "Computers in Libraries." They gave me this topic: "Are we going too fast for our patrons?"

At first, I thought this was a pretty simple question. I had an unequivocal answer: No. We are not.

On the whole, library users are quick adopters of technology. Oh sure, we've fielded our complaints about the computer catalog as opposed to the good old card catalog. (I believe the main reason folks wax nostalgic about the card catalog was that it was made out of wood. Even if you didn't use it, it LOOKED good. Solid.) Too, there is that segment of the population that looks askance at the CD-ROM workstation -- and always will.

But in general, and especially in Douglas County, our patrons not only keep up with changes in our library automation, they usually urge us to move a little quicker.

For instance, this week, we're bringing up a text-based World Wide Web browser called Lynx. But we've already got people asking us when we'll have fully graphical workstations to display WWW home pages in all their Technicolor splendor. (Next year, probably.)

When we offer full text periodical access, people don't say, "What happened to the Reader's Guide?" They say, "You need more printers -- one at every terminal."

On the other hand, you the patron don't have to use any of this stuff. You can just ask library staff to look it up for you. We don't force it on you, and I know some of you appreciate that.

In other words, "too fast" is a subjective, not an objective judgment. My basic premise is that if the product (some electronic service) is genuinely more convenient than the alternative, then it doesn't seem "too fast." It seems "overdue."

From my perspective, the real problem with library automation isn't that it's too fast -- it's that sometimes it stops altogether. Case in point: Our five year old central computer had two disk drive failures in two months. Each time, we were "down" for two whole days. On the theory that a planned inconvenience is better than an accidental one, we took the system down a third time, on purpose, to swap out all of the rest of the drives. In a week or so, we'll be down again to install more memory -- which peps up the response time.

But then I realized that the real question of "too fast" gets at our whole understanding of time, our culture's relentless and often pointless haste. It may be more than simple nostalgia that makes some of us yearn for the quiet, red leather luster of the Reading Room.

To the extent that libraries feed the frenzy of data-on-demand, and undermine the notion of contemplation -- time to sift, to sort, to comprehend, to make meaningful use of the information -- then yes, maybe we are moving too fast. And maybe that's worth thinking about some more.

If YOU have any thoughts on this, give me a call (688-8752), write me in care of the paper, or e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net. But don't waste time: You've only got about a week to get anything really brilliant to me if I'm going to use it in my talk.

Closing thought: it happens that my altogether beguiling little boy, Perry, will be two years old tomorrow. Now THAT'S too fast.

Wednesday, February 7, 1996

February 7, 1996 - Superman

On Sunday, January 28, Jerry Siegel died. He was 81. Siegel was a good friend of Joe Shuster.

So who were Siegel and Shuster? They were buddies who together, while still in high school, dreamed up the Man of Steel, the Son of Krypton -- Superman. Siegel was the writer; Shuster (who died in 1992) was the artist.

In some respects, their story is a sad one. They sold their rights to the concept for just $130. In various forms -- comic books, movies, TV, and action figures, for instance -- Superman has been a money machine. According to one news story, he has racked up profits of literally billions of dollars.

But in 1978, largely as a result of the mounting protests of thousands of loyal and very vocal Superman fans, DC Comics gave Siegel and Shuster $20,000 annual stipends, for life. DC also restored "creator credit." Ever since, the names of Siegel and Shuster get the nod before every Superman story, in any format. Look for them.

In a world where there is so much reality to contemplate, of what possible moment is the death of a comic book writer?

The "legend" of Superman has been recreated for each generation of fans. In some respects, I think he captures the very self-image of Americans.

In the beginning, he was merely a much stronger, tougher than normal person. At first, he didn't have the power of flight, just enough oomph to "leap tall buildings in a single bound." A bullet bounced off him, but a cannonball might knock him over.

After World War II was over (and I bet you didn't even know the part he played in the fight against the Nazis -- possibly, we might not have won without him), America settled into the prosperous and even complacent 50s. At the same time, Superman's whole physique changed. He became ridiculously muscular. He could fly through the sun unharmed. He could, even as Superboy, stand on his head and shift the world from its orbit. And wasn't that American?

His only vulnerability was kryptonite -- but kryptonite in bewildering varieties. Green kryptonite could kill him, slowly; red kryptonite had unpredictable effects that lasted for just 24 hours; gold kryptonite could remove his powers permanently, and so on. Could it be that kryptonite -- at some level of our American collective consciousness -- stood for the uncertainties and literal "new elements" of the nuclear age?

In the 60s and 70s, Superman worked to get in touch with his more sensitive side, usually without much success. In the movies, we even see him working toward nuclear disarmament. The most interesting development of this period was Lois Lane (at least in the comic books), who learned karate, started wearing pants, and generally speaking got more, well, liberated.

In the 80s, Superman went through a big adjustment, back to a very, very powerful man from another planet, but no longer the almost god-like figure of the 50s. In the 90s, he was slain while fighting an ultimate villain, then reborn (with longer hair, which as Clark Kent, he ties in a ponytail). Since then, he has settled into a deep romance with Lois, all secrets between them swept aside. At some level, perhaps this reflects the collapse of the communist threat, and an America that looked around, loosened up, and started reinvestigating family values.

As long as there have been humans, there have been heroes. In some ways, Superman is like the old gods of ancient Greece, but with science (well, a sort of science) rather than flat-out magic as his source of power.

Whatever his real purpose in our cultural lives, we can be sure that the man in the cape will keep flying, keep changing, will endure, long after the death of the two boys who gave him life.

And oh yes, at the Douglas Public Library District, you'll find a surprising variety of information about Superman: from the remarkable animated cartoons of the 40s, to full length novels, to audiotapes, to the current adventures as chronicled in the medium that still knows him best -- comics.