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, March 27, 1996

March 27, 1996 - Gold stars, Service, and Public Surveys

A friend of mine runs her own business from home. A couple of months ago, she got into a slump. She still had plenty of business, but she just didn't think she was doing her best work.

Most of us get into these kinds of troughs every now and then. But my friend did something about it that was surprisingly effective -- and surprisingly simple.

First, she put a big calendar right in front of her desk -- the wall-mounted kind, with big, clear numbers. Every time she raised her eyes, there was the calendar. At the end of each day, she made a decision. If she'd gotten a lot done, she stuck a gold star on the day. If she hadn't, she didn't.

Before very long, whenever she was about to get up and sharpen her pencils for the fifth time, she found herself asking, "Wonder if I'll give myself a gold star today?" Then she set down the pencils and did something more productive.

Before long, she was putting up gold stars almost every day.

Clever, isn't it? It doesn't take somebody with a whip at your back to make you work smarter. It doesn't take a $500 a day consultant. It just takes something simple, like your own opinion of yourself.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, once wrote, "If you train your conscience, it blesses you as it hurts you."

It happens that one of the things the Douglas Public Library District will be doing this year is a community survey. The survey is a part of our long range planning process: as we set new directions for the library, we want to touch base with the people who will pay for the service.

And speaking of service, that's my essential concern as a library director. I am, after all, a public servant, as are all library employees. As we move into our next planning period, how do we make sure that we are all doing our best work? How do we maintain the highest possible levels of service?

The more I think about this, the more I think the best way is to try to find something as straightforward as what my friend did.

Suppose that for a couple of weeks out of every year I put some kind of quick tally sheet next to each staff workstation. Whenever a patron came up and asked for something, and the transaction concluded, the staff member had to put a tally in one of two columns: "great service," or "not great." Nobody would see this tally but the employee. It wouldn't be collected.

But if you believe in the innate honesty and intelligence of your staff - and I do - this might be just about all that's needed to cause a real jump in service quality. Part of that has to do with staff members holding themselves more accountable, like my friend.

But the other part has to do with discovering problems. Maybe the staff person COULDN'T deliver good service because the library didn't carry something people kept asking for.

Here's another twist on the same idea. Suppose that we set up a little table by the exits of the library. On the table would be a bowl of poker chips, and two cans. One would be labeled, "I got good service;" the other, "I wish!" Every time a patron walked out, they could record the quality of their experience with the library. Now THAT could give a branch manager some interesting data.

Service is important. Public institutions should be responsive. It could be that some simple ideas like these - inexpensive, unobtrusive, based on the notion that staff and patrons both have a good idea of what good service means - are all that it would take to earn enough gold stars for everyone.

Wednesday, March 20, 1996

March 20, 1996 - Arbor Day, the Great Waukegan Carwash Robbery

At last the truth can be told. I was one of the two Caped Avengers who thwarted the great Waukegan Car Wash Robbery.

My crime fighting identity in those days was "Red Diamond." My partner and mentor was Mike Milligan, "The Blade." I was 10. He was 12.

It started out like any other night, with our usual patrol of the block. This was no small task. Our block had houses on two sides of the long rectangle; the other two sides had a host of little shops. There was a McDonald's, a fish store, a gas station, a laundry, a factory, a liquor store, a barber shop, a grocery store -- and a car wash.

The patrol took about an hour. We did it every night, rain or shine.

We knew something was different as we crossed over the laundromat -- a reflected light where we were used to darkness. We were on the roof of the building, just coming up on the rickety wooden plank we placed to let us climb over to the car wash. Then we heard it: the tinkle of broken glass. Two low voices.

The Blade motioned me closer. Carefully, we inched above the front door. We heard: "Where's the cash drawer?" "Behind the counter." "It's locked!" "Here, try this!" Then we heard banging.

It was the moment we had been waiting for, all of our lives, the moment we had trained for.

First we both stomped around on the roof. Below, the men froze. "I called the police!" the Blade shouted. "I know who they are!" I piped. Then we looked at each other and grinned.

Then we stopped grinning. A head popped up at one end of the building. "It's some kids," said a voice. "Grab them!" said the other voice. The first man started scrambling up.

The Blade and I ran back to the plank, danced across it, then kicked it free. We could hear the man swear behind us, and start looking for a way down.

We tore across the roof, dropped along a gutter. Then, we dived into our escape path, a route worked countless times in the dark. Through the alley, over the picket fence, along the brick wall, and finally, a leap into space, high above the back yards of our neighbors ...

There were three willow trees. We hit one, swung along a high branch, connected to the next tree, swung, grabbed for the next, and landed running. In just minutes, we were safe.

The next day, we huddled over the newspaper headline: "CAR WASH ROBBERY INTERRUPTED." The store owner expressed gratitude for whatever mysterious event had scared off the robbers. Nothing had been stolen.

Our eyes narrowed. We clasped hands. "The Blade," I said. "Red Diamond," he replied. The Mystery Men of Waukegan.

The point of this story is, I trust, perfectly plain. If it hadn't been for those willow trees, evil might have triumphed.

And that brings us to Arbor Day.

See elsewhere in this issue for the complete list of Arbor Day activities. But I would be remiss if I didn't highlight two of them.

First, at 9 a.m., April 20, we will be planting trees and shrubs at the new Parker Library. We are looking for both volunteers and donations, although the Town of Parker and the Friends of the Parker Library have already made significant commitments. The same morning, our own storyteller, Priscilla Queen, will entertain the children with more tales related to trees. The Parker Senior Center will provide refreshments.

Second, Larkspur will be participating in this countywide event for the first time this year -- planting trees along the inner road of the park.

Again, do look elsewhere in the paper for more opportunities to participate in the planting of trees, or for a complete list of contacts. And this year, vow to help.

Why? For truth. For justice. For the American Way.

Wednesday, March 13, 1996

March 13, 1996 - Zuni Librarian

Last week, I gave a talk on censorship to some New Mexico librarians. After the talk, I was approached by the librarian for the Zuni tribe -- one of the Pueblo peoples. The librarian (she was white) described a situation new to me.

The story starts a long time ago. Between the years of about 1870 and 1917, white photographers and anthropologists, fascinated by Native American religions, took many photographs of various ceremonies, artifacts, and places.

Over the past twenty years, many of these photographs have been re-released in various publications, most of them by university presses. They have sparked a fire storm of controversy.

Here's the perspective of the librarian. "Young people began coming into the library to ask for some of these books. I bought them. Almost immediately, the tribal elders complained. Some of the ceremonies described in the books were sacred, they said. Nobody was supposed to know about them unless they'd been initiated."

And yet, she went on, "the kids are desperate to find out about their history and their beliefs. None of the adults takes the time to talk to them."

On the plane back from the talk, I mentioned this to the person next to me. It turns out she knew someone who had worked with the Navajo Nation. She described a story of an anthropologist interviewing a tribal elder about some religious beliefs. Every now and then, the Native American would excuse himself, enter a small room, then return with an answer. Finally, the anthropologist asked him just whom he was consulting. Silently, the Navajo disappeared, then returned with a book -- published by the Oxford Press, and based on research from a century earlier. The point of the story was that if anthropologists hadn't documented that knowledge, it would have been lost altogether.

But there's another perspective. Clearly, the living chain of memory, an oral tradition from one generation to the next, has been broken. But it wasn't broken by Native Americans. Various white peoples -- from the Spanish to the English to the white Americans born on this soil -- completely overwhelmed, have all but decimated, many of the cultures that existed before theirs in this land.

To the people living on reservations, this latest round of publications -- even if published in the spirit of respect, and in some cases of frank admiration -- smacks of voyeurism and exploitation. There is something profoundly humiliating about having to learn about your past from the very people who destroyed it.

The question put to me by the New Mexico librarian was, "How should I respond to the elders?" I've given the question a lot of thought since then.

On the one hand, ignorance can't be the right choice. The white librarian may be right: these books may be the only way the young Zuni can learn about their heritage. It would be too ironic if any interested party EXCEPT the young people of the Zuni tribe had access to this information.

On the other hand, she might be wrong. It could be that a way of life can only survive if the chain is mended, if it becomes a living link, spoken at just the right time. It's hard for an outsider to judge that.

Here's the answer I gave her: I don't know.

Wednesday, March 6, 1996

March 6, 1996 - Computers in Libraries Conference

I've spent the past week at a conference called Computers in Libraries. I was at the very first one of these 11 years ago. Back then, almost 400 people showed up, from all over the country.

This year, there were over 2000.

Unlike most of the conferences I go to, I didn't know a lot of the people. It's not the sort of gathering that pulls in directors and journalists. Most of the people are the foot soldiers of the information age -- the reference librarians and media center supervisors and computer technicians. So instead of a lot of high-falutin' philosophy, they talk nuts and bolts. They come to the conference because there are things they need to find out about.

And in general, what DO they need to know? Based on the presentations, they need to know about the World Wide Web.

Here's the good news: librarians, it turns out, are really very good at organizing information. Some of them seemed to be surprised at this: some dazzlingly well-thought-out web pages were trotted out by state library staff and librarians. You could see the eyes popping, followed by a hasty scribbling of the Internet address, followed by a thoughtful look that meant, "Hmm. I could do that."

They will, too.

The bad news: it wasn't until the last day of the conference that some of the speakers tried to put this in perspective -- just where does automation fit in the larger scheme of library services? I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my job was to talk about what is "too fast" for the patron.

Here's what I said. I think most of our patrons fall into one of four main categories.

1. "The library will never be too fast for me." (I actually got this as an e-mail message from a patron. And he's probably right.)

2. "It's not too fast if I don't HAVE to use it." Another echoed: "The first time, it was sort of interesting when a staff member showed me how to look something up. But the second time, it WASN'T interesting. When I call a plumber, he doesn't make me look at his wrenches." A third person drove the point home: "If these computers make your job easier, great! As long as the reference librarian will still find it for me! And smile!"

3. Here's a different take. "I went to one of your computer classes, and loved it," said one woman. "But the next week, the whole screen was different. Once I get it figured out, don't change it."

4. Finally, here's a similar response from someone playing at our Internet station. "There's too much. Can't you just highlight the things that are useful?" This comment highlights the need for what librarians traditionally do best: identify credible resources, then make it easy to find them.

My staff, incidentally, was terrified when they heard I was going to this conference. They were afraid I'd get hyped up and launch us into yet another wild endeavor.

But ultimately, here's what I learned:

Based on circulation statistics and public surveys, it's clear to me that our patrons still prefer a physical, rather than a virtual, place, and they still want an object -- a children's picture book, a non-fiction title, an adult fiction title, a video, or an audio, in that order. I would predict that this general pattern of use will endure for some time -- as long as we continue to give our patrons a choice.

That doesn't mean that we won't continue to offer a good mix of new resources. Right now, all of our automation expenditures accounts for about 3% of our annual expenditures. And that strikes me as just about right.