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, April 24, 1996

April 24, 2996 - Bestseller Lists, Program Schedule, Review Patron Record

I don't mind doing a little extra work from time to time. But I do like to know that there's a point to it.

So I've been wondering lately about some of the documents and lists I've posted on our computer catalog. Does anybody use them? I'm going to list some of these things. As you go through them, ask yourself two questions:

(1) Did I know about this? (And now that I do, am I likely to use it?)

(2) If I HAVE known about it, DO I use it?

Here's the list:

* The Douglas Public Library District program schedule. This lists all of the programs planned for the week at all of our library branches. It comes up when you first log in from home. You can also get to it by typing "BB" (for Bulletin Board) at the main computer menu. This same information appears in several newspapers serving Douglas County. It's also possible that the people who attend our programs get this information direct from the branch.

* Best Seller Lists. Weekly, I update all the library-owned titles listed in the Publisher's Weekly and Denver Post best seller lists for fiction and non-fiction. This enables you, the patron, to not only look at the list, but to place a "hold" on the title right from that screen. Holly Deni, branch manager at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, also maintains lists that include all Pulitzer Prize winners, and monthly "Hot picks" - books we expect to be very popular, and are due to be published that month. Again, you can enter your holds right from the list - a good way to get on the waiting list months before we get the book.

* Review Patron Record. You can see what you still have checked out, whether or not any "problems" are associated with your card, what items you have on hold (and where you are in the list), double-check our information about your residence and phone, and, most recently, change the number that gives you access to your patron record (if you worry that this data might fall into the wrong hands). Some parents, I believe, use it to make sure they've gotten back all their children's books.

* Other libraries. These libraries include: ACLIN (the Access Colorado Library & Information Network), the combined catalogs of the Arapahoe Library District / Aurora Public Library, the CARL libraries, the EBSCO Periodical Indexing and Text database in Boston, ZAP (on-line interlibrary loan requests), and the Pikes Peak Library District.

On the one hand, all of this stuff might be useful. But I'm not interested in whether they MIGHT be. I'm interested in whether or not they ARE.

Lately, my sense is that the Hot Picks, the Review Patron Record, and Other libraries are used. I suspect that the program schedule and best seller lists are not.

So unless I hear from somebody to the contrary, I'm going to stop doing these last two. If that would be a problem for you, please call me at 688-8752, or e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net -- I won't need very many calls to persuade me to save them. But if nobody calls, I'll just figure that these were interesting ideas for service that never caught on. That's useful information, too.

Wednesday, April 17, 1996

April 17, 1996 - Talking to the Paper

If you're active in public affairs, sooner or later you're going to get quoted in the newspaper.

You imagine, of course, that you'll come across the same way you do in person: intelligent, witty, even, well, quotable. You just know that the reading public will grasp and agree with your comments immediately.

Instead, either you get quoted saying something completely incomprehensible, or exactly contrary to your real feelings, or -- worst of all -- undeniably dim. I've done all of these myself, and I know what I'm talking about.

How does it happen? There are three explanations.

(1) You actually do say something incomprehensible, contrary, or dim.

(2) The reporter goofed. He or she was hurriedly trying to jot down the gist of your impassioned comments, and got it wrong. But try this sometime yourself and see how well you catch somebody's exact phrasing. Mistakes happen, especially when the speaker is really excited about something (which is when the newspaper wants to talk to someone in the first place).

(3) It's a conspiracy. If you're a conservative, then it's a liberal media bias. If you're a liberal, then it's just another example of crass, sensationalist commercialism.

Guess which one accounts for MOST of the problem? (Hint: not 2; not 3.)

One of the main reasons I write a column for the newspaper is just to get the opportunity to edit my own comments. I find I'm less likely to embarrass the library (or my family). And sometimes it takes some heavy editing.

But because of my involvement with public libraries, I really have learned a few things about talking to the media over the years. In the hope that some of you might benefit from my big and little gaffs, here are a few things to keep in mind.

* Work out something ahead of time. This is best. Know what you want to say to the media BEFORE you talk to them. Write down a simple statement, or at least a brief outline, then stick to it. A humorous comment or analogy is good, and may make your point perfectly. But try the colorful comment on a friend, first.

* Keep it simple. Most newspaper writers, and readers, expect to find most of the story at the beginning. Get to the point, keep it succinct, and shut up.

* In general, don't improvise or speculate. When reporters are looking for a story, they'll ask you, often in the most flattering way, to explain things -- to give some background, to try to help the reporter understand the issue more completely. The request is usually sincere. And such conversation is often very useful -- it's the way we figure out what we DO think. But comments from these discussions, taken out of context, often wind up on the front page. Then you have to explain to people that you didn't exactly say THAT, although you said something LIKE that, but your POINT was different. As you might suspect, this kind of confusion is almost impossible to clear up.

* Try to be fair. It's best, of course, to tell the truth. But if you can't see your way clear to do that (or honestly don't KNOW what's true), at least try to leave room for today's enemy to become tomorrow's friend.

Finally, remember that even when you do make a mistake: this too shall pass, making way like headlines for the next disaster.

And you can quote me.

Wednesday, April 10, 1996

April 10, 1996 - inner adult and storytimes

Over the past several years, many people have written books and articles about their "inner child."

In part, this really bothers me. At some point in our lives, we need to stop combing the ashes of our past, and GROW UP. Or let's put it this way: we also need to discover our inner adult. There is one, you know.

Yet I also recognize that in many respects, adults are a lot like children. I got to thinking about this after I met several high-powered state librarians who had started out as children's librarians.

Every one of these librarians is highly skilled in groups. At any big meeting, they greet everybody by name. They match the pace and presentation of their points to the unique concerns and styles of the people present. They keep everybody focused and involved.
I can't help but think that they got so good at this because they were children's librarians first.

In story hours, you learn the children's names because that makes each child feel welcome, acknowledged.

You learn to spot potential problems early and act on them. When a child's attention has wandered, you refocus your method of presentation, or briefly interrupt things to remind everybody of the ground rules.

You learn to project enthusiasm. Good children's librarians make their customers happy: they have a sincere and infectious love for their work.

Finally, the best children's librarians maintain an essential respect to each individual.

Even those of who have discovered our inner adult still believe the sweetest sound is the sound of our own names. We appreciate it when people remember our favorite games. We also understand that every now and then a little reminder is necessary to keep us within the bounds of civility.

We like to hang around enthusiastic people. And all of us, child or grown-up alike, possess a basic dignity too often ignored or undermined.

In short, the skills of leadership, so vital in any organization, translate pretty well from the story hour to the state house.

But I like to think there's even more to it than that. Children's librarians tell stories. They are immersed in literature, constantly probing for the powerful tale, the engaging style, the right mix of character and action.

Leadership is these things, too.

So after all that wind-up, here's the pitch. If you find yourself in situations with children -- as a teacher (full-time, part-time, or volunteer), as a daycare provider, as a parent or grandparent, or as anybody who is just looking for a chance to gain some skills, some practice, or some direction in the wonderful pastime of telling tales -- here's an opportunity.

On Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Parker Library, our own master storyteller Priscilla Queen will conduct a workshop. All are invited. You should register first, though. Call 841-3503 (the front desk number) or 841-6942 (Priscilla's phone) to do that, or for any questions.

And remember: learning to be a good storyteller isn't only useful with children.

Wednesday, April 3, 1996

April 3, 1996 - CUI Versus GUI and Document Quality

Like most business people these days, library staff depends on personal computers. We do what most folks do with them: word processing, spreadsheets, telecommunications, the occasional database, and the even more occasional graphic, in about that order.

According to the spec sheets, every time we buy a new computer, it is far more powerful than any of the computers we have bought before. But the work we do -- on the whole -- is the same.

It makes you wonder: is the quality of our work any different? Has the more powerful tool made a difference, or is it all just marketing hype?

Let's take word processing. For a long time, library staff had standardized on Microsoft Works for DOS. It came with just one manual, and did pretty much everything we wanted to do with a computer. Some of us still use it. Oh, and the program required 640K of memory, would run off a 1.2 megabyte floppy, and cost $89 per machine.

But DOS programs are passe'. Now everything is "graphical." In most respects, the way most new programs work -- whether they be for Windows 3.1, Windows 95, or the Macintosh -- is a whole lot like the way Works did. (That's because Works adopted a non- graphical version of the Macintosh menu system called CUI -- the Common User Interface.)

But these new programs are just different enough -- with file formats, fonts, borders, screen colors and the like -- that we're constantly having to move our old files into a new environment, and figure out the new way of doing things we were doing just fine before.

Now let's go back to the issue of quality. Back in 1990, I happened across a very interesting study. A group of college freshman were tested on "document quality." Half of them wrote using DOS-based word processors. The other half used word processors on the Macintosh system. The split was deliberate and controlled. The idea was to find out which approach to writing resulted in the better document.

The findings were surprising. The study, conducted by one M.P. Halio and summarized by a later researcher, concluded that "Macintosh writers tended to use a popular style -- brief paragraphs, short sentences, and simple words, including slang and colloquialisms. Macintosh users also chose less sophisticated topics, but they were more creative than IBM writers in formatting and illustrating their texts."

In other words, the Mac users mistook writing that looked good for good writing.

At the time, this filled me with a great deal of self- righteousness. After all, I used DOS word processors myself.

Alas. Another, far more rigorous and exhaustive study published in 1994 proved that in the short run (six weeks into a business communications class), yes, writers using the "character-based interface" of most DOS-based word processors seemed to demonstrate superior ratings in the areas of content and "mechanics" -- technical proficiencies.

But after five more weeks -- brace yourself -- all the differences disappeared. According to the author of the study, Shirley Kuiper, (in "Impact of computer-user interface on document quality," appearing in the Journal of Business Communications, April 1994, volume 31, number 2, beginning on page 125), "Overall GUI [graphical user interface] users performed neither better nor worse than CUI [character-based user interface] users."

So there you have it. We've all bought new machines. We've all struggled to learn new software. Most of this software requires roughly 16 times as much memory and hard disk space as the old software. The time it takes to load the program, or to print a document, is about the same as it used to be. The software cost has doubled.

To be fair, other studies suggest that the GUI has made us more productive. It takes less time to train people. It takes a little less time to generate the copy. People tend to LIKE their computers a little more.

But the quality of our documents -- WHAT we're saying as opposed to how it looks -- is unchanged.