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, June 26, 1996

June 26, 1996 - Raising ILL Fines

When one of our patrons asks for a book, we usually buy it. Sometimes we can't.

Many titles are no longer in print. Borrowing it from another library -- a process called "Interlibrary Loan" or ILL -- is the only way to get it. Sometimes an item is unusually expensive, or of little general interest. In that case, ILL is more cost- effective. (Even then, if such a book is requested several times by more than one person, we usually try to pick it up.)

Generally speaking, ILL transactions don't make up a huge percentage of our business -- less than 1% of all our circulations. Direct patron purchases, by contrast, account for roughly 12-15% of our purchases. But interlibrary loans take up far more staff time per title.

How come? First, we have to find out who owns it. Even then, the item isn't necessarily on the shelf at the library that does own it.

Second, once the lending library snags it, the item still has to travel through various courier routes around the country and state before it gets to us. We've gotten books from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii, and as close as the Arapahoe Library District.

Third, all along the way, there's a small but significant amount of paperwork necessary to track the request.

Fourth, then we loan the item to one of our patrons, which requires both additional processing, and a phone call to the patron.

Fifth, on occasion, we send out an overdue notice or two to get the item back. Sixth and finally, we have to return the item to the lending library, with our thanks.

On the one hand, this level of cooperation among all types of libraries -- academic libraries, public libraries, school libraries, even such special libraries as medical and art collections -- is very unusual in American government. Many people aren't even aware that it exists: you just ask for something, and before very long, we get it for you. In my opinion, Interlibrary Loan is a library success story.

On the other hand, there are lots of ways for this cooperation to go wrong. And lately, at the Douglas Public Library District, we've noticed that some of the items we get through Interlibrary Loan just aren't coming back on time. We get them to our patrons, but some of our patrons don't return them when they're supposed to.

Frankly, this hurts our library's reputation. Before very long, other libraries begin to be unwilling to loan things to us. This threatens the quality of the service for the rest of our patrons.

As a result, I'm taking advantage of one of the (few!) powers enjoyed by a library director. I'm raising our late fees for interlibrary loan materials, effective June 26, 1996.

The fines used to cost a nickel a day. From now on, they'll cost fifty cents a day. (Incidentally, our old nickel-a-day charge was the lowest in the metro area.)

I emphasize that if you return Interlibrary Loan materials when you're supposed to, the service is still free. (Well, USUALLY free. Sometimes the lending library charges us a small fee, which a very few of them do, but we pass on to the patron.) The late fees only apply if you don't get the books back to us by their due dates.

Frankly, I don't view this as a money-maker. I hope we don't make a dollar on it. But I hope it does help us get those books back on time.

The interlibrary loan system depends upon the thoughtfulness and courtesy of all parties. It's important to keep up our end of the bargain.

Wednesday, June 19, 1996

June 19, 1996 - Useful Facts

It's not that I never write anything useful in this column. Letting people know about library doings is, I trust, a public service.

But lately, I've had a powerful need to document a few things that are REALLY useful. For instance, here's one that I got from reading a kid's book about a Jewish grandmother: when you break an egg, and a piece of the eggshell falls in, the best way to get it out is with the rest of the eggshell. Spoons, knives, fingers just don't work. An eggshell does.

I can't tell you how much aggravation this has saved me.

Here's one that my wife ran across in a book: if you get some kind of berry stain on a shirt, pour scalding water through it. The stain comes right out.

Here's another one that didn't come from a book. It's culled from watching a lot of relationships go sour. It's something every engaged couple should incorporate into their wedding vows, and every married person should give some thought to: don't speak ill of your spouse, especially in public. Some smart remark may get a laugh, but it really isn't funny. What it is, is unattractive, fundamentally discourteous, and destructive. More often than you might imagine, the heart and mind follow the mouth.

Since this is, after all, a library column, here are two library- related tips:

(1) The best way to use the library's computer to find books on a particular subject is first do a title keyword search for the topic -- "Dalmatians," for instance. When the computer displays the list of titles that match whatever word or phrase you entered, look on the middle column of the screen, headed "CALL#" (for "call number" -- the number on the spine of the book). Usually, the books with likely titles have the same general number. Then go to that part of the library and see what's on the shelf. There are, of course, other ways to track down really comprehensive listings of library materials, and just because it isn't on the shelf at a particular library doesn't mean you have to do without. We have a 6 day a week courier system that gets most materials to you the day after you request them. Beyond that, we're connected to a truly international network of libraries.

But most of the time, people are just looking for something, anything, on a topic for that particular day. This method is the simplest, fastest way to do that.

(2) You don't have to finish books you don't like. Really. There's no way anyone else (librarians, for instance) can find out about it. And even if we could, not finishing a book isn't a crime. It's not even a character flaw.

There are a lot of poorly written books out there -- even the ones on the bestseller list. If you're not enjoying something, and you don't HAVE to read it for some other purpose, just stop. There are plenty of books in the world that you WILL enjoy.

Finally, here's one more general life tip, passed on to me by my father-in-law and attributed to the stand-up comic, Jeff Foxworthy: you know how diaper packages are labeled with, say, "5-7 pounds," or "15 pounds?" That's just about the most they'll hold. Don't overload them.

Wednesday, June 12, 1996

June 12, 1996 - Highlands Ranch Authors Day and CALL for Volunteers

I can tell you about a place that welcomes everybody, a place where once you walk through the door, you need never be alone again, a place where you can also find the most profound solitude. I can tell you about a place that sometimes leads to glory.

If you have ever read this column before, you'll have an idea what I'm talking about -- not just the public library (surprise!), but the larger world of literature.

What do I mean by "larger world?" I mean the opportunity to live lives that are very like yours, or very different, all through the vicarious reality of fiction. I mean the opportunity to earn the equivalent of -- nay, something superior to -- a college degree in any subject in the world, or in some subject that no college yet has taught, simply by giving diligent consideration to non-fiction in its many forms.

And if you're diligent enough, one day you may even find yourself moving from the status of "appreciator" to "contributor," from reader to writer. That's one kind of the "glory" I was talking about.

Speaking of writers, I'd like to extend an invitation. This is a call to all published writers who live or work in northwestern Douglas County. "Northwestern Douglas County" includes anything north of Castle Rock, and west of I-25. At our Highlands Ranch Library, we will soon be hosting an event to honor our local authors. We've already done one such event in Parker, and we have yet to do one for Castle Rock.

There are a surprising number of published authors in Douglas County. It seems to me that I meet one almost every week. Their subjects range from medical advice for families to historical romance. As librarians, we are tremendously grateful to them. (No books, no business.)

If YOU are a published author living or working in northwest Douglas County, or if you know of one, please give Cindy Murphy, our Public Relations Manager, a call at 841-6942. But now it's time for a confession. I began this week's piece by talking about a place where everyone is welcome. But there is one sort of Douglas County resident that does not feel welcome in a library -- the person who cannot read.

I've mentioned this before: in every generation, a steady percentage of people pass through or drop out of our educational system without ever learning to read. Let's talk about what it means to be "functionally illiterate." You can't make sense of newspaper headlines, you can't read the instructions on your medicine, you can't fill out a job form, you are truly ashamed (even though the odds are good it was the original instructional method that was the problem, not you), you are anxious that you'll be found out by a boss, a colleague, or a grandchild.

But the truth is, anyone can learn to read. It takes about 20 hours of focused instruction, followed up with practice. And the best way to get this instruction is one-on-one tutoring.

And here's my second pitch: Douglas County needs literacy tutors. The Center for Adult Learning and Literacy (CALL) needs help. They have 10 students who are waiting for tutors. Seven of them are English as a Second Language students: 5 in Highlands Ranch, 1 in Parker, and 1 in Castle Rock. Three students are working on their G.E.D.'s.

I should mention that as a tutor, you will receive all the training you need to be successful. Tutors, of course, are volunteers. The usual commitment is just one to two hours a week, usually spent in the comfortable surroundings of the public library.

I've worked as a tutor myself. The current program director, Susan Cook, tutors 6 students -- you'll find her a ready and knowledgeable resource.

The literacy program is aptly named: please CALL today. The number is 841-8615.

Wednesday, June 5, 1996

June 5, 1996 - Public PCs Redux

A few days ago, I got a call from a patron with a complaint. Why didn't any of our libraries provide public computers? It happened that her son was in town and needed to crank out some resumes. She was, she said, shocked that her local library -- and even the Koelbel Library in the Arapahoe Library District -- didn't have a computer, equipped with a word processor and laser printer, available for such a task.

It happens that this idea of publicly accessible computers comes up regularly. So I told her that I'd raise the issue in the newspaper to both (a) walk through my reasoning on the idea, and (b) find out how close or how utterly out-of-synch I am with our community.

Do any public libraries in Colorado provide public PCs? Yes. Some have one; some have several. Some charge for them; some don't. Some require people to attend training sessions; others post signs that say, "You're on your own!"

Why doesn't the Douglas Public Library District have public computers?

First, we don't have a whole lot of extra space. Public computers should be situated either where their use can be easily monitored by staff, or in a locked room. Such locations are hard to come by at all but maybe two of our branches. And in those two, we've come up with what we think are better uses: the display of new library materials and quiet study rooms, respectively.

Second, I'm not convinced there's a need. Every time I give a talk in this county -- and I give a fair number of them -- I ask how many people have a computer and modem in their homes. It's over 90%, and may be over 95%. This squares with a survey I did in Parker last year.

Third, the people that don't have computers quite understandably don't know how to use them, either. That means that they'll need some training and or direct support. We put a lot of time and money into keeping our staff educated on the software we use daily.

Frankly, I shy away from trying to train every staff member in the quirks and obscurities of a product that they won't be using at all. Remember those signs saying, "You're on your own!"? They don't work. People still come to staff when something doesn't work, and get mad at us if we can't solve their problems. I'm unwilling to put out a product that we can't do a good job of supporting.

Fourth, I just don't think providing public computers is our job. A few of our libraries do have some old typewriters, usually donated, that we put out for people to use to fill out the odd form, or type out an address on an envelope. (We don't sell envelopes.) But even this is a marginal service, in my opinion. It's a patron convenience that doesn't cost us much. Public computers aren't like that; they're either expensive to buy, or expensive to maintain, or both.

When we opened our new Parker Library, I tried to find somebody who would sponsor this service, kind of like a photocopy contract: make it coin-operated, and in return, collect the cash, schedule some classes, and take care of any computer viruses and equipment problems on a regular maintenance schedule, or in response to a service call. Nobody took us up on it.

So you tell me: is providing this service a good use of your library tax dollars? Right now, I don't think so. But I'm willing to listen, and susceptible as always to a logical argument.

Or e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net. We're getting into the budget cycle for next year, so this would be a good time to make the case.