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, July 31, 1996

July 31, 1996 - Kid's Cat Comes to Library

When children get really interested in something, you can see on their faces the naked truth of human existence: we are most alive, most alert, when we're exploring.

As we get older, our explorations get, in most cases, more abstract. We go from sticking our hands in the mud to the study of gardening or agronomy. We go from the rapt tugging at a kite string to a career in aeronautical engineering. We go, in short, from direct sensation to a more intellectual adventure.

For most very young people, the library is at the level of a physical experience. They develop an almost bodily sense of where things are. They know that the stuff they like is in the wooden bins, or by the train, or near the big bug pillows, and that those areas feel, smell, or look a certain way.

But as children get older and their interests break into discrete categories, that kinesthetic awareness of the library gets more diffuse. You can have special feelings about a general area of the library. But one metal shelf looks and feels a whole lot like another.

So at some point, children stop just poking into odd corners of the area, physically investigating the space. With luck, they turn to the catalog, and scrutinize it mentally.

There are two problems with this, though:

* computer terminals put off some people. There's too LITTLE tactile response. Especially for the folks who remember the big, gleaming wooden card catalogs, a terminal feels, ironically, too disconnected.

* computer terminals are boring. In general, librarians group library holdings into just three broad categories: listings by author and title (including series titles), and subject descriptions. To find things in our computer system, you have to work through a series of relatively dull menu screens. You can learn to appreciate its power and efficiency. But only a cataloger or programmer can learn to love it.

Things are about to change. As of this week, thanks to $500 donations by each of their Friends groups, our Highlands Ranch, Oakes Mill, Parker, and the Philip S. Miller libraries all have something called "Kid's Cat." "Cat" is short for "catalog."

Kid's Cat encourages children to delve into the intellectual structure of a library catalog in a far more involving and intuitive fashion. All they have to do is slide around a trackball, built right into the keyboard, until the on-screen pointer is over a colorful graphic. Then they click a button. More graphics come onto the screen.

The choices are still, in a way, subject descriptions. But they're not the subject descriptions children usually see. The headings are in plain English. The Kid's Cat screen is more interesting, more beguiling, than the screens of our other terminals.

But unlike, say, a TV screen, the child is in charge, and the payoff is a list of titles that match the various searching strategies: lists of books about bears, or ghost stories, or tall tales. Once a particular title has been identified, the Kid's Cat will even display a map of where in the library the item can be found.

For a long time, library technology has been a tool for grown-ups -- even though many children have picked it up far more quickly than their parents.

Only now are we beginning to take a fresh look at these tools through the eyes of a child. By and by, I suspect that all of our catalogs will look more like Kid's Cat. And that just might herald a bold new age of exploration.

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

July 24, 1996 - Funny Newspaper Headlines

Just last week I got a letter from a careful reader who noticed a sprinkling of spelling and grammatical errors in local newspaper columns and articles, and took issue with my assertion that Douglas County citizens are better educated than some.

One of the special pangs of writing for the newspaper is that no matter how many times you pore over your text before you give it to the paper, the instant it hits print, you see the obvious error. I know this is true for other writers as well.

But just to set the record straight, columnists don't write their headlines. Newspaper staff does that. And as a columnist, I find goofs in headlines to be MUCH funnier than the ones I make. Below is just a sample, gathered from all around the English-speaking world.

Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say
Police begin campaign to run down jaywalkers
Safety Experts say school bus passengers should be belted
Drunk gets nine months in violin case
Survivor of Siamese twins joins parents
Farmer Bill dies in house
Iraqi head seeks arms
Is there a ring of debris around Uranus?
Stud tires out
Prostitutes appeal to Pope
Panda mating fails, Veterinarian takes over
Eye drops off shelf
Teacher strikes idle kids
Squad helps dog bite victim
Shot off woman's leg helps Nicklaus to 66
Enraged cow injures farmer with ax
Plane too close to ground, crash probe told
Miners refuse to work after death
Juvenile court to try shooting defendant
Stolen painting found by tree
Killer sentenced to die for second time in 10 years
Enfiels couple slain; Police suspect homicide
Screwdrivers were made to tighten, loosen screws
Liquor sales dip blamed on less drinking
Bush gets briefing on drought; says rain needed to end it
Living together linked to divorce
Boys cause as many pregnancies as girls
Tribal council to hold June meeting in June
Death ends fun
Police use tear gas, SWAT team, battering ram, stun gun to oust woman, 65
Cockroach Slain, Husband Badly Hurt
Slayings put end to marriage
Animal unit seeks rabbit witnesses
Jail's $34 million price tag doesn't include cell doors
Grandmother of eight makes hole in one
Deaf mute gets new hearing in killing
House passes gas tax onto senate
Stiff opposition expected to casketless funeral plan
Two convicts evade noose, jury hung
William Kelly was fed secretary
Milk drinkers are turning to powder
Quarter of a million Chinese live on water
Queen Mary having bottom scraped
NJ judge to rule on nude beach
Soviet virgin lands short of goal again
Organ festival ends in smashing climax
Dealers will hear car talk at noon
Lawmen from Mexico barbecue guests
Two Soviet ships collide - one dies
Two sisters reunite after eighteen years at checkout counter
Never withhold herpes from loved one
Nicaragua sets goal to wipe out literacy
Drunk drivers paid $1,000 in 1984
Autos killing 110 a day let's resolve to do better
If strike isn't settled quickly it may last a while
War dims hope for peace
Smokers are productive, but death cuts efficiency
Cold wave linked to temperatures
Child's death ruins couple's holiday
Blind woman gets new kidney from dad she hasn't seen in years
Man is fatally slain
Death causes loneliness, feeling of isolation

And there you have it. I'm glad I aren't making mistakes like them.

Wednesday, July 17, 1996

July 17, 1996 - Libraries Close for District-Wide Inventory

In 1990, the Douglas Public Library District owned 65,000 items. Now we own 240,000.

Or do we? Well, our computer says we do. Of course, a certain amount of those items are checked out at any given moment. It's also true that some of them don't come back, although eventually they get deleted from our database.

But some of them also get stolen -- just walk out the door. How many? We don't know.

A great number of them get misplaced. My son Perry, who's 2 now, likes to pull titles from one bin in the children's area, exclaim over them, then carefully put them back in another bin altogether. I scoot along behind him and put things right. But I'm not always right there, kids move pretty fast, and Perry is not the only little one who enjoys this game.

Grown-ups do the same thing, selecting an item, looking it over, and sticking it back somewhere close to the right place, but not quite. Multiply this by literally tens of thousands of transactions over the course of a year, and it's hard to know what's where.

The result? You can't find the book the computer says we own. Librarians can't find the books they need to answer reference questions. Popular new materials get swallowed into little pockets of chaos.

Naturally, we do try to stay ahead of the problem with something called "shelf-reading" -- going through the shelves and putting things back in order. But more and more people come to the library these days, and they check out more and more books. To be brutally frank, it's time for us to attack this problem in a big way, with all-out concentration and force.

So the library will be doing its first ever district-wide inventory. Each of our libraries will be closed in turn as teams of computer-wand-wielding librarians handle every single item we own, then put them where they belong.

The schedule for closings looks like this:

Oakes Mill Library - August 1 and 2 Highlands Ranch Library - August 4, 5, and 6 Parker Library - August 8, 9, 10 Philip S. Miller Library - August 14, 15, 16.

We'll be moving at a pretty fast clip through all these collections, and hope to wrap it up on schedule. Emphasis on "hope." It's possible that the schedule won't hold.

We'll make sure that none of the items you check out will fall due on these days. And since we'll be closing the libraries in sequence, you'll still be able to phone or visit the other libraries. Think of it as "Reading Douglas County: a Literary and Architectural Tour." You'll find that each of our libraries has a distinct personality, reflecting the differences in its materials, its furnishings, its neighborhood, and its staff. One thing won't change: good service at each location, and lots of good things to choose from.

When we're done, we'll clean up our computer records, calculate our loss rate, replace the popular or core materials that have disappeared, and revel in the brief moment of glory that comes from knowing that all our shelves are in perfect order.

Then we'll open the doors, and you'll be able to find things again.

Thanks for your understanding.

Wednesday, July 10, 1996

July 10, 1996 - Survey Coming Up

As I've mentioned here before, the library has been working on its long range plan. Our various committees have been coming up with some questions they'd like to ask the public.

This is to put you all on notice that about a thousand of you may get a phone call sometime in the next month. Tagged onto the end of another survey will be some questions about the library. I hope you'll take the time to answer them. Teaming up with another market research effort enabled us to get an amazing break on our costs, and we really do want to know what you think about these items.

Asking questions is a tricky business. To make sure that we'd picked some good ones, I invited Keith Lance and Julie Boucher of the Library Research Office of the Colorado State Library to come down and talk to us. Both of them are number junkies. They're responsible for gathering, tallying, and analyzing the statistics turned in by every public library in the state.

At first, Dr. Lance's perspective shocked me. He tried to talk us out of doing a survey at all. Surveys, he said, are expensive. He emphasized that before we went to all the trouble of designing questions, gathering data, and then trying to make sense of it, we might want to find out if we already had the data we needed.

An astonishing amount of patron data is available in census information, or through local planning departments. Library computers also do a good job of collecting useful facts: how many people have a library card, how often they use it, where they live, and what (in the aggregate) they check out. Taken together, these sources of information can provide a wealth of knowledge.

Dr. Lance stressed another point. Often, libraries ask questions they already know the answer to. It's clear to many of us in the profession that there's a major trend toward remote access to the library -- people who connect to us from their home computers. Our patrons are looking not only for information about what books the library owns. They also want to browse through periodical indexes. If they hit pay dirt, they want the full text of the articles.

We know this is true. We can track its growth, month by month. We know we need to get ready for it. Why ask?

Likewise, we can determine that there's a major interest in books on tape. Right now, we buy virtually everything that's produced. We don't have to ask if the public would like us to continue this service. We know they do.

So what will we ask? Well, if you don't use the library, why not? And if you do, what do you most seek from us in the improvement of our services? In other words, what aren't we doing? What new services are most likely to succeed?

Most important of all, how well are we doing? Are you, as a taxpayer, getting your money's worth?

I used to know a librarian in a very rural area of Illinois. She assured me that she saw everybody in the community, and that everybody just loved the library.

She was wrong. Her manner was seen by many people as patronizing and provincial. Some folks drove 30 miles to the next closest library system, just to avoid her.

I'd rather know the truth about the quality of our services than get comfortable with a lie.

Wednesday, July 3, 1996

July 3, 1996 - The Godless Constitution

Several years ago, I wrote a column on the general public ignorance about religious denominational differences. I proposed a public lecture series on the topic. I also asked for public comment.

Outside of several staff members, I got just two responses. One was from a woman who thought this was a GREAT idea. Why? "Because those Mormons are up to something."

The second response was from a friend, who -- to my utter astonishment -- wrote me that for the library to sponsor such a series was a violation of the separation of church and state. He said he'd sue.

I weighed these responses and concluded that there obviously wasn't much general public interest in the program as I'd construed it: an open, non-partisan review of the doctrinal and historic differences between various religions.

Since then, I've become even more convinced that we know too little about the role of religion in our culture and history. Part of the reason is the timidity of our textbooks. Textbook publishers have worked out a simple response to controversy: drop the subject. In my opinion, it's a national disgrace.

Based on the historical record, clearly many of our founding fathers (and mothers!) were very religious. Equally clear, however, is the fact that the United States Constitution omitted all religious references save one. Article 6, section 3 of the Constitution states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Unlike every other founding document for every other nation on earth (at that moment in history), there was no mention whatsoever of God.

What were the founders thinking?

Well, I just finished a book that has some interesting things to say on the subject. The title is "The Godless Constitution: the case against religious correctness," by Cornell University professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore.

The authors are at odds with the historical interpretations of such Christian conservatives as James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Pat Buchanan. But the book isn't a one-sided attack. Here's an example:

"The religious right today wants only half of the laissez-faire ideal to which the founders of this country adhered. They accuse those we call liberals today of abandoning the founders' faith in economic laissez-faire, and there is much truth to this accusation. But they themselves have abandoned the other half of our founders' ideals, religious laissez-faire, in the name of a restored religious tyranny, the religious correctness of a revived Christian commonwealth."

The book covered lots of things I'd never heard of before. For instance, in 1788 and again in 1864 there were attempts to amend the Constitution to make it a more consciously Christian document. Both proposals were resoundingly defeated.

The essential thesis of the book can be summed up as follows: "It is not true that the founders designed a Christian commonwealth, which was then eroded by secular humanists and liberals; the reverse is true. The framers erected a godless federal constitutional structure, which was then undermined as God entered first the U.S. currency in 1863 ["In God we Trust"], then the federal mail service in 1912 [when Sunday service was stopped], and finally the Pledge of Allegiance [one nation "under God"] in 1954."

It's been over a century since the last attempt to amend the federal constitution to make it more religiously correct. I wouldn't be surprised to find that we're gearing up for another one. For evidence on both sides of the debate, check out your local library. In addition to the names listed above, investigate the writings of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

Especially on the eve of Independence Day, it's your civic duty.