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.

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