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, September 25, 1996

September 25, 1996 - Banned Books Week

When I was young -- still in fifth grade -- my local public librarian (the ever-enigmatic Mrs. Johnson) persuaded me to read Plato. Somehow, I got hooked. After many hours of reading, I remember sitting on our tiny concrete porch and thinking, "When I grow up, I want to be wise." That's what I thought Socrates was after, too.

I regret to say that over 30 years later, I'm not making much progress. (And in retrospect, I think Plato didn't do so well, either.) But I have run across a few wise people in my life.

My grandfather was one of them. "You may not have any respect FOR somebody's opinion," he said, "but you should always have respect TO it." Over the years, I'm put this in my own words -- which is how you know an idea has found a home in you -- "Everybody's entitled to his opinion. But some opinions are better than others."

I learned this lesson so early in life that it still seems obvious. You listen respectfully to people's ideas. You test them to see if there's any evidence behind them. And if there is, you change your mind.

If, on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any supporting data for the opinion, if, in fact, the idea seems out and out loony or malicious, well, I still don't see the value in personal humiliation. If you have facts on your side, that's enough.

If you don't, all the sarcasm in the world won't make you right. And it doesn't usually change anybody else's mind, either.

I'm remembering all this because I was asked by several Arapahoe County librarians to serve as a moderator for a debate this week, which happens to be the American Library Association's "Banned Books Week." (See elsewhere in today's paper for the results of our "In Defense of Reading" contest.)

The debate, held at the Aurora Public Library, was between a representative of People for the American Way (a liberal watchdog group very concerned with First Amendment rights) and Focus on the Family (the conservative Christian organization, headquartered in Colorado Springs).

I got to write the questions. Since I subscribe to the publications of both organizations, I've got a pretty good idea of what they do. I believe they define something like the poles of public opinion on most of the essential issues in current American culture.

What were the topics? Well, I asked both of them to address the appropriate role of the public library in today's society. I asked them to talk about the rights of parents -- AND of children. I asked each of them to expand on their views about the intent of the founders of the Constitution regarding the separation of church and state. Finally, we opened everything up for questions.

How did it go? I don't know. I'm writing this column well before the debate. I have no idea how it will turn out.

But I can say this: I find it appropriate that the library should be the location of such a public event. It has always been our role to provide a forum for the expression of opinions, to gather and arrange our collective memory of the evidence. Best of all, it is our role to encourage all citizens -- regardless of their economic, political, or social status -- to examine this evidence, and to make up their own minds.

Here's hoping that during this week, you'll visit the public library and investigate some topic you've never dared to study before. It just might be the first step on the long path toward wisdom.

Wednesday, September 18, 1996

September 18, 1996 - Reference Staff

I remember the precise moment when Maddy, my daughter, hit the Age of Reason. We were on a long drive back from Arizona. She asked me where people came from -- not "the birds and the bees" kind of question, but more along the lines of "how did human beings wind up on the planet?"

On the one hand, this is one of those tricky moments in parenting. Whether you go with creation or evolution, the next question is, "How do you know?"

On the other hand, that moment -- when Maddy was 7 -- was when my little girl started to grow up. She was thinking big, and her questions will one day lead her to adulthood.

True, she's a whole lot less likely to just take my word for something. But she's also a good deal more interesting to talk to.

I believe the Douglas Public Library District is going through a metamorphosis very similar to my daughter's.

Six years ago, the DPLD (then the "Douglas County Public Library System") served a largely rural area.

Since then, as the county changed around us, the services we've focused on have been "volume" services, the first concern of young libraries. We greatly expanded children's materials and story times. We snapped up every best-seller, in sufficient numbers to match one copy with every four requests.

But the users of our libraries have changed. Our preschool regulars are growing up. There are more homeschoolers and charter school students. There are two new community college locations in the county.

More mothers are back in the work force. More men use the library. There are more home-based businesses.

The expectations of the public have changed. People still want the volume services, but now they also want relatively sophisticated reference services, everything from up-to-the-moment business information, to obscure technical reports.

As I discussed last week, one of the ways the library has tried to gear up for this new challenge is to boost our collection of reference materials.

But an equally important response is staff. At present, most library employees are front line circulation desk workers.

Although we have very talented, very well-educated people who wear a number of hats (everything from story telling to snow shoveling, depending upon need and circumstance), serious reference work takes a lot of specialized training and experience.

Let me switch professions to make a point: just because you go out and buy a lot of car parts doesn't make you a mechanic.

The Age of Reason is when the questions begin to surface, when you recognize the gaps in your knowledge, when you start investing in formal education: the building of knowledge and skills.

The usual response for libraries that find themselves facing this rite of passage (from rural to metropolitan) is to run out and start hiring seasoned reference librarians. In fact, we plan to be doing some of this over the next couple of years, particularly in those libraries where we have no dedicated reference staff.

But we'll also be doing something libraries don't usually do: encourage those of our staff with the inclination and potential to get some additional training, to work with reference staff to gain some hard experience.

This training isn't easy to come by. That means we'll have to pull a lot of it together ourselves. Too, once people pick up these extra skills, they become worth more to the organization. It's important to find ways to recognize that increased value.

But I believe that a smart organization gives its people a chance to grow. This not only keeps their jobs interesting, but helps to spread around the knowledge, increasing the odds that someone will be on hand to answer a patron's question. It also saves money, phasing in the costs for specialized knowledge.

Yes, DPLD is growing up. And it's expensive and complicated. But like my daughter, it's getting more interesting all the time.

Wednesday, September 11, 1996

September 11, 1996 - Reference Collections

No matter who you are, there are things you don't know. Ignorance is a defining element of the human condition.

Still, most of us aren't satisfied with that. We seek knowledge. But where?

Before you go to school, you believe that the best source of the truth is your mom or dad.

In elementary school, you think that your teacher has the authoritative answer.

By the time you get to middle and high school, you're sure that your more experienced peers are the only ones you can trust.

In your freshman year in college you become convinced that you, only you, can be utterly relied upon for the Truth. And you will never think so again.

I quote Oscar Wilde, who said, "I am not young enough to know everything." I paraphrase Mark Twain (I'm working from memory here): "At the age of 18, I left home, largely because of my father's insufferable ignorance. When I returned at the age of 22, I was impressed by how much he'd learned in 4 years."

Back in library school, I learned that most folks, when they have a question about something (what kind of car to buy, what politician is the more nearly believable, what to do for an ailment, etc.), have a predictable pattern of consultation.

First, they talk to their immediate family: their spouses, their parents, their kin.

Next, they talk to their friends.

Next, they talk to their business associates.

Then, and only then, they turn to experts. They take the car to the shop. They put their conscience in the hands of their party. They actually visit a doctor.

WAY down on this decision tree is your humble librarian.

Now why is this? After all, information is our business.

Well, there's convenience. You're more likely to see a family member, friend or business associate than you are to make a special effort to contact the library. People don't change their habits easily.

Please understand that I'm not casting aspersions on the knowledgeability of your social circle. I'm sure they're all very well-informed.

I am just suggesting that you might give a little more thought to your local library. It happens that we have a reference librarian on call every hour the library is open (try 688-8721). Behind these librarians is a fairly impressive array of resources.

Trust me: two calls a year (if, for instance, you make two big purchases a year of almost any major consumer item) can save you literally thousands of dollars.

Did I mention that you've already paid for this service?

The Douglas Public Library District dedicates almost $50,000 every year to reference materials. We buy encyclopedias. We buy almanacs. We buy statistical compilations. We buy consumer guides of several descriptions. We buy numerous specialized resources: pamphlets, annual reports, abstracts, indexes, guides, and much more.

Another (roughly) $40,000 goes to magazine subscriptions and indexes, both paper and electronic.

What are the odds that your friends or associates have assembled a similarly up-to-date gathering of data? (Even if they have, I'd be willing to bet that our stuff is better organized.)

As I say, the Douglas Public Library District has a good, solid reference collection. But there are limitations.

This collection is not available at every library in the county. Our largest collection is at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. The second is at Parker. While our Oakes Mill Library is too small to house much of anything, its staff is very savvy about online resources. (We could use more electronic resources, too. There are many more of them this year than last.)

Our Highlands Ranch Library has just begun to build its reference collection. It's already clear that it needs to concentrate on business materials. The area has a surprisingly high percentage of home-based businesses.

Our limitations are getting clearer. The children we serve so well, the popular fiction readers who can reliably find all the bestsellers on our shelves (or within our collection), have begun not only to demand more sophisticated resources from the library, but also to seek greater depth and readier access throughout the county.

If the library district is to meet this new challenge, we must either duplicate core resources among all our libraries, or build up strong new collections in the right subject areas, at the right locations. Either choice is expensive. Both may be necessary.

The question is, which is cheaper in the long run: knowledge ... or ignorance?

Wednesday, September 4, 1996

September 4, 1996 - Miller Money

I'd always heard that Philip S. Miller didn't like being called P.S. Miller.

But it turns out that his only objection was that there was another P.S. Miller in town, and the two sometimes got confused.

To the people that knew him, to his friends, he was Phil Miller. I regret that I knew him too late in his life to call him a friend. But I've always been impressed with the quality of the people who claim that distinction.

More to the point, I continue to be impressed by the man himself. It's hard for me not to think about Philip S. Miller. He figures so prominently in the history of our library. In the first year of county library services -- 1968 -- the county pledged $5,000 to the effort. Mr. Miller pledged $25,000. There are three things about this gift that stay with me. The first is the most obvious: he HAD $25,000, and was willing to give it to a public project.

Second, he didn't put up his own money until the county anted up first. In much the same way, Mr. Miller was willing to grant loans to young couples -- but only if at least one of them was working. He MATCHED funding, or in today's parlance, he leveraged his capital. Here's another example. On the day the building now called the Philip S. Miller Library was opened, he walked in, and with tears in his eyes, wrote a check for $500,000 -- the exact amount of the unpaid public debt for the new public structure.

But note carefully: he didn't write the check until AFTER the building went up. Again, his generosity was astonishing. But first, there needed to be evidence of will and of action.

Third, he took the long view. Throughout his life, his gifts to the library had strings on them: that $25,000 was for a library building. His $500,000 check was to retire the debt on a new building, not for operations. He put his money toward the enduring infrastructure of the future, not the transient expenses of the present.

I recall another story I heard about Mr. Miller. According to one longtime business associate, Mr. Miller felt real loyalty to his employees only when they'd chosen to stay with the business for a good while -- no less than fifteen years. It was the long view all over again, the notion that obligations attended evidence of commitment.

At his death, several Douglas County institutions learned of Mr. Miller's continuing legacy. His net worth -- some $32 million -- was to be set up as a trust. There were many beneficiaries of this extraordinary boon.

The library was one of them. Perhaps as early as next year, we should receive an astonishing 10% of the interest on the trust: perhaps as much as $150,000 each year.

Of course, Philip S. Miller is not our only philanthropist. Personal donations toward our new Parker Library last year helped us bring in the project under budget, and saved taxpayers some tens of thousands of dollars. Mission Viejo has pledged 3.4 acres of their new Town Center to the library.

As welcome as these gifts are, however, all of the donations ever made to the library throughout its entire history would not run today's Douglas Public Library District for a single year. Long term, reliable library funding depends upon its users, not upon wealthy benefactors.

But in much the same way as loving parents invest the down payment of their children's homes, Philip S. Miller (and his wife, Jerry) invested in the library. And the Douglas Public Library District has proven itself a frugal child, securing its own resources to match the beneficence of its forebears. Also like Mr. Miller, the library district saves for its future, and assiduously avoids debt.

I think he would have liked that.