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 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.

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