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, March 19, 1997

March 19, 1997 - Public input on Oakes Mill Library

My wife and I used to follow old Route 66 from Chicago to Arizona.

It was exciting to see the stretches that were still a vibrant "America's Main Street." There were the distinctive old Phillips 66 gas stations. There were the first motels (a word created from "motor" and "hotel"). There were hundreds of mom-and-pop local eateries.

But about 20 years ago, Route 66 was strangled to death. It was replaced by (in succession) I-55, I-44, and I-40.

And so we come to our Oakes Mill Library. Our smallest 7-day-a-week building, Oakes Mill (on the corner of Lone Tree Parkway and Yosemite) is desperately crowded. It was built for 6,000 to 9,000 library materials. It currently houses some 37,000 items. And that's not enough.

In 1996, Douglas County voters approved sufficient resources to renovate or establish libraries in almost every area of the county: Oakes Mill, then the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, then Roxborough and Highlands Ranch, then Parker. This year, we're working on Oakes Mill.

So the Trustees are committed to finding the best solution for each of our locations. The resources are there. That takes care of the first condition of creating a good public building.

Branch Manager Gina Woods has created, with staff input and review, a thoughtful "program" for the building, carefully defining just what Oakes Mill should be doing as its serves the "neighborhood" of Acres Green and Lone Tree. That takes care of the second condition.

Third, the Library Board of Trustees has engaged architects Dennis Humphries and Joe Poli (the folks who transformed a bowling alley into our stunning Parker Library) to investigate alternatives for the building. At this point, we've narrowed down the options to two: renovate the building (roughly doubling the space on two, possibly three levels), or tear it down and start over, building a more logical new floor plan on a single floor.

There are, of course, several trade-offs between the two approaches. But the cost difference is much closer than I expected it to be.

So now we need some civic engagement.
At the Oakes Mill Library, Tuesday night, March 31, I will be presenting our options in more detail. I would very much like to hear from the residents of Acres Green and Lone Tree about this important civic project. It is they who will use the building, and I'd like it to suit them.
Sometimes the Interstate jogged just a half mile or so to the right or left, turning once bustling thoroughfares into abruptly gray ghost towns.

Sometimes, Route 66 became Business 55 (or 44, or 40). But Route 66 produced great postcards of frequently wacky local attractions. Business 55/44/40 produced roads that were eerily identical; the same McDonald's and Denny's and Wendy's and Pizza Huts repeated like the backgrounds in a Flintstone cartoon.

Much the same thing has happened in the heart of our cities. Where once every little town boasted an often idiosyncratic domed stone building outside of which was some kind of public monument, nowadays we get big, dull, flat-roofed cubes, air-tight and claustrophobic, landscaped in black plastic and wood chips. I call it Leggo architecture.

Yet public buildings can be a source of great local pride, can in fact define a civic identity.

Four things must be present.

First, there must be public decision-makers who recognize the significance of public buildings. It's also their job to make sure the resources exist in the first place.

Second, there must be conscientious staff to define the functional needs of the space.

Third, there must be architects of imagination, insight, and skill.

Fourth, there must be active civic involvement.

Wednesday, March 12, 1997

March 12, 1997 - First Annual Ayn Rand Beer-fest

It started when a school librarian posted a question on "libnet," an Internet-based bulletin board. A principal had asked her to come up with a list of titles that high school students should read before they go to college.
What books would we recommend?

Over the next week, some two or three dozen titles were offered, all-in-all, a fascinating exercise. I recommended (among others) Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn (to rhyme with "pine") Rand. Abruptly, the bulletin board bristled with impassioned attacks -- and defenses -- of Ayn Rand's writings. Some people saw Ayn Rand as a sort of childhood disease. She was something they got exposed to, and affected them strongly, but from which they eventually recovered.

Others spoke of her works warmly, with profound respect, but admitted that they had significant disagreements with Rand's philosophy (called "Objectivism").

I felt entirely justified by the furor. I love that book, which is one of the reasons I've read it 37 times. Forty years after its publication, Atlas Shrugged still rouses the most fervent reactions. This is what a book should be: an intellectual challenge to every philosophic premise you hold, an absorbing and altogether intriguing plot, heroic characters, exciting and dramatic action.

What happens after you read it, of course, is up to you.

But in this exchange of views on libnet, it finally became clear that about 8-12 people wanted to get together and argue about Rand some more.

So it was that FAARB-Fest (the First Annual Ayn Rand Beer-Fest) came to be. It was held on Saturday, March 8, 1997, at the Il Vicino brew pub in Salida, Colorado, "the town that checks its premises."

Among those attending this historic event were Ed Quillen (whose columns appear in the Denver Post), and Nancy Bolt (the state librarian of Colorado). But I was pleased that we pulled in people all the way from Denver to Montrose to La Junta.

One of our attendees had actually met Ayn Rand at a book-signing as well as seeing her speak several times. He described the encounter like this: "Her eyes were huge. I was a nobody and yet she was very attentive. It wasn't like a politician; she wasn't glazed or phony. There was a moment of genuine interest and engagement. She impressed me."

This same person attended many of the sessions of the Nathaniel Branden Institute. Nathaniel Branden was the man that Rand, 25 years his senior, had designated her "intellectual heir." Until 1968, Branden shared space with Rand's husband on the dedication page of "Atlas Shrugged."

In 1968, Rand broke off all contact with Branden, a story told movingly and insightfully by Barbara Branden (Nathaniel's ex-wife) in her book "The Passion of Ayn Rand: a Biography."

And perhaps the break was a good thing.

Before 1968, Nathaniel Branden, by many accounts, had become an arrogant cult leader. If one of the many young students drawn to Rand's ideas raised a question that wasn't perfectly orthodox "Objectivism," then that student was likely to be psychologically deconstructed before a glassy-eyed and tightly repressed audience.

The True Believer followers of Ayn Rand, it turns out, were also known (by outsiders) as "Randroids."

But then, you can't blame the founder for the followers. Or not entirely.

Other FAARB-Fest topics included: Is it intellectually inconsistent to love the works of Ayn Rand but work for tax-supported libraries? Did Hank Rearden and Francisco D'Anconia really remain celibate for the rest of their lives? Could the ideas of Ayn Rand have been the source for the race of Vulcans in the fictional universe of Star Trek?

Whatever your take on Rand, I am confident that her place in history is secure. It's not too soon to get in your reservations for the Ayn Rand Beer-Fest II (date to be determined). But I've got dibs on the T-shirt concession.

Wednesday, March 5, 1997

March 5, 1997 - Send in the Clones

Well, mankind (in the form of Dr. Ian Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist) has cloned a sheep. Cloning, for those of you who don't follow such things, is the replication of an individual member of a species. The famous baby sheep is an exact genetic copy -- the identical twin -- of another, adult sheep.

Straight away, pundits began speculating about the ethics of cloning a human being (although science is still a ways from knowing how to do that).

As it happens, this topic has been dealt with extensively in science fiction. Nancy Mars Freedman's "Joshua Son of None," for instance, is the story of an unsuspecting clone of John F. Kennedy. The story focuses on recreating enough of the social environment of Kennedy's "twin" to produce a vigorous political leader.

"Joshua" dealt with the classic conflict between "nature" and "nurture." Are we who our genes say we are, or are we the products of our upbringing?

This defines one kind of intriguing speculation about the use of clones: the serial immortality of strong leaders, or mathematicians, or musicians. Think of it as a bank -- or even a library -- of human genotypes.

If you're inclined toward paranoia, you might imagine a grimmer scenario. Suppose we cloned warriors (as in Frank Herbert's Duncan Idaho, of the "Dune" series). Or, you might find it attractive to consider cloning deliberately brain-dead clones to use for spare body parts -- as in Robert Heinlein's "Time Enough for Love."

Each of these possibilities raises new ethical quandaries.

Another intriguing book about cloning was "Glory Season," by David Brin. This "female utopia" novel, the only one I know of that was written by a man, is predicated on a society that largely perpetuates itself by cloning (or, more technically, through the practice of "parthogenesis," where mothers give birth to their twins). So there might be, for instance, a "House of LaRue," presided over by the oldest female LaRue, and populated almost exclusively by her exact genetic duplicates of various ages.

There is something enormously seductive in having your child be ... yourself. You could raise yourself right, avoiding all those mistakes your parents made. Of course you wouldn't make any mistakes yourself, because you would really understand this child, right?

But let's suppose that you did manage to avoid all your parents' gaffs -- in itself an unlikely proposition. (I won't even get into the greater likelihood of introducing your own mistakes.) The child wouldn't be just like you anymore, would he/she? Even identical twins are, after all, separate people.

Beyond that, the world into which your clone was born wouldn't be the same as the world you entered. Even if you had perfect recall about your childhood, circumstances would be different. So too would parenting decisions -- and consequently, the child.

Then there's the question of evolution. Science tells us that the shuffling of genes from generation to generation makes us more fit, generally speaking, to survive. If we "freeze" the genetic pattern, aren't we just asking for nature to swoop down and wipe us out?

As always, science fiction has given us a heads-up on the future. It might be worth a trip to the library to look over some of the titles I've mentioned.

As my friend Connie Willis (Hugo Award winning science fiction novelist) once told me, "Anyone could see that the invention of the automobile would make a huge difference in our society. But it takes a science fiction writer to foresee the traffic jam."