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, June 25, 1997

June 25, 1997 - Booksellers

Maren Francis is the owner of Hooked on Books, an independent bookstore in Castle Rock. She also happens to be a member of my library board. Maren just got back from a big conference of the American Booksellers Association, and shared some of her insights with me about trends in the book business.

The main issue among booksellers these days is the rise of such big chain stores as Borders, and Barnes and Noble. For consumers, this certainly looks like a good deal: the big chains offer big discounts.

But (at least until recently), those big consumer discounts were made possible by big publisher discounts. Moreover, these discounts were not available to the independent booksellers. Then, a couple of years ago, the independents sued the publishers for more equitable treatment. They won.

But the publishers haven’t forgiven them. And the independents still tend to get stuck with shipping charges that don’t get billed to the chains.

Booksellers operate on pretty slim margins. Many independents are down to about 1% over their costs. Publisher discounts and shipping charges can make or break them. So the basic situation hasn’t changed: when the chain bookstores come in, many independent booksellers go out of business.

Here’s another wrinkle. Some book publishers actually pay the chain stores to feature the titles of certain authors, much as soft drink companies pay grocery stores for prime space at the end of an aisle. So for the discount chains, displays mean “advertising.”

“But they don’t pay me to do that,” Maren told me. Independents tend to build their book displays based on what either the local public has gone for, or what the store workers found of literary merit. So displays mean “good books.” Maren said, “I would love to see some of these authors get a wider audience.”

There’s another challenge. “When I walked onto the floor of the conference,” Maren said, “all the row markers -- huge overhead banners -- said ‘amazon.com.’” amazon.com is an Internet-based bookstore. For those folks with Internet access, amazon.com offers great discounts, no doubt because its overhead is so low (smaller staff, no retail rents, no warehousing costs). (Note: Denver’s own Tattered Cover is also on the Internet at www.tatteredcover.com. And other booksellers probably won’t be far behind.)

Some librarians express the concern that bookstores, the Internet, and libraries are competitors. Maren and I don’t see it that way. Each serves its purpose, has its niche. Generally speaking, the more all of us promote books and reading, the more of a market we have. People who like books use the public library for some things, and bookstores for others.

On the other hand, despite the rapid growth of the chain stores the overall purchasing of books has remained relatively flat throughout the United States. In other words, the rise of the chains and “virtual bookstores” has not resulted in a larger market for booksellers, merely a more fragmented one.

A more pernicious influence of this competition is that mainstream publishers are making bigger but fewer deals. That is, they look for blockbusters: bestsellers that go straight to movie options. The big advances and hype mean that publishers have less time and money to look for more purely literary books. The result is a shallower catalog of offerings, a market place of more glitz, but less substance.

I asked Maren what so many people ask me: “Will the book survive?” She thought it would. “In a time when our lives are more frenetic, people turn to books because they offer a reduction of stimuli.” Because of this, she suggested, some of the chains won’t survive either; their very busy-ness will work against them.

Yet Maren observed, “The perceived value of books is much lower than it was a few years ago. Consider how you feel about a book you see stacked in huge numbers with a sign announcing 30% discount. Compare that to how you feel about a book you find in a hand picked display, lovingly arranged and reflecting the taste of a bookseller whose instincts you trust.”

Maren is right that, “Any bookseller has to offer something special.” For some of us, it’s the best price. For others, it’s warm, personal service. For all of us who love books, it’s an interesting time.

Wednesday, June 18, 1997

June 18, 1997 - Books by Mail Program

Our culture’s idea of service has changed quite a lot over the past half century, and probably not for the better.

I realized this (again) while watching the movie Back to the Future. Marty has just arrived in the 50’s, and watches a car pull into the local Texaco station. FOUR young men leap out. One pumps gas, one wipes the windshield, one checks the oil, one checks the pressure of the tires. Our idea of service used to be lavish personal attention.

These days, we define service as “self-service.” Cheaper, it is - but meaner, too.

If self-service is indeed a trend - as many people say it is - then how might this apply to libraries?

Well, our library allows people to dial in from home (through the ACLIN network) and place their own holds on materials. When they come to their local library, the books (and other materials) are waiting for them. That’s a real convenience, as many of our patrons have discovered.

The Boulder Public Library came up with an interesting wrinkle on this idea. Once staff place the hold (their patrons can’t place them themselves), and the books come in, the materials aren’t just set behind the circulation desk. Instead, they are mailed right to the patrons’ homes, at library expense. To return the items, patrons must drop them off at the library, or bear the cost of a return mailing.

It’s an interesting idea. From the patron’s perspective, it’s hard to beat door-to-door service. From the library’s perspective - at least the staff of the Boulder Public Library - library items don’t sit around as long, don’t get handled as often, get to patrons quicker, and don’t take up valuable library space.

On the one hand, a similar notion underpins two Douglas Public Library District programs. One of them concerns our patrons living in the remote mountain community of Deckers. Their tax dollars (plus a generous subsidy by I.R.E.A.) cover the costs of mailing library materials both ways. But they wouldn’t use our library at all, otherwise.

The second program is new, this time in our Highlands Ranch area. Some folks are homebound, either because they are elderly, bedridden with a difficult pregnancy, or otherwise physically unable to get to the library. Thanks to the incomparable boon of volunteer time, we will actually take materials right to patrons’ homes. (Call 841-6942 if you fit that profile and live in the Highlands Ranch area.)

On the other hand, we don’t offer that to all our patrons. Instead, we phone them when their items come in. That’s more like old-time service; most larger libraries mail notices. And perhaps our public responds to this human touch. Most of our patrons retrieve their items the same day we call them, or the next.

And perhaps, too, there is something to be said for the library as “the great good place.” That is, the library is a kind of sanctuary, a place where you step outside the urgencies of your daily life and are encouraged to meander a bit, to while away a few moments in consideration of the current crop of publisher offerings, or in quest of a timeless classic. While other businesses focus on volume and speed, the library strives to be a place where you can feel both welcome and comforted, a “time out”.

So you tell me. Would you like to get your reserves mailed to your house, or would you rather have the excuse to swing by the library and nose around? Call me at 688-8752, e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net, or write me at 961 S. Plum Creek Blvd, Castle Rock CO 80104.

Wednesday, June 11, 1997

June 11, 1997 - 7 Reasons Why Books Will Last

Like public schools before them, public libraries are coming under increasing scrutiny in a time of social change.

One example of this is the most recent issue of “CQ Researcher,” entitled “The Future of Libraries.” Each issue of the magazine (published by the Congressional Quarterly) tackles some topic with public policy implications.

The overarching concern of the CQ Researcher was technology. The issues asked, Are America’s libraries moving too quickly to adopt technology?

Like any good research piece, the conclusion is, “It depends.” In some cases, probably so. In others, some libraries aren’t moving quickly enough.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have an instant’s worry that Internet terminals will drive out printed material, nor that they will make libraries obsolete.

A close analysis of print and electronic resources reveals that each has its strengths and weaknesses, its appropriate uses within a public library. In brief: electronic resources have the edge for periodical, encyclopedic, or other information contained in relatively short documents. Such documents tend to be timely, concern themselves with just one or two topics, and can be searched for and retrieved quickly. That’s an important subset of library use. The World Wide Web is a superior tool for this function. Generally speaking, it works better than paper alternatives.

But by far the greater use of almost any public library -- or school library media center -- falls into the category of “sustained reading.” Here I mean our staples: children’s books, non-fiction, and novels.

There are at least seven reasons why the book, pretty much as we know it today, will endure.

Resolution. The resolution of type on typical computer monitor has just 72 dots per inch. The typical typeset book has 1200 dots per inch. For sustained reading, paper is best.

Linearity. The World Wide Web is based on hypertext -- the ability to jump from one document to another. The ’Net is a mosaic -- you start anywhere and go anywhere and wind up anywhere (or nowhere). But fiction and non-fiction depend upon a sequential argument or story. I would argue that such an orderly presentation is precisely the contribution of the author. It’s the difference between a random collection of slides, and a travel book.

Portability. Granted that computers are getting smaller all the time. None is so wondrously cheap and transportable as a paperback.

Accessibility / affordability. No matter how poor you are, you can probably afford a used paperback. A used computer and modem still requires a phone bill and Internet subscription.

Surface technology. Just as the Web needs computer equipment, a roll of microfilm needs a big, boxy, reader machine. A book requires just one working hand and eye, and even those have work-arounds.

Durability. At a recent preservation workshop, various storage media were dropped in a bucket of water. The CD’s came out ok. Computer disks and tapes did not. Books -- after suitable treatment -- came out surprisingly well.

Lovability. My daughter has enjoyed computerized books. They’re fun and can be useful. But she loves certain books, so much so that we could (and have) read them to her night after night after night. There is a deep power to this artifact, this four letter word, “book.”
There is also a reason that most people associate the library with “a place for books.” That definition, and the need for such a place, will long endure.
In a book called Future Libraries, authors Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford describe a hierarchy: data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. The Web is about data. Books are about knowledge.

Wisdom, alas, is still rare in either


In remembrance: Last weekend, my companion for 20 years, Watson the cat, died much as she lived her life, quietly and with little fuss. Her funny little spirit, her wee and unassuming attentiveness, will be sorely missed. Farewell, little friend. medium.

Wednesday, June 4, 1997

June 4, 1997 - The Value of Public Space

I jumped on a slow couple of days to catch up on my professional reading. Because of the way the pile got stacked (pure accident), I ran across two articles, back to back, that said more together than they would have separately.

The first was a piece called “Books, Bytes, and Buildings,” published by the Benton Foundation, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. There were many findings about “the future of [public] libraries in the digital age,” based on surveys, phone polls, and focus groups. Here are the two findings I’d like to focus on this week:

Like library leaders, Americans value library buildings. But Americans are less sure than library leaders that the library is a significant community meeting place. People between the ages of 18 and 24 have the least value for library buildings.
While many Americans are angry at government, libraries are thus far the exception. Libraries enjoy high marks (and strong support as a funding priority) from all Americans, again

My next piece of professional reading came from a book called The Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community, and the American Dream, by architect Peter Calthorpe.
Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“Today the public world is shrunken and fractured. Parks, schools, libraries, post offices, town halls, and civic centers are dispersed, underutilized, and underfunded. Yet these civic elements determine the quality of our shared world and express the value we assign to community. The traditional Commons, which once centered our communities with convivial gathering and meeting places, is increasingly displaced by an exaggerated private domain: shopping malls, private clubs, and gated communities. Our basic public space, the street, is given over to the car and its accommodation, while our private world becomes more and more isolated behind garage doors and walled compounds. Our public space lacks identity and is largely anonymous, while our private space strains toward a narcissistic autonomy. Our communities are zoned black and white, private or public, my space or nobody’s.

“We must return meaning and stature to the physical expression of our public life.”

These issues are more than academic to me. The Douglas Public Library District will be building or renovating a building every year for the next five years, all around the county. It matters to me how they will be seen and used.

After encouraging these ideas to stew in the back of my mind awhile, I formed two hypotheses:

One of the reasons there is so much anti-government sentiment these days (as evidenced by declining voter participation, anti-tax revolts, and at the extreme end, militias) is that our modern urban and suburban landscape pointedly removes public structures from public view. We have, as Calthorpe puts it, dispersed and fragmented the physical expression of our public life. For our youngest citizens -- those between the ages of 18 and 24 (the early voting years) -- that civic life is all but invisible. No wonder they don’t value it.

One of the reasons that libraries have retained more public support than other governmental entities is that libraries try hard to build beautiful and inviting buildings that are a part of the public’s life. Particularly during the design phase, we actively seek the involvement of the people who live in communities the libraries will serve. We attach a high priority to meeting those people’s concerns. It pays off, literally and figuratively.

In short, Calthorpe is right. If we want people to see themselves as more than consumers, we have to make another dimension of their lives tangible in our shared environment. Library buildings are a good place to start. But libraries aren’t enough.