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 30, 1997

July 30, 1997 - US West Problems Resolved

I think of myself as a patient man. For the past five years, the Douglas Public Library District has quietly gone about connecting itself to the Internet, designing web pages, developing useful local information, securing access to public and private databases, and budgeting the resources to keep it all working.

The last task before we brought up our new graphical, Internet workstations (for both Castle Rock and Parker - Oakes Mill and Highlands Ranch are scheduled for next year) was to get a key T-1 data line installed. And this is where my patience was strained: we waited two months past our scheduled installation date to get the final line in. For 60 days, we’ve been sitting on boxes of equipment that was useless until the line was in place. It took a couple hundred phone calls, a formal complaint to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, and a fax to the president of US West to get the 45 minutes of attention that it took to solve the problem.

Of course, I recognize that the Douglas Public Library District is a bit player in this market. We only spend some $36,000 a year on phone services and telecommunications lines. Not that I’m bitter.

But what’s past is past. Our workstations should be up in a week or so, fulfilling our commitment to free public access to this new information resource.

During the long delay, however, an important Supreme Court decision was made. In brief, the Communications Decency Act (part of the 1996 telecommunications act) was struck down as unconstitutional. This act would have made almost any Internet transmission of “indecent” material (including language or images not appropriate to a child) both illegal, and subject to stiff penalties.

The American Library Association was the lead plaintiff in this case, arguing that the same First Amendment protections extended to printed material should apply to this new electronic medium. The argument prevailed. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens quoted an earlier Court statement: “[R]egardless of the strength of the government's interest" in protecting children, "[t]he level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox."

But librarians also recognize that a “hands off!” attitude doesn’t do much to allay the valid concerns of some parents. There is indeed a lot of offensive and age-inappropriate material on the Internet. If sweeping government intervention isn’t the right answer, and if filtering software poses problems as bad as the problem it purports to solve (see previous columns), then what’s left?

Well, the American Library Association has a useful contribution. It’s an online document called, “Librarian's Guide to Cyberspace for Parents and Kids.” This document defines some Internet terms, provides some “safety tips” for kids on the Internet, and talks a little about how to determine whether an Internet site provides reliable information. Best of all is the intriguing collection of 50+ web sites that are not only appropriate for children, but highlight just how exciting this technology can be for young learners.

This link will appear prominently on the home page of the library. Parents, look for it. Or if you have web access from her, bookmark the site at http://www.ssdesign.com/parentspage/greatsites/.

As I’ve written many times, the World Wide Web is a relatively small part of what a library offers. But here too, the traditional skills of librarianship - the gathering and organization of data - can still be usefully applied.

Now that we’ve got our data line problem resolved, we’ll be happy to show you what we mean.

Wednesday, July 23, 1997

July 23, 1997 - Mother/Daughter Book Clubs

My daughter Maddy and her best friend, Andee, are 9 years old. They like to read, which certainly pleases me. Mostly, they like Nancy Drew stories.

Here I confess something I would never have admitted were it not for the courageous example of Phil, Andee’s dad. Yes, I have picked up the occasional Nancy Drew story myself.

There are several runs of Nancy Drew books. The Douglas Public Library has 249 titles, falling into the Nancy Drew Notebooks, the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and the Nancy Drew Files. The originals were written by one Carolyn Keene. It was actually a pseudonym for Edward Stratemeyer, who also wrote the Hardy Boys. Later, Stratemeyer’s daughter took over. Later still the books were written by many different people.

And you know what? They’re not bad. What I like about Nancy Drew is that she’s so darn plucky. Although all the series have their own characteristics, one thing doesn’t change. Nancy is an explorer, a doer.

Frankly, there aren’t as many literary role models for girls as there ought to be.

My wife raised this issue a few months ago. Maddy was looking for more good books. But most of the “favorite books for young people” lists feature titles that are mainly about boys. I hope it will come as no surprise that girls prefer to read about main characters that are girls.

As Suzanne (my wife) got to digging around, she ran across other mothers of young girls who were looking for good girl’s books. And Suzanne began to hear about something else. As girls get older, they tend to talk more to each other than to their mothers. This happens just as their mothers find their daughter’s conversation more interesting than ever.

Aside from simply missing their daughters, many of these mothers also had both academic and psychological concerns. Several studies by the Association of University Women have shown that schools tend to encourage a habit of silence among girls, to discourage the sort of questioning and participative behavior that might label them as “brains.” Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls talks about the need to give young girls a sense of belonging and challenge if they are to grow into healthy adults.

It all adds up to a daunting set of challenges for mothers and their daughters.

Well, here’s the best advice my wife ran across. Form a mother-daughter book club. A good place to start is The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading. Author Shireen Dodson shares her insights on how to get a club going, how to find and read books, how to structure and lead groups, how to maintain lively discussions, and more. The book is sprinkled through with solid lists of recommended books good for various ages.

It’s clear throughout Dodson’s wise and engaging book that she has enormous respect for the power of print. But even more important is the value of reading as a way to bridge the generation gap, as an opportunity to allow mothers and daughters to find their way to each other, to live within a dialogue that is about more than keeping a room clean.

This isn’t to suggest that only moms can help their daughters. Phil and I have been talking about forming another group, a Fathers Who Read Nancy Drew Support Group. Who’s with us?

Wednesday, July 16, 1997

July 16, 1997 - the technology curve

(Lately, I've talked to a lot of business people who came to the library to try to figure out how to position themselves to take advantage of the Internet. This column takes some of what I've learned about what I call the "arc of technology," and refocuses it to the small business person.)

Like many businesses, you scrambled to get on the World Wide Web. You signed up with an Internet Service Provider. You either taught yourself HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) or paid somebody else to build a web page for you. You downloaded all kinds of Internet utilities: editors, image converters, file transfer programs, etc.

And when you were all done, you looked around and asked yourself: "When do I start making money?"

You're not alone. Like most of the people now on the World Wide Web, you're on the wrong side of the technology curve.

Picture a bell curve. The vertical axis is money--your money. The horizontal access is time. All technology follows this curve. At the early part of the cycle (the uphill part of the curve), businesses spend money. At the top, they start to break even. On the downhill slope, the technology finally becomes profitable.

This model works for almost any new technology.

Consider the automobile. At first, there was a lot of experimentation. Nobody quite knew what cars would be used for: family outings? Farm work? Some automobiles were steered by reins, as if automobiles were horses. Others used sticks, like the rudders on boats. And how to stop a car? Hand brakes?

This lack of standardization, of an agreed upon ÒinterfaceÓ for controlling the new vehicle, made it hard to make money. Who knew just what kind of technology was going to catch on? Gearing up for production was risky.

Add to this another factor: there were no paved roads!

Finally, largely through the work of Henry Ford, things began to settle down. You would use a steering wheel. The accelerator would be on the floor, pressed by your right foot. The brake would be another foot pedal, on the far left.

At about this time, some of the great road building projects began: a paved strip in Kansas City. Scenic drives. Two lane roads.

Standardized design and sufficient infrastructure: it's the top of the technology curve. For the automobile, only then did the business possibilities open up: everything from race cars to tractors to drive-ins to suburban malls.

Right now, being on the web is the same kind of risky business as non-standard automobiles. Is the World Wide Web an educational medium, useful primarily for research? Or it is a communication medium, an environment for group discussion and cooperative activity?

Or is the Web an advertising medium?--a sort of public bulletin board for catchy page layouts? Or is it a commercial medium, a place where customers build products out of your inventory, place orders and track shipments? I would argue that right now, the only people who ARE making money on the web are the people selling web design services, not the people buying them.

If history is any guide, at least three things have to happen before all that comes clear. First, the interface of the Web needs to stabilize. Right now, the interface battle is between Microsoft and Netscape, although many of the basics of Web-surfing have already been resolved.

Second, the infrastructure--the paved roads of the Information Highway--need to be built. That's happening pretty fast, too.

Third, and most important, there needs to be a way to ensure secure business transactions: a way to know that the order came from a real person, and that this real person's money actually makes it to your business's bank account. Various encryption schemes--software that sets up a conversation that only two people can decode (the seller and the buyer) are just about set, too.

My advice? Now's the time to be looking at your internal databases (of products and services), and getting them ready to talk to the web. The real potential of the Internet as a business medium is not advertising, but rather the manipulation of inventory to design customized products, and to more closely direct and monitor their delivery. For instance, the customer might select paper stock and fonts for a big print job, or mix and match options for a new automobile.

In short, though we're still this side of technology curve, the bubble is just ahead of us. It will pay to get ready for it.

Wednesday, July 9, 1997

July 9, 1997 - More Books Needed

By almost any measure, the Douglas Public Library District is doing a pretty good job. The use of our collection goes up every year (year to date, we’re almost 10% over last year, which was our all-time high). Every year, we get more children at our story hours. We get more reference questions.

But my bosses, the seven Trustees of the Douglas Public Library District, expressed a concern to me. They wanted to see more new materials.

I pointed out to them that we already spent 16% of our operations costs on materials. Most libraries in Colorado spend 12% or less. I pointed out to them that over 12% of our book budget results from direct patron requests (patrons fill out a request form, and in most cases, we put it through). Our nearest competitor only spends 9% on direct patron requests—most public libraries spend less than 5 percent. I pointed out to the Board that since 1990, the number of our holdings has jumped by over 275 percent, a VERY unusual statistic.

Then I took a look at some other numbers. Here’s the chart:

Year Holdings Holdings per capita
1989 65,000 1.15
1990 100,000 1.66
1991 134,734 2.08
1992 165,003 2.38
1993 186,909 2.35
1994 208,885 2.30
1995 226,763 2.29
1996 243,832 1.98

What does it mean? “Holdings” is the total number of items we own. Those numbers all look pretty good. “Per capita” is where the problem is. It divides the number of holdings by the number of people in the county. So sure, we have more stuff than we used to. But our population is growing faster than our collection. On a PER PERSON basis, we actually have fewer materials this year than last.

Let me put it another way. My Board was right. We need to buy more new materials.

But that’s a tricky issue. The number of new materials drives a lot of things. Most obviously, if affects how many people we need to order, receive, catalog and otherwise physically prepare the items. It affects how much we spend on supplies. It affects how many boxes go through the courier. It affects how many shelves we need at each location.

On the other hand, what the Board really wanted to address was the selection of materials in the new books area. Most of our new books are checked out. If we buy more books, they may still be checked out—but the odds of your finding something new are nonetheless better.

So what are we going to do about it? We’re going to dip into some of our contingency money to increase the book budget—up to 20% of our operating budget. We’re experimenting with some flexible staffing patterns to try to move more books.

The downside? Books are moving a little slower. Partly that’s just getting used to managing a larger work flow, and working around some space limitations in our behind-the-scenes “technical services” area. We’re keeping an eye on that.

The upside? In a few weeks, we hope you’ll be able to see a better selection than ever. We’re going to keep at this process until we find a way to get back on top of the “per capita” problem, and stay there.

And next time you see a library board member, thank him or her for looking out for your interests.

Wednesday, July 2, 1997

July 2, 1997 - Literacy and Democracy

Two days from today we celebrate Independence Day. July 4, 1776 is the birthday of the United States of America, the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.

The notion of a free and independent people is based on something most people don’t think much about: the ability to read. The idea of an “informed citizenry” is sprinkled throughout our founders’ writings. Remember that these were the days before television and radio. To be informed, one had to be a close follower of newspapers and political pamphlets, the format for political discourse in 1776.

You might ask if anybody today forms political opinions based primarily on written materials. But you might not be thrilled by the answer.

Despite technological advances, more than 200 years after the founding of this country, the best information about our local, state, national, and international affairs is still predicated on the written word. Newspapers and magazines give far more comprehensive and thoughtful coverage of issues than the sound bites of TV or radio.

But just suppose that you can’t read. The best estimates suggest that as many as one fourth of the American populace can’t decipher a newspaper headline, much less the story beneath it. They can’t read the label on a soup can. They can’t read the instructions on a prescription.

Let’s be blunt. Perhaps 25% of our adult citizenry is illiterate. It may not be quite that high in Douglas County. But it’s probably at least 10%. Such rates are more than a shame. They’re an early warning sign of civic breakdown.

It was just this year that the Douglas Public Library District established its own adult literary program. Some of our students and tutors we carried over from the now-defunct Adult Center for Teaching (ACT) and (as it was later known) the Center for Adult Literacy and Learning or CALL. But many of our current students have discovered the program just this year.

Adult education falls into three areas: Adult Basic Education (English-speaking folks who are just beginning to learn to read), G.E.D. students (people working on their high school equivalency certificate), and English as a Second Language (people who may be literate in their own native language, but have yet to learn English). ESL students are among our more problematic. Our tutor program is volunteer-based. Right now we have the greatest need for tutors who can speak either Spanish or Chinese.

Penny Perkins, Literacy Coordinator for the district, will be holding tutor training sessions on July 26 (an overview of our general adult literacy program) and on August 2 (a discussion of basic literacy and ESL in the morning, and GED in the afternoon).

If you know of someone in need of our program, please urge that person to give us a call. The one-on-one tutoring service is both free and confidential.

Or if you would like to assist another human being to master the fundamental skill of literacy, here’s the deal: you give a minimum of an hour a week, for at least 6 months. Training and materials are provided at no cost.

What do you get in return? Speaking as a former tutor myself, you get paid twice: once in the appreciation of just how subtle and powerful our written language can be, and again through the thrill of transmitting this vital civic and personal skill to another. Again, our tutors are all volunteers.

Students and trainers both should call 841-6942.

Reading: it’s the American way.