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, October 29, 1997

October 29, 1997 - Programs, Making Democracy Work, Francis McGuire

This week I have several items.

First, at our Parker Library, on October 30, we'll be holding our traditional (seven years in a row) evening of Scary Stories. At 7 p.m. we have our "Tales for the Fainthearted," designed for children ages 3 to 8 and their parents. This session has lots of audience participation and some guaranteed laughs.

At 7:30 comes our "Tales for the Stouthearted." Intended for older children and adults, drawn from folklore, these stories have a different guarantee: they'll creep up on you. The Friends of the Parker Library will provide cookies and apple cider -- ample fortification before a night of trick 'r treating.

Second, just after Halloween, at all of our libraries, we'll be launching our 1997-1998 Winter Reading Program. Public libraries usually offer just one reading program a year, almost always in the summer. The Douglas Public Library District hosts 3 reading programs in twelve months. Given that Douglas County Schools are also year-round, this keeps children involved in books through every season.

This year's winter program is called "Stampede to Read." It begins November 1, and will end on January 31. Registering for the program is simplicity itself. Ask about it at the circulation desk beginning November 1. Participants must read (and record in a provided reading log) at least 15 books. Readers may also enter a drawing for free general admission tickets to the national Western Stock Show. Not only that, there's a prize for the successful completion of the program. (Frankly, reading is its own reward. But some young readers don't figure that out right at the beginning.)

Third, those of you scrambling to make up your minds about various issues on the November ballot should know about a program called "Making Democracy Work." In conjunction with the League of Women Voters of Douglas County, and with the particular support of the Douglas County News-Press, the Douglas Public Library District has assembled two sources of political information. The first can be found in notebooks at the reference desks at our libraries in Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, and Parker. These notebooks contain (for instance) newspaper profiles of school board candidates, as well as information about state-wide issues.

The second source of information is on the World Wide Web. Available at http://douglas.lib.co.us/mdw/ (for Making Democracy Work), our web page offers comprehensive links not only to local news stories, but to state and even national web sites.

This is very much an experiment for the library. Our aim is to offer one-stop shopping for the person determined to cast a knowledgable vote. We plan to continue the effort. Next year should be even better.

Fourth, although at this writing we haven't nailed down the details, I think we have good news for patrons of the Oakes Mill Library. Last week I reported that our plans for a temporary building fell through. If all goes well, by the middle of November we'll have a small bookmobile parked at the site of the new Oakes Mill Library. It won't have as many items as we'd originally planned. But it will enable local residents to order and pick up materials from the rest of the district, and provide a continuing library presence throughout the construction project.

Fifth, finally, but far from least, is the recent death of a dear friend and former library trustee. Francis Maguire died on October 16, 1997. A trustee from 1980 to 1984, Francis was an original. Those of you who knew him, know why. Those of you who did not, have no idea what a splendid person you missed. Memorials in his name may be made to the Douglas Public Library District, or the Douglas County Land Conservancy.

Wednesday, October 15, 1997

October 15, 1997 - Dad's Death

I have always been a reader, and have always hung around libraries. As a child, I mostly read science books. As a young adult, I mostly read fiction and science fiction. The progression was from fact to speculation, to the collection of human stories and the probing of the possible.

But sometimes the most touching stories come from real life.

For instance, I’ve just returned from my father’s funeral. He died on October 3. On the 11th of this month, he would have been 73.

It happens that although I predicted the day and almost the hour of my father’s death, I wasn’t there. My brother and two sisters were. Throughout that whole day, my father was in very good spirits, smiling, and at one point, laughing.

“What’s so funny?” my sister asked.

“I just saw Jimmy Stewart at the foot of my bed,” he said.

When he died, later that day, it was very easy, very peaceful.

I had gathered up my wife and children and started driving east about half an hour before. When we stopped in Omaha, Nebraska that night, the message light in our hotel room was on. The front desk didn’t know anything about it.

It pleases me to think that Jimmy Stewart was my father’s escort, and that dad did stop long enough to leave me a message.

Here’s another story from the funeral.

My father had an aunt who was just a couple of years older than he was. Her name was “Peg.” By all accounts, Peg had been a very mean and selfish person. By the time of her marriage, she was almost shrewish. But then something unexpected happened. She had a son with Down’s Syndrome, meaning that he was born “disabled.” That son, Tom, changed her life.

The night before my father’s wake, Aunt Peg (now one of the most loving people I know) told me that it was still hard, sometimes, waking up cranky when your son just wouldn’t let you be sad. Tom was happy, every day. He set a high standard.

Tom was also one of the pall-bearers. He made a point, twice on that horrible day, of coming up to me, looking me strong in the eye, and giving me some powerful hugs. Tom, my first cousin once removed, is 45 years old, two years older than I am.

Later that day, I made some comment about “the kids” -- meaning my siblings and me, my whole generation. Tom sat up straight and looked at me. “Not a kid!” he said. “I’m a MAN.”

And Tom told me about how hard he worked at a mail room in Jefferson City, Missouri. He told me with some pride about he was about to move into his own house, and how he planned to cook for himself. And Tom began to impress me more and more as one of the wisest people present, maybe one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. Tom knew what it sometimes takes the funeral of your last parent to tell you: you’re not a kid anymore.

There are people who don’t use libraries who nonetheless are pretty good at reading the human soul. There is a kind of human intelligence that doesn’t show up on the I.Q. tests.

And most important of all, whether it’s a book, a movie star, a father, or a first cousin once removed, sometimes these stories effect extraordinary transformations in our lives, opening our eyes if only for a moment to the height and depth of human possibility.

Wednesday, October 8, 1997

October 8, 1997 - Revaluing Libraries

If I grasp the historic and generational dynamics correctly, all of our public institutions are being “re-valued.” That may sound impressive, but all it means is that society is taking a look at institutions that were unquestioned goods to a previous generation, to see if they still “work.”

It probably started with LBJ’s, then Nixon’s Presidency, a mounting crisis in public confidence. Reagan’s Presidency was an attempt to roll everything back to before the Viet Nam war, and it seemed to work, for awhile. But nowadays, nobody has much faith in either the Presidency or Congress. Regionally, and despite Colorado’s clear history of fiscally conservative government, Douglas Bruce’s “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” was mostly about a profound distrust of government.

More locally still -- although it’s part of a national trend -- is the revaluing of public schools. Crystallizing in the much ballyhooed report, “A Nation at Risk,” all public schools came under close scrutiny. At times, it was more like an attack. What it came down to was a suspicion that something at best inefficient, and at worst conspiratorial, was going on in and around our classrooms. Were the attacks justified? In part, probably so.

But where are we today? A nation with a crumbling public education infrastructure on the one hand, and home schooling, charter schools and vouchers on the other.

I think the public library is the next institution on the list. As a public librarian and as a public servant, it’s important to me to stay ahead of this “re-valuing.” What follows is my attempt to lay out the issues that I see as rallying points for public dissension and/or discourse. I’d be very interested in hearing from my readers about how close, or far off, you think I am about what may start to bother people about the library, and what kind of response makes sense.

These are the issues I think are key:

-The desire for quiet. This concern crosses conservative and liberal lines. More and more of our patrons believe that kids are too loud, parents don't control them, and librarians are too reluctant to shut people up. A growing number of people believe that libraries should be a more hushed and holy place, a little more like we used to be. We need to respond. But how? Signs and shushing? Or the establishment of sections of the library called “reading rooms,” where silence is strictly enforced?

-Parental control. A small minority (at present) wants something like a grid of choices: none of the following types of materials can be checked out by my children. At present, our library doesn’t offer that kind of prohibition of children’s choices. But with our automated systems, the possibility exists that we COULD offer it, at least to some extent. Is that reasonable? Perhaps. We hold parents responsible for the items their children check out. How can we at the same time assert that children can check out what the parents expressly forbid? Yet I still believe libraries must hold to two tenets: (a) no automated system is perfect; mistakes will happen, and (b) kids can still read what they want in the library (because it is both inappropriate and unreasonable to force government employees to look over everybody’s shoulders as they sit quietly in a public place).

-Advocacy. Some folks want libraries to accept the role of sponsorship. They believe we should be actively PROMOTING the "right" views, eschewing all others. On this one, we can not compromise. The answer must be, "Your views have a seat at the table of public discourse. But you do not have the right to silence everybody else at the table." We reflect the offerings of mainstream publishing, in due proportion. We do not, and should not, try to reject those offerings out of hand.

-Internet access. Some people believe that we should impose the standard of what's appropriate for children, on adults as well. Here again is an issue where I believe no compromise is possible. It's perfectly appropriate for libraries to have “filtered” workstations in the children's area — if they think it even makes sense to offer such a thing (I don’t, frankly). But we should tell parents, "Our adult terminals are unfiltered, because filtering cripples them as research tools. If you don't want your children to use these terminals, tell them not to. If your children do anyhow, hold the child accountable, not the library."


Wednesday, October 1, 1997

October 1, 1997 - Shell Shock

Down the street from where I grew up lived Mr. Ingvoldstadt. His son, Roy, was in my class at the nearby elementary school. Roy was very bright, particularly at math. We’ve all had those moments of “I get it!” With Roy, those moments were like the flashing of a huge sword.

But Roy was also very withdrawn. It wasn’t until I got to know him better that I figured out why. There was something painfully hushed at his house, as if everyone were walking on tiptoe. Roy’s mother was a very well-groomed and polite woman, with eyes a little too wide, almost startled. When I caught a glimpse of Roy’s father, he was usually wearing a suit. But there seemed to be long periods when he didn’t work at all. Then he haunted the house, his posture slightly curled, his hands trembling.

It turns out that Mr. Ingvoldstadt suffered from shell shock and battle fatigue. He had, like so many other men in my neighborhood, served in World War II. He had received a medical discharge some 20 years earlier. Obviously, he had never quite recovered.

For years, this image of lasting trauma stayed with me. Then, sometime near the end of high school, I read about a study someone had done on Viet Nam veterans. There was a new round of shell shocked and battle-fatigued soldiers. The study addressed the question: who was most at risk? Was it the basic recruit, the average guy? Or was it more likely to be the “sensitive” types, bright and imaginative?

I didn’t have any doubt: it had to be the bright and imaginative ones. I thought of Mr. Ingvoldstadt.

But I was wrong. This study showed that while anybody could “crack” if driven by circumstance into total adrenalin exhaustion, the imaginative ones stood the best chance of survival. Why? Because when they were lying in their trenches, they were thinking of everything that could go wrong. And when something did go wrong, they were prepared for it. They acted -- when the average guys around them could only react, or crack.

This was a revelation to me. Even in high school, I was lying awake at night trying to figure out, for instance, the 99 ways a particular girl could turn me down for a date, or the worst possible consequence for my failure to get in a school assignment. And I did survive both puberty and public education.

These days, I still fret in the wee hours on occasion, worrying, for instance, about delays in the delivery of a temporary building for the Oakes Mill construction project.

But I’ve learned some things, too. I’ve learned to imagine positive turns of events, so GOOD news doesn’t take me by surprise.

And I’ve learned that imagination and intelligence is not a curse. It’s a blessing. Provided with enough material about the world of possibilities around us -- and here I’m thinking of, for example, a well-stocked library -- we can explore, and day dream, and fantasize, and anticipate all manner of potential situations. So when a crisis does come up, we don’t crack. We have the resources to deal with it.

The world is a dangerous place sometimes. We’ve all met people who were shell shocked by some difficulty, or utterly worn out by a battle that doesn’t seem to end. The world has many walking wounded.

People don’t often think of the public library this way, but coupled with curiosity, it may be the best bet we have as individuals for “emergency preparedness,” a way to stay sane and whole when the odds are against it.