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, January 28, 1998

January 28, 1998 - My Cat and School Videos

I once had a cat named Watson. When both of us were young, I saw her do two things that pretty much define the problems of life, and perhaps of both librarianship and education.

The first case I witnessed when I happened to glance out the kitchen window of my Airstream trailer. I was living in the middle of the Sonoran desert at the time. I saw Watson slinking along, low to the ground. She was obviously hunting. So I scanned ahead of her position to see what she was after. It was a rattlesnake.

"She's doomed!" I thought. I jumped toward the door, but it was too late. Watson pounced. And her teeth closed precisely on the snake's rattle. Fascinated, I froze.

The snake bucked up, clearly in shock. Watson chomped. Chomped. Rallying, the snake whirled around, stretched its jaws, and struck.

With ghastly calm, without even lifting her head, Watson smacked the snake across the face. She didn't even extend her claws. The snake reared back, dazed. Chomp. Chomp. Another attempt at a strike, another smack. A few moments later, the snake was ... gone.

This filled me with new respect for my cat. But it didn't last.

Less than a week later, I was lying at the prow of the trailer, just reading. I became aware that Watson, and her brother Pookalure, were staring intently above me. So I looked up, too.

And there, langorously traversing the arc of the ceiling, was an enormous, very hairy spider. Abruptly, it dropped to the floor.

Desperately afraid that her brother would get it first, Watson made a mad scramble. Gulp. Then she sat back, almost smug.

Then something began to happen. She squirmed. Her eyes widened. Then she opened her mouth as if to say something AND THE SPIDER RAN OUT.

Now what can we learn from these events?

In the first case, sometimes utter boldness is the way to go. We have within us the capacity to triumph over danger, to ingest and even thrive on things that are clearly poisonous.

In the second case, in the name of competition with our peers, we sometimes make grievous errors in judgment. We take into ourselves things that won't stay put.

This pretty well stakes out the issues regarding the Douglas County School Board's recent stand on R-rated movies. The question: are such movies venomous (but edible) snakes? Or harmless (but deeply unsettling) arachnids?

Parents deal with the same issues at home. Will this book be all right for my child? Or will it terrify? If it does terrify, is it a useful lesson?

Books that many people in this country label as poisonous, as leading young people to evil, I found illuminating. Take another school district controversy, the book "Grendel." Grendel seemed to me an utterly tragic figure, the tale of a man who believed that God had rejected him. The book taught me to have compassion for the alienated, to look for the deeper truth.

Other books, "Total Woman" by Mirabelle Morgan, for instance (published around the same time as "Grendel"), seemed utterly innocuous. Morgan recommended that the way for a woman to forge a deep spiritual bond with her mate was to greet him at the door, at day's end, after draping herself only in Saran Wrap.

It was like the spider. It didn't hurt anything, I guess, but my stomach just rebelled.

As always, I take comfort in the fact that neither censorship nor self-righteousness stands a prayer. Some fine films with a powerful educational message get branded with Hollywood's "R." Children (meaning those people who in previous civilizations would already be considered adults, certainly old enough to have children of their own) will probably find these movies anyhow.

Meanwhile, there are many books -- and many teachers, for that matter -- whose bland safety serves only to bore and irritate otherwise fine minds. Our children will probably survive that, too.

Wednesday, January 21, 1998

January 21, 1998 - Serving on Public Boards

Criticizing our government is one of the most popular spectator sports in America. It's common wisdom that whenever three people get together to represent the public needs, they immediately sell out, become idiots and crooks, or were chowderheads to begin with. (The idea is that anyone who wants a public position should be disqualified on that basis alone.)

And if you never have to serve on a public board yourself, you can probably nurse this opinion your whole life.

But the time may come when you see a way you can contribute to the governance of some public body. You may see it as looking after your own interests, which is certainly true. Immediately, some horrible discoveries are forced on you.

First, you realize that things are sometimes more complex than they appear, and you may have to do some very careful listening and thinking.

Second, you learn that there really are some differences between public and private business. Often, governmental agencies are formed to solve a problem or perform some necessary service because no business can make a profit on it, or the potential costs to the customers would be ruinous. (Ruination of customers for necessary services is considered "contrary to the public good.")

Further, there is an obligation to be open in a way that many businesses are not, to be more aware of and committed to a process of public review and commentary. This sometimes slows things down. But in America we strive for "the consent of the governed."

On the other hand, there are many similarities between public and private agencies. A budget is a budget. Customer service is customer service. There are sound management principles and unsound. A good private board member follows many of the same rules of conduct as a good public board member.

According to the Colorado Division of Local Government, there are over a hundred special districts right here in Douglas County. Most are governed by public boards. Given so many positions and so few people with the time or inclination to serve, it's a safe bet that many of those board members are new to their positions. Of those, some have not held either governance or management positions before. If they have consciences -- and a conscience is what got them into this fix in the first place -- they realize that they could benefit from some extra training.

To that end, and because good government is predicated on well-informed citizens, the Douglas Public Library District is pleased to announce a special half-day workshop on Saturday, January 24, at the Philip S. Miller Library.

Our key presenter and facilitator is Pat Wagner of Pattern Research. Pat has provided board training sessions in the private, public and non-profit sectors for almost 20 years. Among her topics will be:

* What do you bring to the table?

* Ethics, Conflict of Interest and Personal Preference vs. the Public Good.

* Board Interaction with Staff: Boundaries and Micromanagement.

* Advocacy: Communication with the Public about Key Issues.

I'll also be slipping in a short presentation highlighting free sources of community information, and opining about the pitfalls of institutional arrogance.

If you serve on a board in Douglas County, you should already have gotten a mailing from us about this free workshop, which is open to public board members and executive directors only. But if you have NOT received such a letter and would like to attend, please contact Cindy Murphy, Public Relations Manager, at 841-6942 as soon as possible.

Wednesday, January 14, 1998

January 14, 1998 - 1997 Statistics

There are lots of ways to measure the performance of a library. The most important ones are deeply personal. Do you like to BE there? Are you well-treated by staff? Do you find interesting and useful materials?

Another kind of measurement is more quantitative. At the end of our fiscal year (end of December), our computer system cranks out all kinds of reports. I thought I’d share some of 1997’s numbers.

The most obvious measure of library activity is “circulation.” Circulation is library talk for “the number of checkouts.” In 1997, the total number of checkouts from all our libraries was 1,289,690, an increase over 1996 of 8.23 percent.

I haven’t seen 1997 figures for other Denver metro libraries, but last year, their average annual circulation increase was 3.5% -- and some libraries actually lost business.

Incidentally, over a five year period (from 1992 through 1996) the Douglas Public Library District leads the state in circulation growth: 74.7%. Our nearest competitor was Denver at 69.3% over the same five years. (Denver remodeled all of its libraries, opened two new branches, and greatly expanded the Main Branch.) After that was Arapahoe Library District at 43.1% (probably a result of their new Koelbel Library). After that, no library rose above a 25% growth in circulation.

In 1997, the number of our “registered patrons” actually dropped. In December, we purged from our files all those patron records that have not been active in the past 3 years. That included some 27,000 people (perhaps a commentary on transiency in Douglas County, or perhaps a reflection of families of many cards issued to a family, but only used by one person). On the other hand, we also issued over 13,000 new cards in 1997.

Incidentally, one of the clear findings was that for every book checked out by a male, four are checked out by females.

Some other interesting notes:

* 145 people work for the library. Together, they checked out 66,852 materials in 1997, over 5% of our entire annual business. That works out to 461 items a piece, or about 8 each week.

* Our 7 Board members checked out 763 items, which means each of them goes through about 109 items in a year, or about 2 items a week.

* Overall, our library patrons checked out about ten-and-a-half items each year. Our staff and governing board are clearly champion library users!

* In descending order, the top 6 categories of materials (together accounting for 96% of our business) are Juvenile fiction (at 34% of all our checkouts), adult non-fiction (at 21%), adult fiction (at 15%), videos (at 10%), juvenile non-fiction at almost 9%, and audiotapes at a little under 7%.

* Holds (requests placed on materials that are either checked out or at another one of our libraries) account for about 10% of all our checkouts.

* Ten percent of these holds, in turn, are initiated by patrons from home or work, either through our library modem, or over the Internet.

* District-wide, we handle about 83 checkout sessions (where a session is one person checking out any number of materials) every hour we’re open. In that same hour, we check out about 380 items, or average of 4 items per session.

* Over 60,000 new items were added to our holdings in 1997.

* Last year we offered 1,571 children’s programs, with a total attendance count of 28,793 kids. Eleven young adult programs brought in 164 young people. Our 173 adult programs fetched 1,943 people. Another way to look at this is that among our full service libraries (Highlands Ranch, Oakes Mill, Parker, and Philip S. Miller), we get an average weekly program count of 8 for each location, and an average weekly attendance count of almost 150 people.

Overall then, it has been yet another year of growth for the Douglas Public Library District.

Wednesday, January 7, 1998

January 7, 1998 - Library Returns Lost Bibles

I used to work at a place that had eight Xerox machines. Because the machines were getting old and temperamental, we saw four of the local technicians fairly regularly. One year, within the space of a few days, three of the tech people announced that their wives were pregnant. When I commented on the odds against that, one technician looked me straight in the eye and said, “Reproduction is our business.”

I have several more stories with a slightly different message.

It happens that two folks from California -- one from Salinas, one from Vista -- lost their personal Bibles at the airport. One left it on an United Airlines flight from Florida to Denver, and had been frantically looking for it ever since. The other had been reading at DIA while waiting for a flight to Cleveland.

United Airlines rounds up the stray books regularly. About twice a month, we get a box of donations.

Most of the time, there’s no clue as to where the books came from. So we add them to our shelves, or pass them on to the Friends of the Library for their booksales. But on occasion, people (or institutions) have stamped, scrawled or otherwise marked their names and addresses. In that case, we try to route the books home.

That’s precisely what happened with the two California Bibles. And while we send a fair number of items back to their owners, few people write back to thank us. The folks who got their Bibles were the exceptions.

The Salinas resident wrote, “I cannot tell you how filled with joy I was upon receiving my Bible back from you! Thank you! It is my most cherished posession. I have been scribbling notes in it for 20+ years.”

The Vista resident began, “Dear Good Samaritan,” and soon confessed, “I ... don't really know how I left His Word behind ... a guide for my life and something that encourages, directs and helps me to help others.”

People don't misplace only their Bibles, of course. We get school text books from Hawaii. We get books on Interlibrary Loan from Tennessee. We find business manuals and historical romances and murder mysteries and you name it.

Books don't come to us just from airlines, either. Last fall, one of our patrons was driving along I-80 in Nebraska. He stopped at an automobile rest area to find a library book sitting on one of the tables, with no one else around. He returned it to us. We, in turn, passed it back to the Iowa library where it came from.

There are two lessons here. First, if you really value a book, and particularly if you intend to be traveling with it, make sure you have indicated where to send it. Be proud of your books! Claim them! Book plates are available from all the better book stores. Buy them and use them. And again, before you travel, make sure you’ve kept your address information current.

Second, if you do mark your book, and should misplace it, and it should be forwarded to a public library, you shouldn't be too surprised when you get it back. After all, matching up the right book to the right person is our business.