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, February 25, 1998

February 25, 1998 - Punch And Judy

Last summer my wife and I enjoyed a visit from her English cousins (2nd cousin once removed, to be technical). Hamish is a consulting engineer. His wife is a teacher. As we talked about our countries, Hamish told me that two things really surprised him about America.

The first was that you can't just order a meal here. You have to be interrogated. If you ask for English muffins, the waitress demands to know if you want multi-grain, sour dough or plain. If you order salad, you have to choose among 8 dressings. If you want a cup of coffee, God help you.

The second thing that surprised him was fundamentalists -- particularly when he heard about attempts to remove books from libraries, or movies from schools. "We just don't have that sort of thing in England," he sniffed.

Well, Hamish has just sent me some newspaper clippings. The first story (written by Tom Leonard) begins, "A Punch and Judy book has been withdrawn from a public library service following claims that Mr Punch's 'sickening violence' could corrupt children."

The article goes on, "The book -- which follows the traditional plot -- recounts how the puppet tricks a policeman into putting his head into a noose and hangs him, coshes Judy and bangs their baby's head to get it to go to sleep."

The article notes that the 14 year old book had illustrations clearly showing the characters as puppets, not people. Nonetheless, the book was withdrawn by the Wilshire county council "pending a review of its suitability."

"The decision won support from the Police Federation, which said the book 'sent completely the wrong message.'" Puppeteers (particularly, members of the Punch and Judy Fellowship), however, described it as "political correctness gone mad."

It gets better. A Member of Parliament swore to look into it. The chairman of the council's libraries and museums committee issued a formal apology to the family that made the complaint.

The next clipping, dated two days later, was a letter to the editor, beginning, "SIR -." It's so good, I'll quote the whole thing. "As a child, my daughter (now a second generation Punch and Judy performer) was frightened by the stories and pictures in the Ladybird books which retold the Greek myths and legends. At the time, I did nothing about it but in retrospect realise that the correct course of action would have been to seek an apology from the library, seek an MP's promise to mount an investigation and seek a statement from the Police Federation on the dangers to law and order implicit in a classical education. Common sense must have prevented me at the time." The author was Glyn Edwards of "Far Forest, Worcs."

Finally, 6 days after the second article -- presumably after an eight day investigation, came a final notice: "A Punch and Judy book was back on the shelves in Wilshire libraries yesterday .... [The] chairman of the county council's libraries and museums committee said, 'This book stems from our cultural heritage and we have to draw a line to prevent political correctness damaging our long held traditions.'"

Punch and Judy, incidentally, have been popular in England since about 1660. According to my home encyclopedia, "The ill-tempered Punch, who continually quarrels with his wife, Judy, and other people, is said to represent the spirit of revolt that exists in human beings." Kids find it funny.

So it seems that there are still family resemblances among cousins on either side of the pond. I expect that when it's our turn to visit Hamish, we'll be able to go out for a good cup of coffee.

Maybe a double decaf with a dash of mocha, no cream.

Wednesday, February 18, 1998

February 18, 1998 - SearchBank

The basic resources of the Douglas Public Library District are print materials -- books, magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets. A second category is audiovisual materials -- mostly tapes and videos.

A third, much newer category is electronic resources. Some of these resources are CD-ROM's. (An experimental collection of educational CD-ROM's can be found on the shelves of our Parker Library. If they're popular, we hope to repeat the effort at our other libraries.) Other CD-ROM based resources are accessible through dedicated workstations at most of our libraries.

Yet another example of electronic resources are databases offered over the Internet. Some of those databases are public. "Yahoo" (at www.yahoo.com) is an example -- a comprehensive and well-organized guide to free resources over the World Wide Web.

But this week's topic is a second category of Internet resources: "commercial databases." These are resources the library pays for, usually in the form of annual subscription fees.

Available since the beginning of this year is one such offering called Searchbank. Searchbank is a trio of databases we think have much to offer our patrons.

The first database is called "General BusinessFile ASAP." It encompasses information from January 1995 through February 1998, and focuses on business and management topics. It includes directory listings for over 150,000 companies as well as investment analysts' reports on major companies and industries. I believe this database is of particular value to the many Small Office, Home Office businesses in Douglas County. (It's also handy to anybody considering either investments or job applications.)

The second database is called "General Reference Center." This one includes popular magazines from January 1994 through February 1998. This general interest database is useful to search magazines, reference books, and newspapers for information on current events, popular culture, the arts and sciences, sports, etc. The users of this database are both the interested layperson and the beleaguered high school student.

The third database is the "Health Reference Center." Covering various sources from January 1994 through February 1998, this database includes articles on: Fitness, Pregnancy, Medicine, Nutrition, Diseases, Public Health, Occupational Health & Safety, Alcohol and Drug abuse, HMOs, Prescription Drugs, etc. I typed in a search for "skin cancer," and found not only a host of useful pamphlets and current articles, but also some remarkably clear, non-technical descriptions of just what skin cancer was. The user of this database is just about anyone with a question about their well-being, or the well-being of a loved one. And again, it's of particular use to the student.

Together, the range and depth of these resources is astonishing. When you're doing the sort of research that requires a host of current (but mostly short document) information on a topic, the Searchbank trio is a major time saver.

Right now, the easiest way to search this resource is from our home page (http://douglas.lib.co.us). As of this week, all of our full service libraries have our new Internet workstations. Unfortunately, the web-based version is accessible only to those patrons physically in the library.

Soon, we hope to set up a "patron authentication" system. If you're connecting from your home or office, typing your library card number will unlock the database. For obvious reasons, the distributors of Searchbank don't want to give away this very valuable product to everybody on the Internet.

I should point out, however, that both Searchbank and Lynx (a text-based Internet browser) are available from our regular library terminals, both in-house, and to those patrons connecting through a phone line. From our library catalog screen, choose "Other libraries and databases." Then just follow instructions on the screen. While this isn't quite as convenient as the graphical version, both Searchbank and Lynx are powerful, very fast, and free to our patrons.

Here's hoping that you will like them as much as we do.

Wednesday, February 11, 1998

February 11, 1998 - 10 Warning Signs of Institutional Arrogance

Institutional arrogance is the key characteristic of organizations that provide bad or indifferent service, are unresponsive to customer concerns or a changing environment. Typically, such organizations labor under autocratic leadership that withholds or stifles information both internally and externally.

Is your organization institutionally arrogant? Here are the 10 warning signs.

1. You never seek the advice of the people you serve.

An organization should take the pulse of its customers (formally) at least annually. Ideally, such data-gathering never stops.

2. You never seek the advice of the people who will administer your policies.

There are two errors common among public boards and staff. The first is the board that consistently ignores the advice of staff. The second is the staff that consistently ignores the advice of the board.

3. If you do seek advice, you never take it.

Advice can be bad. Nonetheless, organizations establish patterns of openness or of contempt. If you NEVER accept good advice, you stop getting it.

4. You cannot make your case in plain terms to staff or public.

If you can't explain it, maybe you shouldn't do it.

5. You dismiss complaints out of hand.

Often this is done in the rudest possible terms. In house, to your colleagues, you say (or you hear), "That comment was SO stupid." To the person offering the complaint, you roll your eyes and say, "You just don't understand how we do business." (Note that this may be true, but then an explanation might be in order.)

6. You cannot admit error.

You are what I call "oops averse." It is utterly disarming to look someone in the eye and say, "You're right. I goofed. I'm sorry. I'll work hard not to make such a mistake again." And mean it.

7. Your focus shifts from customer to staff (or institutional) convenience.

You're in trouble when, in the effort to satisfy staff, you discover that everybody gets a nice long lunch -- but nobody is in the office.

8. Your focus is more on the process than the product, the how rather than the why, or on memorizing policy than exercising good judgment.

Rather than asking, "is there a need for this?" you spend your time talking about how to do it better or different. There's a probably apocryphal tale of the personnel manual that consisted of nothing but the phrase: "Use your best judgment." What a concept.

9. Your ATTSH (Average Time To Say Hello) is greater than 1 minute.

You have less than a minute to make your case to the public. If it takes longer than 60 seconds to make eye contact with a customer stepping into your "store," you have succeeded only in sending the clear message that people don't matter to your business or service. (Note: 60 seconds is the far end of the time. Thirty seconds of silence is a long time. Try this experiment. Say to somebody, right now, "I have a question." Then pause for 30 seconds. It doesn't take long to feel the weight of the wait.)

10. Nobody in your organization smiles from simple good will.

Instead, everyone is cranky, sour, or sarcastic. About 20 years ago, I participated in a ground-breaking study in library service. It turned out that the greatest single way to persuade people that they got good service was so subtle as to be almost indetectable. When we handed people their books, or their change, we let our fingers linger against their's for a moment. This is not a call to fondle your customers. But it does point out what people are looking for: simple human contact.

Is your institution arrogant? What are you going to do to change it?

Wednesday, February 4, 1998

February 4, 1998 Loan Period Change

I need some advice.

As I’ve written before, the library is trying to buy enough new books to meet a minimum standard of two items per person.

But we have two problems. The first is that the population of Douglas County keeps growing. We bought twice as many materials last year as the year before. By the end of the year, we had fewer items per person than ever. Frustrating.

The second problem is that we’re running out of space. It’s not a problem at Parker (our newest and largest library). It won’t be a problem at Oakes Mill when the new library is done. At the Philip S. Miller we can stuff a year’s worth of materials into the building while we work on a modest expansion. At Highlands Ranch, we’re crammed right now, and it’s two years before the new library can be built and opened.

So my managers have come up with a suggestion. Change our standard loan period from 3 weeks to 4 weeks.

Here are the pros and cons as I see them.


The longer loan period means you have to make fewer trips to the library. (Unless you're getting kid's books, in which case you'll probably still come in once a week.) Most likely, a longer loan period means you’ll take more books per trip. That’s a convenience for many people. For the library, that means that more books are out at any given time. In turn, that means we have more space to put new materials.

Because hotter items (bestsellers or items that often have long reserve lists) would move more slowly, we would buy more copies. Instead of buying one book for every four requests, we would buy one for every three. So we’d have more high demand books (although again, books on hold aren’t on the shelf -- they’re checked out). That cuts down on your waiting time, but still gives us more shelf space.

Another advantage is simpler rules. I’d take the occasion to make most materials follow the same basic procedures: 1 month checkout plus another month renewal if nobody has the item on reserve. No grace period (as opposed to a grace period offered for some materials but not for others). This all adds up to fewer exceptions, thus fewer things to remember for you and our staff both.


Fewer books on the shelf. Sure, we’d have more space for the new books that AREN’T on hold), but some of our older materials would be less available for browsing. That can be a bother when you (or your children) have reports due the next day.

Increased fines. Right now most of our materials carry a whopping a nickel a day penalty. (Some items, like videos, are competitive with local video stores.) The purpose of fines is not to punish. It never has been. The purpose is to give people some incentive to bring materials back when they’re due. The idea is to remember that other people want to see what we've got, too. A month should be long enough for anything. So I’d be inclined to double our basic overdues from five cents a day to a dime a day.

The pattern of most public libraries is that when serving populations of under about 25,000 people, books go out for 2 weeks. Ours did too, a few years ago. But in 1995 (if memory serves) we bumped it to 3 weeks. That matches most libraries our size. It bought us some time and some space, and I do believe that most people found it easier to work through their materials.

Four weeks is usually only found in very big libraries (Denver Public, for instance) or university libraries. But then, most libraries don’t have quite our space crunch or population pressures.

So it’s clear that a four week checkout is a staff convenience, at least in the short run. My question to you is what best serves the public interest? Or more particularly, which loan period serves YOUR lifestyle better: 3 weeks for most materials, or 4 weeks?

Please let me know. If I make such a change, I’d rather it be near the beginning of the year. Give me a call at 688-8752, send a fax to 688-1942, write me at DPLD, 961 S Plum Creek Blvd, Castle Rock CO 80104, or e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net.

Thanks for your help.