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, March 25, 1998

March 25, 1998 - Service to Daycares

I don't get many complaints about the library. But when I do, I'm mostly grateful. Complaints are useful. Sometimes they point up areas of my own ignorance. Sometimes they highlight a shift in public use or attitudes. Sometimes they just give me the opportunity to fix something that went wrong.

This week -- between a full moon on Friday the 13th and the Equinox (which may not mean anything, but does feel inauspicious) -- I got two complaints on the same day. Both of them got to me, bothered me in a way that doesn't usually happen.

The first complaint involved a daycare provider who was very unhappy about our procedures regarding story times. She thought they discriminated against daycares.

She's right.

As we explain in one of our brochures ("Group Visits to the Library") we design our story times for general public visits. Usually, that means moms and a couple of kids apiece. We did not design them for large crowds.

Probably our average story time attendance is 15 pre-school kids, of various ages. When it gets much larger than 15 children, the quality of the program suffers.

Sometimes we reach the point when week after week 30 kids are showing up. Then we try to split it up, offer an additional program. So some week days we just have one children's story time. Some days we have two. Most of our libraries average 5 a week.

This is in sharp contrast, incidentally, to other libraries in the area, who limit the number of their programs to one or two a week. They also require parents to register their children for the programs well in advance, and once a certain number is hit, children are denied admittance.

It used to be that we didn't mind if daycare centers moseyed in, too. They brought another 15 children or so. But then we noticed that the regular moms started keeping their kids away. There was just too much pandemonium.

So our staff had a long talk. Just who were these programs for? The "general public?" -- moms and their children -- or for-profit businesses? Given the number of people on the staff, the number of hours in the day, and the demands on the rest of the library, we couldn't do both.

Part of my job is to determine priorities, to match up public needs with available resources. I chose to support the general public, not companies in the business of childcare.

So we told daycare centers that we would be happy to provide the occasional special program or a library tour. But we would need at least 2 weeks notice for such special programs, and we couldn't offer them weekly. We would also try to recruit a volunteer to go right to the daycare center and read.

What bothered me about this? I heartily approve of children being read to, and the desire of childcare centers to get children to the library. We really don't like to turn anybody down for service. It's particularly difficult to turn down a local constituency.

Yet I believe that in the long run, to pretend that we can serve both our individual and corporate customers, even when those demands conflict, is dishonest. We must choose. I have chosen the individual. Our policies, I believe, are correct.

But I've been wrong before. If you disagree, let me know. My phone number is 668-5742. Or e-mail me at jaslarue@earthlink.net. And let me know if you're an individual, or represent a daycare center.

Next week: a complaint about the Internet, pornography, and the "right" not to be offended.

Wednesday, March 18, 1998

March 18, 1998 - Family Literacy

I get irritated by the assertion of some schools that their job is to teach kids how to think. I'm quite certain that I was thinking before I attended school. The real surprise is that even after almost 2 decades of schooling, I can STILL muster a thought, if I work at it.

But the purpose of this week's column isn't to say what America's schools should or should not be doing. It's to focus on just four things YOU can do to help your kids grow up literate.

1. Read. The most powerful contribution you can make to your children's literacy is to model literate behavior. Subscribe to, and read, at least a couple of newspapers. Take a magazine or two, and make a big deal about looking forward to it. Join a book club.

Or, if you don't want the hassle of renewal notices and their consequent financial burden, make a big deal of going to the library. Regularly. You've already paid your membership, you get to take all the books and magazines you want, and you don't have to find a permanent place for them at home.

If you want to put even more time into this, consider joining or running a book club. You might even sign up to be an adult literacy tutor (841-4257).

2. Read to your kids. This is particularly important when they are young, but can continue (to great mutual satisfaction) well into the teens.

Many years ago, I did a "read-a-thon" at a suburban mall. A labyrinth of librarians camped out in the mall and pretty much kidnapped small children as they passed by. Then we read them some short classics ("Cat in the Hat," etc.). Without really thinking about it, I hoisted one young boy, about the age of my daughter at the time (2), and plunked him in my lap.

Then I opened the book in front of him. Immediately, I realized that something was strange. This boy didn't know where to look! It took him almost half a book to figure it out. You turn the page and start on the left, follow it down to the bottom, then go to the right. His mother watched from the sidelines with total amazement. I got through two books, and the boy was not especially eager to leave. The mother said to me, "I had no idea he was ready!"

"Was he ready to go to the mall?" I wondered.

Think about how you define yourself to your children. Shopper? Or reader?

Here's another observation. Many, many books, when read feelingly by parents, communicate through simple stories the powerful lesson of empathy, of putting yourself in somebody's else's shoes. These lessons "take" best when children are very young. There is no better preventive strategy against sociopathy, and in favor of civility. Reading aloud is also a terrific alternative to TV. Try it. And get your kids to read their favorite books aloud to you.

3. For older kids, ask about their homework. And pursue it, because most kids seem not able to talk about their day without some patient prodding. Ask to see their textbooks. Ask to read their papers. Ask them to talk about the things they're supposed to be learning. Genuine interest in what your kids are up to sends at least three messages: (a) I love to talk to you about your life, (b) I love to learn myself, and (c) education is important.

4. Show your kids what to do when you don't know what to do. Do you call other members of your family? Consult friends or business acquaintances? Do you pay for an expert opinion? Or do you give your library a call or visit?

Your local public library has assembled some quarter of a million volumes, just to answer your questions. We have quick access to many millions more, and countless databases.

Ignorance is almost the defining characteristic of humanity. The question is, what happens next?

Again, none of the above will guarantee that your child fulfills whatever academic ambitions you're nursing. But it will guarantee that a book is not utterly foreign, and that your children have a clue about how to find out about things they don't know now.

Altogether, that adds up -- or can -- to a pretty good education.

Incidentally, that decision, ultimately, doesn't belong to the parent or to the school. It belongs to the child.

Wednesday, March 11, 1998

March 11, 1998 - Testifying at the Legislature

Recently I spent most of an afternoon sitting in a Colorado House Committee hearing.

Under consideration was a bill concerning the Internet (Senate Bill 49). The bill’s intent -- at one point, anyhow -- was to forbid any kind of Colorado government from taxing or placing any other fees or charges on business conducted over the World Wide Web. Denver is one of the “hot spots” right now for Internet providers. The bill’s sponsor believes that if we don’t hold off on taxes and charges, we’ll stifle this fledgling industry. Some industry observers predict that by the year 2000, as much as $372 billion dollars of sales will be conducted over the ’net. It’s in Colorado’s interest to encourage such growth in the state.

Librarians got interested in this because some of us use a service called Uncover. Uncover allows library patrons to search for various magazine and newspapers articles. That part of the service is free. But if the patron requests delivery of the text of the article -- either to a computer screen, to a fax, or to a regular mailbox -- Uncover charges a fee, part of which covers copyrights costs, part of which keeps Uncover in business.

What some libraries do is pay for the delivery, then recover the cost from the patron. If the bill had passed in its original form, most libraries would simply have stopped providing the service. They couldn’t afford it. I went to the hearing to explain all that.

The day before the hearing, I heard that an amended version of the bill exempted publicly-funded libraries, expressly permitting such “pass through” charges. But such things change.

In fact, the whole bill changed. The version considered by the committee just prohibited state, county, municipal or other districts from taxing Internet access subscriptions -- such as an America Online account.

After testimony (AGAINST by the Colorado Municipal League, and FOR by US West), the bill was approved by the committee. Having already passed the Senate, the bill now goes to the House. Because the law really didn’t affect libraries at all anymore, I never did have to speak.

So on the one hand, I wasted a whole afternoon. On the other hand, I got a closer look at just how laws come into being.

It’s sobering. One line in one bill can have sweeping and often wholly unsuspected consequences. Based on my observations to date, most legislators really do want to pass good laws, hence the whole elaborate process for allowing interested parties to speak about how a particular law might affect them. Legislators need such information.

But what’s most impressive about the process is how open it all is. You want a copy of a bill? It’s free, on paper across the street from the Capitol, or electronically from the State (http://www.state.co.us/gov_dir/stateleg.html). You want to know the status of a bill (which committee it’s in, when it’s scheduled for the next action)? That’s all freely available in several formats, too.

You want to sit in on the deliberations? Pull up a chair!

You have something to say about a bill? Sign up for some time, and all you have to do is speak concisely and politely. Most people do, too.

This openness, of course, carries over to public libraries. Perhaps the defining characteristic of our county is the average citizen’s extraordinary access to information about almost everything.

But just as a book does no good if no one reads it, government does no good if real citizens never get involved.

If you’re interested in knowing more about what YOUR representatives are doing, a good place to start is the Douglas Public Library District’s web site, “Making Democracy Work". Developed in cooperation with the Douglas County League of Women Voters, the web pages link to remarkably comprehensive and current information.

The framers of our Constitution envisioned an “informed electorate.” It takes some work -- but it’s worth it.

Wednesday, March 4, 1998

March 4, 1998 - Lying on Surveys

I hate to admit this so soon after Washington’s birthday, but I’ve decided that I cannot tell the truth.

It started when I got three “survey” phone calls in two days. The first was at work. Someone was calling to ask for the name of the person who orders our computer supplies. It wasn’t a sales call, he explained. He was just updating his company’s database.

My second call was at home. This person wanted to know about some consumer and marketing issues. Did I drive a foreign or domestic car? What year was it? What was my most recent major appliance purchase? Computer purchase?

The final call, also at home, was allegedly a political survey. Did I think it should be a crime to commit an abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger? Was I opposed to any tax increase, particularly if it had anything to do with education? And so on.

Call me paranoid, but let me cycle through those calls again.

* Updating the database. Exactly this sort of thing was how several libraries got caught in a photocopier toner scam. The first call, giving a fictitious company name, gets the name of the person who has authority to make purchases. Then a box of toner (cost: $612) shows up, with that authorized person’s name on the invoice. Accept the box, you accept the purchase.

* Consumer calls. We have two players here: the owner, and the thief. Thief: “Got anything worth stealing?” Owner: “Let me run through the list for you!”

* Political survey. Take your pick. Call up, at home, all the public officials you have suspicions about, and grill them on whatever your issues might be.

It’s all perfectly legal. Ask people a question on the phone, and they are often so flattered that anybody even cares about their opinion, they’re liable to give it. They don’t even ask who you are, or what purpose you intend to put the knowledge to. Nor do you have any idea, as recent national news sources have hammered home, if the call is being recorded, or with whom it may be shared.

On the one hand, it’s kind of nice that most of us are trusting enough, believe in the benevolence of the universe enough, that we’ll bare our souls to total strangers.

But anymore, I’m not one of them. If somebody I don’t know calls me on the phone and launches into an inquisition of my private possessions or values, I ... lie.

What’s the name of our order person? Hieronymous Jones. Let me spell that for you.

What’s my latest appliance purchase? A toaster. I got it a garage sale in 1976, I think. It doesn’t work very well.

My political perspective? I believe in the right to privacy, in the inalienable right to keep my opinions to myself when I don’t know anything about who’s asking for them.

Oops! Told the truth that time! Working at a public library, you get into the habit.