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, April 29, 1998

April 29, 1998 - Shea Homes and the Successful Downtown

I have the privilege of participating in some discussions with Shea Homes and various players in Highlands Ranch. The issue is the "town center" -- a downtown for Highlands Ranch. Our new library, due to open on or around January, 2000, will be the first civic structure in the area.

Shea Homes has done its homework. For instance, in November of 1997, they conducted a study of successful downtowns, not only along the Front Range (including Parker and Castle Rock) but throughout the nation. They drew some interesting conclusions.

The customers of the successful main street "want more than a mall masquerading as a downtown, they want merchandise with a communal experience." And while a component of that experience is a conscious pedestrian orientation, there must also be room for cars. In 1996, American Lives, Inc. of San Francisco conducted a survey of 1,650 new home buyers in Colorado, California, Florida, Texas, Michigan and Washington. Eight-two percent of the respondents wanted "automobility." "If there is no place for their 20th century car, they will not visit a '19th century' place."

Shea's preliminary design for a downtown has engendered a lot of thoughtful commentary as we "test the model." Should we aim for a greater mix on our "Main Street" of office space rather than retail? How do we encourage the creation of a thriving public place without establishing rules so stringent that banks won't finance the commercial establishments needed to make it all work?

The process has been fascinating, and I appreciate Shea Homes' willingness both to investigate these options and to listen to its community.

Concurrent with these discussions, the library is moving forward with its project. And we're trying something that, as far as we know, has never been done before. We've established a Highlands Ranch Library project web site at http://douglas.lib.co.us/hrproject/index.html.

At this site, you'll be able to review (among other things):

* something about the architects we've chosen for the project,

* the timetable for the project,

* some possibilities for orienting the new library to the community "green" (a multi-purpose outdoors place that can accommodate anything from concerts to story times to art fairs),

* some views from the library site,

* the library "program" (our list of space needs for various library functions),

and much more.

Two other options are worth highlighting. One of them is our schedule for public meetings. In addition to a variety of focus groups we've already held for some elementary school groups (and others), we plan three more sessions. All will be held at the current library.

The first is on Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. This is for the general public. The second two will be held on Saturday, May 30. At 10 a.m., we'll have a focus group exclusively for "story time moms (and dads)." At 11 a.m., we'll have a second focus group, again a general session.

At these meetings, we'll present some background on the project, then lead the group through some simple exercises to generate (we hope) some exciting new ideas for the library.

But we know that a lot of people have trouble making it to meetings. So the last piece of our website is a "registry" or "forum." Our intent is to provide a space for Highlands Ranch residents to comment on some of the issues about library design, either from home (assuming they have Internet access) or from one of our library Internet workstations. I hope this last, interactive piece will be in place by the time this article is in print. If not, it will be, soon.

The more the library board and staff have worked on this project, the more we have come to realize something. With the help of our patrons, we're not just building a library. We're building a community.

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

April 22, 1998 UFO Sighting in Castle Rock

On January 3, 1968, Denver Post writer Chuck Green reported "One of the best-verified sightings of an unidentified object." It happened in Castle Rock.

According to one Deputy Sheriff Weimer, about 12 "reliable citizens" claimed to have seen "a large, bubble-shaped object" flying over Castle Rock between 6:10 add 6:25 p.m. on January 2. Morris Fleming, director of the Douglas County Civil Defense Agency, said that at least 30 people saw the object.

Most compelling was the witness of Howard Ellis, a Castle Rock business man who happened to be at the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) Building, then in the center of town, when "all of a sudden about a dozen lights shined on me."

He said that a bubble-shaped object hovered about 50 feet overhead. Shortly, Ellis was joined by five other businessmen who estimated the object as floating about 600 feet high. They guessed its width at 25 to 50 feet.

The UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) wandered north a couple of blocks, hovered over the Douglas County Courthouse, then made what Green called "a spectacular disappearance."

The object rose quickly, shot out some impressive sparks, then the main light abruptly went out.

The Douglas County Civil Defense Agency spokesman somewhat ominously announced that it would administer a blood test on one of the witnesses to determine if any "radiation or unknown or foreign matter is in his bloodstream."

One Dr. Norman Levine, research associate with the University of Colorado's Air Force-financed UFO study project, also planned to look into this occurrence.

Now all of this has the makings of a terrific movie, doesn't it? The big metropolitan paper soberly reports a bizarre phenomenon in small town Colorado. You can FEEL the tension, you can almost hear the Twilight Zone theme.


About a week later, the Douglas County News-Press featured a report from "a Castle Rock mother." She recalled that "her young son had been in the vicinity of the tennis courts where the UFO had flown over." The report stated that,

"She asked her son if he had seen the UFO, for he hadn't mentioned it.

"His reply: 'Sure Mom, I saw it, but I didn't pay any attention to it, because it was just a plastic bag up in the air.'"

Somewhat later, the Douglas County News-Press ran the definitive investigative follow-up. I quote:

"A slightly embarrassed Castle Rock mother came forth Thursday with an explanation....

"The UFO, Mrs. Norbert Dietrich explained, was built by her two sons, Tom, 14, and Jack, 16...

"The UFO actually was a clear plastic dry cleaning bag, 'a small one, the kind that comes on a suit jacket...'

"Tom and his brother closed up the top of the bag, braced the bottom opening with a couple of balsa wood sticks, put an aluminum cup in the center of the sticks and set four birthday-cake candles in the cup."

The Dietrich boys sent up the first experiment on Christmas, 1957, which their neighbors enjoyed tremendously.

The second attempt was the one that attracted all the attention. It rose (air warmed by the candles) and floated for about 15 minutes.

The News-Press reported that "The UFO had been described by residents as lighting up the sky, shooting out balls of flame and having a dozen lights."

"Come on now," said Mrs. Dietrich. "There were only four little birthday candles."

The article concluded that "Their mother, amused but a little contrite, emphasized that her family had no intention of causing hysteria in the community."

Let me summarize. Thanks to research gathered at the Philip S. Miller Library, we have a marvelous case study of celestial phenomena, the gullibility of the business community, the incisiveness of youth, and the ultimate justification of the local small newspaper's investigative prowess.

(My thanks to William Kirby, our diligent patron, for this altogether marvelous gathering of clippings.)

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

April 15, 1998 - Monica Lewinsky and Patron Confidentiality

The adventures of Monica Lewinsky have chewed up a lot of newsprint lately. Among the latest is the March 26, 1998 edition of the New York Times, which had a news item headed “Lewinsky's bookstore purchases are now subject of a subpoena.”

What interests me about all this is not so much what she did, if she did anything, with President Clinton. What interests me is the way in which behavior ordinarily considered private can become part of the rumor-mongering machinery that passes for political discourse in this country. Here I don’t even mean sex. I don’t mean the conversations taped without her consent by her alleged friend, Linda Tripp. I just mean the books she bought from a bookstore.

To prevent precisely this kind of fishing around for information about people’s reading habits, it happens that there is a Colorado state statute (24-90-119) entitled Privacy of User Records. It’s pretty brief: “Except as set forth in subsection (2) of this section, a publicly-supported library or library system shall not disclose any record or other information which identifies a person as having requested or obtained specific materials or obtained specific materials or service or as otherwise having used the library.”

The circumstances under which records may be disclosed are also brief: “reasonable operation of the library,” upon the written consent of the user, or if we get presented with a subpoena.

Note that the law does not exclude children. They are presumed to have the same rights as adults.

What’s the intent of this statute? To protect patron’s privacy. The premise is that it isn’t anybody’s business but your own what you’re reading (assuming you bring it back when you’re supposed to).

We use three examples when we train our staff on this law: a woman might be checking out a book called How to Throw Your Husband A Surprise Birthday Party. Or it might be How to Divorce Your Abusive Spouse. Or perhaps a 12 year old girl is reading a non-fiction book about incest or alcohol abuse. In any of these cases, our patrons should have the expectation that their transaction with the library is confidential, not subject to peremptory review even by spouses or parents.

Thus we’ll call to tell a family member that a book is on hold for another family member, but not say which book it is. The call is “normal operations of the library.” Not saying what the title is constitutes withholding information about “specific materials,” as specified by law.

On the other hand, most of the time families aren’t snooping into each other’s intellectual investigations. They’re just trying to be helpful. “Is anything in for my husband?” “Did I get all my daughter’s books back in?”

My staff is sometimes extremely frustrated by my refusal to make this black or white. Some would prefer that I tell them, “Under no circumstances should you reveal the information attached to a library card to anybody other than the person who has it in hand.” It would make a lot of our patrons mad, but it would be strictly according to the law, and it would be unambiguous.

Others would prefer me to direct staff to “Tell any family member anything they want to know about another family member’s library card,” arguing that although it certainly undercuts the spirit of the law, this is part of the reasonable operation of a library. And many of our patrons seem to feel this is how it ought to be.

But the truth is, the issue isn't black or white. I believe in the right to privacy. I think it’s important that librarians live up to it. I’m also dedicated to good service. Sometimes they conflict.

So I have to tell our staff to use their best judgment, knowing that no matter how good that judgment is (and it’s plenty good), sometimes there will be goof ups. But I have told them to err on the side of respect for privacy. And I will back them up if they do.

The alternative is to put all of our patrons in the same fish bowl now occupied by Monica Lewinsky.

Wednesday, April 8, 1998

April 8, 1998 - Staff Training

My first real library clerk job paid the whopping sum of eighty-five cents an hour. On my first day, I received about half an hour training from one of the nice older ladies who worked there.

This was a small library, with a card catalog, two tiny bookcases of new materials, and an old "Gaylord" checkout system. Every book had a card. To check it out, I put the patron's library card in the Gaylord machine, then ka-chunked in the book card to stamp it with the due date. Then, later that night, I put all the cards in call number order, and filed them under the day.

Over the course of a year or so, largely through filing the cards every night, I also learned to answer patron questions. I knew the call numbers of books on all the subjects. I knew author names and their books. This went on for four years, and I loved every minute of it.

These days, things are different, and in most respects, better. Today's computer card catalog tells you things the old card catalog didn't -- such as whether or not the book was in and when it was due back. The computer also ended three kinds of filing: cards in the catalog, cards in the patron file, and cards in the daily checkouts.

But the same invention that saved time in some areas has cost time in others. Compared to using paper, it is much faster to use a computer to create patron, books, and circulation (checkout) records. But it is also more complex. Using this information isn't quite like walking over to a particular cabinet to flip through cards. It involves a host of strategies for searching and otherwise manipulating the information in a series of interlocking databases.

So over the past several years, we've been working on developing a high quality staff training program. I just reviewed our current catalog of in-house workshops, and our current new employee orientation process.

Remember that my training consisted of half an hour. Today's DPLD employee goes through five whole days of training. For an entire work week, she starts with a trainer and computer in the morning. Then she goes to a live -- and lively! -- circulation desk, where she works with an assigned "mentor" in the afternoon. This is a big commitment of library time and resources.

But you know what? It works. By the time our new staff make it out on their own (week two), they are functioning at the level it took me almost a year to achieve at my first library job. That means more productive and confident employees. It also means better service.

The Douglas Public Library District encourages its employees to try things they wouldn't be permitted to do at other libraries, at least not without getting various educational credentials first. Our approach helps us keep staff interest high. It also brings a continuous freshness to our activities.

Some of our people that do have more formal credentials have developed in-house programs that, for instance, teach our staff reference skills, model high quality story times, give tours of our behind-the-scenes work, and otherwise share information and insight.

These days, our library is not only the People's University -- a place where any member of the public may seek self-education. It is also a Staff University, where any curious employee can explore the library environment, and find their special talents.

Both of these sure make for an interesting place to work.

Wednesday, April 1, 1998

April 1, 1998 - Porn Again

Recently a woman walked into one of our libraries and saw a sexually explicit image on one of our Internet workstations. The man who had called it up seemed oblivious to his surroundings.

The image deeply offended her. So she confronted the man. She even filed a complaint with the police.

Well, the police came. They determined that no crime was committed. But the man hasn't been back to the library since.

The next day, the woman called me. What was wrong with me that I hadn't authorized my staff to make the library a safe place for children? (She said a young child -- perhaps 10 or so, was wandering around unattended in the library at the time, and could have been exposed to this image.) Besides, didn't she (the woman) have a right not to be assaulted by such imagery?

Frankly, she was angry and disappointed at my response.

One of my comments was so surprising to her that she stopped to write it down. I said, "The library really doesn't have the right to tell people what they can't look at."

Another comment I didn't make but could have is that actually no one has the right not to be offended. That's the whole point to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Ordinary speech (and related expression) doesn't need special protections.

People have a tendency to think the Internet raises all kinds of new issues for libraries. I'm not so sure. Fifty years ago, if a man walked into a library with a magazine (purchased at an adult book store) full of sexually explicit images, librarians did not tell him to put it away or get out. Then and now, it's legal for adults to buy such materials and legal to read them. What's new is that an Internet terminal is like a patron who holds the magazine up high, so anybody can see it. It's immature and annoying. It's even pathetic. But it's not illegal.

I try to steer our libraries by the Principle of Least Interference. It would be insufferably intrusive and arrogant of public library staff to hover over patrons' shoulders and say, "That might offend somebody, so stop it right now!"

But let me be clear about another point. I'm no happier about the importing of pornography to the library than was the woman who complained to me about it.

When the library invested in Internet connections and workstations, it was to provide access to such data as consumer guides, periodical articles, local historical information, parenting tips, and so on. We've spent a great deal of time selecting, linking to, and even creating a host of useful resources appropriate to our youngest patrons. I'm proud of what we offer, and the vast majority of the time, our Internet workstations are used just as we hoped they would be.

But let me offer two reminders. First, as we state in our "appropriate use" policies, if you do anything illegal on the Internet -- try to hack into somebody's computer, lie about your age in order to gain access to a site, view child pornography, and so on -- you can be turned over to the police.

Second, many people may not be aware that we have the ability (if not the inclination) to monitor any session. This is necessary both for internal data security and for computer troubleshooting. If people do break the law, we can provided detailed print-outs of exactly what they did.

Beyond that, I've placed, and the Library Board has approved, a time limit on the use of an Internet workstation. At any time, patron use is limited to 20 minutes. We're not too strict about it if no one appears to be waiting, but if we ask someone to move along after 20 minutes, then they do have to do that. This seems to us a far less heavy-handed way to control the use of a public resource.

Finally, if someone is in fact bothered by something a patron is looking it, and lets our staff know about it, we will indeed request a patron to amend his or her behavior, to be considerate of others.

But as difficult as some patrons may find this to be, any public place is "dangerous" in that we cannot guarantee the mental stability of some of the people who congregate there. Our staff act swiftly to protect the physical well-being of our patrons. But no place is truly "safe." If parents drop off their child at the library unattended, they take the same risk they would take if they abandoned him or her at the Park Meadows Mall. It's a sad truth of modern life.

Given that this column is running near April Fool's Day, I'm tempted to say that our solution will be to just take control of any Internet terminal that brings up naughty bits, and automatically transfer the person to Disney (www.disney.com), or perhaps Focus on the Family (www.fotf.org). Hmm. Maybe that's not so foolish after all.

If it happens to you, don't say you weren't warned.