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, May 27, 1998

May 27, 1998 - Highlands Ranch Civic Green

I don't know what's wrong with me. I didn't watch the last episode of Seinfeld. What's worse, it wasn't a big deal to me.

But judging from the covers of magazines, front page stories in newspapers, and relentless promotion of the event on radio and TV, Seinfeld -- a show I am told is about nothing -- was very important.

Importance, of course, is a relative and highly individualized matter.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what's important to the people served by our library district. We're in the design phase of our Highlands Ranch Library, the first civic structure in the proposed Town Center. Our staff have been conducting focus groups, distributing surveys, and gathering comments on our web site dedicated to the project.

Based on those sources, many people believe that our new library (which replaces the small storefront library now serving Highlands Ranch) is very important. They hope it will set a standard for civic design in a community that does not now have a "heart." Moreover, in an area that has grown so rapidly, people want to belong to something, find a link to a larger social environment. Cultural institutions, it seems, have an important connection to quality of life.

The Douglas Public Library District has some experience in building good libraries. I know we can build another one.

But unlike our previous projects, this time the library must have a clear relationship with an adjacent property. That property not only doesn't belong to us, it is also outside our control. I am referring to the Highlands Ranch Civic Green.

The green, as currently envisioned, is immediately south and uphill from the library. How that green looks and works will have a big effect on how the library is used.

Let's start with the best case: on opening day, the library has a warm and seamless integration (through parking, walkways, and plazas) with an outdoor amphitheater, an imaginative sculpture garden, numerous shady spots for benches, and an open-air cafe. Every morning, people swing by to pick up a newspaper from a nearby vendor, and enjoy a cup of coffee as the children play on the green. Later, they wander inside for the morning story time. After school, young people swing through the library to do some quick research, then team up with some friends outside for an impromptu game of frisbee. In the evening, the whole family returns for an outdoor music concert. On the weekend, they come back for the art fair, and the library-sponsored lecture series on The Discovery of Perspective in Painting. The whole scene is enlivened by people walking everywhere.

Let's jump to the worst case: the library has a relationship with a shapeless lump of dirt, edged (near the library) by a plaintive welcome mat of grass. Cars come. Cars go. The sun beats on the pavement.

In both cases, we'll have a well-engineered library. But in the first case, it will be a vibrant part of a larger public space. In the second case, no matter how well we build it, the library will be just another isolated island in the suburban street scape.

I realize this issue won't get the same kind of coverage as Seinfeld. But I do hope those of you who find the issue of the civic green of some importance to YOU, will take an active interest in its development.

Shea Homes will be doing a public presentation on Town Center issues on the evening of May 28, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Eastridge Recreation Center. Your presence could be significant.

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

May 20, 1998 - Y2K Computer Upgrade

In 1991, the library bought its own central computer equipment -- the first IBM RS 6000 in Colorado. This machine later become a business standard.

Before then, we were spending some $80,000 a year for computer support. The total cost of the new computer (including software and data transfer) was just under $100,000. We've spent about $20,000 a year for support ever since.

That was seven years ago. Thus the total cost for the system has been $240,000. If we'd stayed with our previous system, we would have spent well over twice that much. So our decision saved a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money.

But alas. While seven years of service by a single computer is pretty good, as these things go, our machine is starting to show its age. Most particularly, the older computer won't be able to adjust to the dread Year 2000 problem.

For those of you who aren't up to speed about this, here's the issue. Big computer systems really didn't come into their own until about the mid-nineteen-seventies. At the time, dates were expressed as just six digits: two for the month, two for the day of the month, and two for the year.

It didn't seem to occur to anybody that in 25 years, two digits wouldn't be enough to account for a new century.

For the modern PC, that didn't present much of a problem. Most PC's last but two or three years in a household or business. And most PC's are used for word processing, not for databases involving lots of date calculations. (Incidentally, Macintoshes don't have the problem at all -- yet another sign of the foresight of its designers.)

But for the many mainframes and minicomputers that store the business records of America, the year 2000 presents all kinds of difficulties. Some data records refer to customer birth dates -- 07/13/04, for instance. Ten years from now, it might matter (to Social Security offices, for instance) whether someone were born over a century ago, or just a few years earlier. For libraries, the issue comes down to other date-sensitive information. Suppose you checked out a book due December 31, 1999. But because of various perfectly natural circumstances, you find that you can't get it back until January 2, 2000. Our system might calculate 100 years of fines. (Hey, wait. Why do I want to fix this?)

Frankly, the whole situation is ludicrous. The problem is software. How hard can it be to add two digits to a single data field?

But the solution is hardware. The software fix depends upon the presence of new processors. The new processors come with new hard drives, and a host of other protocols and peripherals. In short, the "fix" is good for business. Not library business, you understand, but computer manufacturer and retailer business.

I bring all this up not because of the inherent human (and economic) drama of the situation. I bring it up because our best solution to a problem that won't surface for two more years is to replace our computer equipment today. This means a worst-case situation of 2 weeks of downtime: one week (June 1-June 5) to upgrade our hardware, and another week (June 22-June 26) to upgrade software. Things might go better than that, but it's best to be pessimistic.

We'll set things up so that nobody has materials due during these periods. We'll still check things out to you, but the computer catalog may well be down while we're transferring files and rebuilding indexes. And we won't be able to check anything in until we come back up.

By the end of this process, there will be some good news. Those of you with Internet access will be able to search the library's holdings right from your browser, "clicking" rather than typing menu choices. You'll also be able to renew your holdings from home, even in the middle of the night.

We'll have other good news, which is fodder for future columns. Everything should be a little speedier.

Meanwhile, I extend my heartfelt apologies for your inconvenience, which we will do our best to minimize.

Wednesday, May 13, 1998

May 13, 1998 - Literacy Tutors Needed for Jail

I recently went on a tour of the new Robert A. Christensen Justice Center. It was disturbing.

On the one hand, the building appears to be very well-designed, well-planned.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to see the inherent schizophrenia of the American justice system. On one side of the building are a series of impressive court rooms and offices. The court rooms strike a note of respect; a quiet and calm, a dignity of purpose prevails.

Judges enter their courts from a panel behind the desk. The accused enter from the side. And behind that door is a stark cinder block corridor and holding area.

This harsher motif is carried out on the other side of the building -- the jail. And this setting strikes another mood: claustrophobia, control.

The Justice Center was built for “growth.”

While I don’t pretend to know all the reasons America has more prisoners every year, I do know something about prison inmates as a group.

* Only 51% have completed high school or its equivalent, compared with 76% of the general population.

* Seventy percent of prisoners scored in the two lowest literacy levels of the national Adult Literacy Survey. While they are not totally illiterate, they have great difficulty writing a letter explaining, for instance, an error on a credit card bill, or understanding a bus schedule.

* Eight percent of Colorado’s inmates read below a ninth grade level.

I don’t know the cost to keep a prisoner in the new Justice Center for a period of a year. State figures suggest that a prisoner costs a minimum of $21,000 per year. By contrast, a welfare recipient costs a minimum of $9,823 a year.

But compare that with the average cost of adult education programs per adult learner in 1997 -- $239.93. Based on recent study by the Colorado Literacy Research Initiative, such educational participation landed a job for one out of every five students, enabled one in eight to keep a job or earn a promotion for one in eight, and of the people currently receiving public assistance, one in ten got off the dole completely.

On a purely economic basis, education would appear to be cheaper than incarceration.

All of this information is by way of trying to recruit literacy volunteers for inmates of the Douglas County jail. As any of our many tutors will tell you, few volunteer activities are so rewarding. The gift of literacy has the power to change lives, to rehabilitate and to make productive citizens of people now literally trapped.

If you’d like to make that kind of a difference in someone’s life, contact Penny Perkins, Literacy Coordinator for the Douglas Public Library District. Her number is 841-6942. Our next literacy training is scheduled for June 13, 20, and 27 from 9 a.m. until noon. The June 13 session will provide some literacy facts, and describe the library’s program, policies, and needs. On June 20, we’ll cover strategies for dealing with basic literacy and English as a Second Language students. The June 27 sessions will focus on GED exams, and strategies for helping someone prepare for them.

Tutors who sign up to help inmates must also attend a sheriff’s department volunteer training session, which is slated for July 11. It will start promptly at 8:00 a.m., and run through 4 p.m. After that, you can stick around for the tour. If you have any questions about that, call Linda M. DeLuca at 660-7505, ext. 6641, for leave a message at ext. 7088. Justice Center volunteers must sign up by June 15, 1998.

All that might sound like a lot of time. But for people DOING time, your willingness to invest four days of your life -- and an average of one hour a week thereafter -- could be a kind of salvation.

Wednesday, May 6, 1998

May 6, 1998 - Local History Collection and Historic Bank

The strongest memory is based on scent. Just wave a crayon under your nose. The years do evaporate.

Another kind of memory is transmitted by music.

The power of music can also be easily demonstrated. Someone walks through the room and whistles just one line, a single phrase from a song you heard when you were a kid. In moments, this song consumes every ounce of your intelligence, as the notes repeat in your head, over and over and over. This seems especially true when it's a really bad song, for instance, anything by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap.

("Young girl, get out of my mind...")

(See what I mean?)

But music also has the ability to transcend personal memory. Sometimes, it becomes part of the memory of a nation. "Yankee Doodle" is one example. "Eating Goober's Peas" is another. It's about some Civil War soldiers resting from the march and eating "Goober's Peas" -- peanuts. Or so my junior high school music teacher told me, and I believed him.

But sometimes such charming songs fade from our collective memory -- particularly if we never had a music teacher, or that teacher never spent much time on the music of bygone eras.

On the other hand, even if you were musically deprived, you still have options. For instance, you could attend a special library program on Sunday, May 17, 2 p.m., at the Douglas County Commissioner's Hearing Room in Castle Rock (at the new Philip S. Miller building west and a little south of the county courthouse). The theme is Civil War era music. The musicians are the popular and peripatetic 4th U.S. Artillery Regimental Brass Band. The program is absolutely free.

The band boasts 20 musicians arrayed in full period costume (which is an an education in itself). The performers are not only unusually gifted with a variety of old-timey instruments, they are also extraordinarily knowledgeable about the music they play, and the time from which it came.

The program is timed to fall (just) within National Historic Preservation Week (May 9-May 17). The theme this year is "Save the Past for the Future."

Many people assume that historic preservation only concerns old buildings. Well, it does concern old buildings. But it mostly concerns the communication, across generations, of a sense of life, of what things were LIKE. Few things transmit this knowledge as well as music.

But not just music. To collect all manner of print and photographic materials, the Douglas Public Library District established our Local History Collection.

Our Archivist for the collection, Johanna Harden (814-0795), always looks forward to spring. As people clean out their houses, they stumble across all sort of valuable historical information: photographs of Douglas County buildings now gone or changed. Diaries of ancestors. Even sheet music.

So when you bring your family down for an educational and foot-stomping afternoon, take the time to do a little rooting around in some old boxes. It could be you've got a prize for the future.

[Speaking of history, I have a correction to my column a couple of weeks ago the 1958 UFO sighting in Castle Rock. The clippings were organized by WILLIAM, not Wilbur, Kirby. My apologies].