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, June 24, 1998

June 24, 1998 - Commencement Address: Intertia

I have never been asked to give a high school (or college, or, for that matter, an elementary school) commencement address. For all I know, I never will be.

But just in case, I have prepared the following remarks.

Dear Graduating Class of [fill in the blank],

The whole idea of historical lessons probably sounds tedious to you right now. The golden days of summer beckon. School is ended.

But before you go, let me tell you about one of history's lessons I find inspiring.

By the age of 19, an Englishman named Isaac Newton came up with something called the Law of Inertia. It had two parts. The first part was that an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

There's no surprise there. Picture yourself on the couch, watching TV. Inertia.

But the second part was completely contrary to common sense. He said that an object in motion tends to stay in motion.

Ridiculous! Push a ball downhill, and the one thing we can be sure of is that it stops. How long that takes may vary with the height of the hill, but the ball stops. Always.

What kind of madman was this guy?

But he wasn't. The genius of Newton was that he said things didn't stop all by themselves. Something stopped them. That thing, that force, was friction, an independent force operating against motion.

The whole understanding of the human race changed at that moment.

The key lesson I want to convey to you today is that when your mind is engaged, when you're alive and alert and paying attention, when you are learning (quite apart from what other people may think they are teaching) you are an object in motion. You're moving. And you're going to keep moving.

Engagement with life is a force that endures.

But you may also find that sometimes that marvelous sense of growth and learning suddenly seems to give out. You stop.

Trust me. This will happen.

What you need to hear now, what you need to remember for later, is that this doesn't necessarily mean that YOU have pooped out. It may mean that something outside of you, an independent force, has blocked you. When you get stymied in life, maybe it's not you.

It's friction.

It may also be useful to remember that more profoundly than ever, our society urgently requires your energy, your insight, your tolerance, your kindness, your eventual wisdom. Never doubt it.

Meanwhile, you have an incomparable opportunity to think deeper and wider, to feel farther, than any generation before you. And you only have to do one thing.


You might also talk to each other about what you've read. Then read some more.

I believe in you. Even when your parents forget to say it, or honestly don't know how to say it, know in your bones that all of us believe in you.

It's the whole secret of the human race.

You are alive. You are objects in motion. Fight the friction.

Meanwhile, right here in the summer of 1998, the Douglas Public Library District is again offering a Young Adult Reading Program. It runs from June 15th through July 27th. We're encouraging you to read 6 books in 6 weeks.

Do that, and we'll put your name in a drawing for free movie tickets and videos rentals. (Is this ironic, or what?)

You can also write book reviews, some of which will be published in the local paper. There are more prizes.

Check all this out at our web site.

I realize that you may have other things on your mind. But humor us. Swing by the library, sign up, read some stuff.

You know what? We'd be pleased to see you.

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

June 17, 1998 - Employee Loyalty

A high school buddy of mine back east is an entrepreneur these days. After being downsized, rightsized, then discharged (and disgusted) from companies for which he did very good work -- and which posted healthy quarterly profits -- he decided that loyalty to an employer was a kind of stupidity.

So he went into business for himself. No more hierarchy. No more out-of-touch corporate big wigs. He was on the front line, and he called the shots. If something needed to change, then, by God, he changed it.

He runs a shop that employs two people. About every six months or so, he has to replace one of them. In part, he admits that it's because he doesn't pay benefits. In part, he laments that you can't find good employees anymore, people willing to put some serious effort into the company.

He doesn't seem to make any connection at all between the first and third paragraphs of this column.

Then, a couple of years ago, he stepped forward to serve on a public board -- a charter school board, as it happens. His beloved daughter just hit first grade. The school employs some 20 times as many people as my friend has ever supervised. Nonetheless, he's been bringing the fruits of his experience to bear.

His votes have a theme: If those teachers don't like it, let them push on! And if the principal of the school doesn't agree immediately to the will of the board, hey, nobody is indispensable.

Here's the history of his charter school: 5 years of operation, 4 principals. And here's the kicker: nobody's responded to the latest job ad.

No, there's another kicker. My friend finds this completely baffling. What happened to the American work ethic? he wonders.

About the time this news came in, I discovered that of the 6 charter schools in Douglas County, 5 of them fired their principals at the end of this academic year. I do wonder how many candidates they'll find for next year. (I also wonder what this means to the charter school movement, still in its infancy. Is this a kind of crib death?)

Here comes an utterly heretical statement, and I expect that many people will have trouble with it. But somebody has to say it. If I overstate the matter, it's because sometimes that's what it takes to make a point.

Business people are imposing completely erroneous management notions on the public sector. Yes, it's based on their experience. But their experience is warped.

At the same time that small business owners prattle on about the importance of customer service, they treat their own employees as inconsequential.

If an employee said to a customer, "You don't like this arrangement? Take a walk!" most employers would say that's bad service.

Yet the same employers say precisely this to their workers.

Think about that. To keep your customers, you have to pay attention to their needs. You can't just blow them off and expect to stay in business.

But you don't have to pay attention to the people who serve the customers. You're SUPPOSED to blow them off.

This is good business? This is the lesson of the private sector?

Too many employers don't seem to understand that if you don't offer loyalty, you won't get it. What's more, you don't deserve it.

I could write a book. A library wouldn't be a bad place to put it.

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

June 10, 1998 - Retail Value of Public Library Services

After last year's round of visits to see my terminally ill father, I came up with a new set of requirements for a vacation: (1) you have to go somewhere you've never been before, (2) it has to be somewhere where you don't have any relatives, and (3) it must be beautiful.

The idea behind a vacation, of course, is to shake loose the daily doldrums. Stop thinking about work. Get away from it all.

Well, my most recent vacation started out perfect. I went to the Pacific Northwest for the first time. I have no relatives in that area. The forest, the islands, Puget Sound -- all were spectacularly beautiful.

Here's the part that takes some explaining. On the second day of my vacation, I went to the library. In fact, I wound up attending a library board meeting.

I realize this seems incomprehensible to many people. Vacations are to get away from work. But I rediscovered two things about libraries that I'd forgotten in the demands of the daily routine.

First, I really do have a deep, genuine, even passionate love for the public library. Where else can you just wander into an attractive public building and paw through its treasures? Want guidebooks? Right there. Need a new children's story for your youngest? Pull up a comfy chair, plop your boy in your lap, and start reading. Want to figure out what's happening locally? The newspapers and tables are right here by the window. Beyond all that, libraries are just packed with books. Isn't that cool?

So I browsed the Orcas Island Library District's charming building and found what I almost always find in libraries: interesting collections, intelligent staff, and thoughtfully planned spaces. I even scheduled an appointment to sit and chat with the director. Here I confirmed my impression from the board meeting: the issues of running a library, big or small, are pretty much the same. They vary only in scale.

Conclusions: libraries are nice places to hang out, even when you're on vacation; and the Orcas Island Library District is very smartly managed, with a Board that clearly cares about service, and a community that knows what a good deal it's got.

Speaking of good deals, I then came back and took a fresh look at some of the economics of our own library district.

First I calculated the costs of various retail services: the cost of a non-fiction hardback, a fiction paperback, a video, a magazine, a children's story time, a meeting room, and so on. Then I multiplied that cost by the number of times those items had been used by our patrons in 1997. Then I compared the retail value of the service with our budget.

Here's the conclusion: for every dollar of taxpayer money, the Douglas Public Library District returned $6.00 in service. A bargain!

If you're interested in seeing the entire chart, you'll find it at our web site.

P.S. And speaking of computers, after planning for 5 days of downtime for our hardware upgrade last week, I'm pleased to say the system was up and running after just a day and a half. That completes the first piece of the Year 2000 fix. June 22-25 is when we tackle our software upgrade. Let's hope that goes as smoothly! Thanks in advance for your continued patience.

Wednesday, June 3, 1998

June 3, 1998 - Tearing Up Daddy's Roommate

Back in June of 1995, I described what struck me as an extraordinary situation.

One of our very own patrons walked into the Bemis Public Library to use the copy machine. Dissatisfied with the quality of the copy, he abruptly shattered the top glass plate of the machine with his walking stick. Then, with a grunt of satisfaction, he headed for the door.

When confronted by staff, the man protested, “But I’m a taxpayer! I own that machine!” Leaving aside the fact that this taxpayer lived in Douglas County, not the City of Littleton, the library director opined that being a taxpayer didn’t give someone the right, for instance, to borrow a police car for a spin. (Although, as it happens, the man in question did get to ride in a police car that day.)

Alas. I have a couple of more current examples of a similarly outrageous view of public property.

At our Highlands Ranch Library, two children’s books -- Daddy’s Roommate, and Daddy’s Wedding -- were ripped apart, page by page, into thirds. The first book deals with a young boy whose father divorces his mother, then moves in with a gay lover. In the second book, the gay couple gets married.

I’ve gotten several complaints about the books in recent years. Usually, the concern is that the patron is personally opposed to any positive portrayal of homosexuality, and that the library shouldn’t be promoting such things.

My response is threefold.

1) We bought the book at the direct request of a Douglas County resident, whose husband had left her for another man. She was trying to explain the situation to her son. She said the book helped.

2) We have many books about homosexuality. Some of these books portray gay people as people who happen to have sexual feelings for members of their own gender. Some of the books portray gays as immoral sexual predators. Some portray homosexuality as the key civil rights issue of our time. Others portray the “gay agenda” as evidence of the unraveling of our national fabric.

While I certainly have my own opinion on the matter, the library itself attempts to take an even-handed approach. We buy books representing various viewpoints, mostly from the mainstream publishing houses. It’s a controversial topic, which means that a lot of books get published on it. We don’t endorse or promote the perspectives expressed by various authors. We just present them for public examination.

3) Underlying this whole discussion is the idea of “freedom of speech.” It is based on a fairly elementary notion: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

To put it another way, if somebody punches you in the nose or smashes your car with a sledgehammer, you have suffered real, demonstrable damage. In a civilized society, initiating violence against person or property is against the law.

But if people just say (or write) something about a topic not directly related to you, then they’re just voicing their opinions. You’re free to argue against it, agree wholeheartedly, or keep quiet. The only time speech is held to “hurt” you is when the remarks are libelous -- a legal term fairly strictly defined.

You do not, however, have the right to expect that no one will ever voice an opinion that you don’t agree with.

My point is that Daddy’s Roommate and Daddy’s Wedding are just a couple of books that express an opinion, albeit an unpopular one in some quarters. In America, at least this week, that’s still legal. Ripping a book apart is an action: destruction of property. That’s still a crime.

I’m guessing that whoever destroyed these books has the same wrong-headed notion about public property as the guy who smashed the copy machine. Public property doesn’t belong to you, just a share of it does. But you should treat public property as you would like other people to treat your own: with care and (lest it die out altogether) with civility.

Meanwhile, the library will do what it always does when people start stealing or destroying our books in a protest against the message they express. We will buy additional copies.