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, July 29, 1998

July 29, 1998 - E-mail Policy Issues

I use e-mail. A lot.

At work, I'm logged into a high speed network that makes grabbing my messages a snap. I do it many times a day -- it's a good filler for those odd moments between tasks. When I get home, I usually check my mail at least once again before I go to bed.

Most of the e-mail is work-related -- usually from other librarians who can't keep off their computers, either. Some of it is just for fun, keeping up with friends, swapping jokes and poetry. As is true of so many people, my job is not just a job, it's a lifestyle. The lines between work and fun blur sometimes.

But checking e-mail in two locations (work and home) occasionally leads to trouble. Most e-mail programs fetch messages from a central server, transfer them to your hard drive, then delete the mail from the server. So when I fetch my mail from two computers, sometimes my work messages wind up at home, and my just for fun messages wind up at work. That's fine until the message I really need to review before a meeting -- isn't there. It's at home.

I mention this not because my e-mail habits are exceptional. In fact, I think they're fairly common. But that leads me to a library issue.

I announced in a previous column that our computer system now has the ability to send out e-mail notices. When your hold comes in, when you have something overdue, or for any of a host of other reasons having to do with your library card, the notice goes to your e-mail box. I thought some people would like the option and it might cut down on phone calls and postage.

Almost immediately, what I thought was a minor patron convenience turned into a ticklish policy question. The very first person who asked for the e-mail option also wanted it for everyone else in her family. But she wanted all the notices to come to her e-mail address.

At first blush, you may ask, what's the problem? Isn't an e-mail address like a postal address?

No. It's not. When we mail a regular notice to somebody's house, it's because that's where the person lives. We imagine that the person has access to his or her mail. It may be the case that someone else opens the mail. (Not, I want the world to know, in MY family's house. We view these things as sacred.) But when the library mails a piece of paper to somebody's house, we know that we've done our job. We've notified the person at the place where that person lives.

E-mail doesn't work like that. Let's say a husband and wife share an e-mail account. Both of them have access to it. Both of them grab their mail from work and from home. But suppose the husband is at work when he snags the e-mail message (a book on hold) for his wife?

There are two questions. First, why is the library automatically revealing to the husband what the wife is reading? Second, even supposing that the wife gave us permission to do so, have we, in fact, delivered our message?

When we leave a voice message on a phone machine, at least the wife can listen to the message herself. But if it's on her husband's work machine... Well, we're going to get yelled at because she never KNEW about the message, and she's been waiting for eight months for that book, and now we've gone and given it to the next person on the list because she never came and got it!

Then we get into the issues about the right to privacy of children. Again, parents may feel they have the perfect right to open their children's mail. That's between them.

But I have to wonder, does the child even have access to the e-mail account? By delivering his or her mail to somebody else's account, it seems to me that I not only haven't delivered the message, but I have just handed over whatever confidentiality used to exist between that child and the library. I realize that this is the worst case scenario, but suppose the book on hold is about incest?

Should a library allow a new technological wrinkle to rewrite whole library policy and procedure?

As I say, this automation stuff gets tricky. About fifty percent of my job, lately, is steering our institutional raft through the rapids of computer-induced change.

At any rate, I have informed our staff that e-mail notices only go to individual e-mail accounts, not shared accounts. If we catch a duplicate, we'll ask the family to choose: who gets it? This procedure prevents goof-ups, protects patron rights, and makes sure that the mail goes through to the person intended to receive it.

And that's ALL we're trying to do here.

Wednesday, July 22, 1998

July 22, 1998 - Russian Artist Exchange

I once read that it was the custom among the leaders of certain Plains Indian tribes to exchange sons. The exchange lasted from the ages of 8 through adulthood. The sons guaranteed peace -- who would attack his own children?

The practice also bespoke the willingness of tribal leaders to pass on to their own children the lifestyles and perspectives of former enemies.

Could YOU do that? I would imagine that there would be at least three hard transitions: letting your own son go, accepting a stranger and raising him as your son, and finally, re-integrating the long absent son back into your heart, with all of his foreign experiences.

As difficult as it seems, this old practice (if indeed it happened this way) may point the way to the future. If we are ever to eliminate the many forms of tribal hatred in this world, we must somehow learn to enlarge our idea of "family."

I've been considering this from several angles lately. It happens that I'm a member of the Castle Rock Rotary Club. Recently, one of our members, Jim Watson, took a trip to the Russia east of the Ural mountains. The intent was to charter a new club in Tyumen. Jim doesn't speak a word of Russian. Most of the people he needed to talk to didn't speak a word of English.

But through perseverance, even, perhaps, through a practical demonstration of Rotary principles, he made significant progress. There is now a core group of Russians willing to give it a try. (Incidentally, most of Russia falls within what was already the largest Rotary "district" in the world: Alaska.)

Just last week, one of our local Renaissance Festival folks -- a portrait artist by the name of Nancy Christensen (or NanC, as she signs herself) stopped by our Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. She had a videotape, an interview the cable company in Minneapolis had done after her trip from Moscow through Siberia.

Traveling by train, staying with the parents of a children's pen pal program, bureaucrats, and other artists, she managed to tour the country almost immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union (and just after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall). In her quiet, compelling way, liberally illustrated with her sketches and portraits, NanC describes a way of life most Americans can barely imagine.

I liked her comments about the Russian people: they were cold and stern in public, but once you stepped into their homes, were abruptly warm, intimate, loving, generous. (They were also great readers.)

NanC offered the tape as a library program. I am most pleased to accept. So, at the Philip S. Miller Library, on Wednesday, July 29, beginning at noon, the public is warmly invited to watch a video that runs about an hour and a half. I hope to have NanC there, and will even try to cajole Jim Watson to sit in. Feel free to bring your lunch.

In could be that an artists' exchange -- swapping our creative talent across nations -- is the first step toward something like planetary understanding.

Wednesday, July 15, 1998

July 15, 1998 - The Colorado Library Card

Several years ago, I served on something called the Colorado Library Card Committee.

Public libraries in the Denver metropolitan area used to charge each other to loan materials to "non-resident" library patrons. For instance, Douglas County paid Englewood a couple of thousand dollars a year. It wasn't a process that did much good for libraries. Not only did it reduce the money we could have used to buy the books our patrons had to go looking for elsewhere, but the Englewood Library never even got the money. It just went into the city's general fund.

So after a lot of discussion, the Colorado Library Card Committee worked out a way to let patrons of any participating library use their library cards at any other participating library. Cost to the patron: zero. Cost to the library: zero.

The program was completely voluntary. Nobody was forced to join.

At first, there was some concern on the part of smaller libraries that hordes of big city folks would swoop down and grab all the bestsellers. That didn't happen.

It's true, though, that library patrons (particularly those along the Front Range) are pretty footloose. They may live in Douglas County, but they work in Denver. Or they may live in Colorado Springs, work at the Tech Center, and drive through Castle Rock every day.

So the Colorado Library Card was a good deal for almost all of our own patrons, greatly expanding their access to materials. With the money that we saved from the old fee arrangements, all of us were able to buy a lot more new materials.

Shortly after the Colorado Library Card program was launched, circulation (our word for how many items get checked out) rose sharply all over the metro area. Coincidence?

Today, roughly 9 out of every 10 Colorado public and academic libraries have joined.

Fewer than half of the school libraries have signed up -- in part because of issues of building security, in part because few school libraries have their collections available through the Internet, nor are they open in the evenings. All of these are issues of public accessibility.

On the other hand, the program also embraces a number of private libraries -- medical libraries, law libraries, museum libraries, and others -- most of which used to be closed to the general public.

While there are a few other states with a state wide card, most involve only public libraries. In this program (and in others) Colorado leads the nation.

The Library Research Service, associated with the Colorado State Library, recently conducted a survey of Colorado Library Card participants.

The report is not yet final. But here was the finding that jumped out at me: when asked to characterize the amount of effort involved in providing this service, 80.7% of the respondents felt there was either "no noticeable effort" or a "negligible effort." 18.3% of the participants said that it required "modest effort," which was defined as "noticeable but absorbable." Nobody said it required a "substantial effort."

When asked what kind of rating participants would give the program considering its public relations value, 1.8% said it was "unsuccessful." 28.4% said it had no effect. But a whopping 66.9% said that the program was either "modestly successful" or "very successful." (2.8% did not respond.)

Let's review. Here is a program, instituted voluntarily by public officials, costing nothing additional to taxpayers, that opened library doors all over the state. Its impact is staggering -- millions of books (and other library materials) are circulated per year. But the program is so simple and straightforward that the overwhelming majority of the libraries simply incorporated it into their daily routine, and over two thirds consider it successful.

If you haven't used your Colorado Library Card, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

July 8, 1998 Recent Computer Enhancements

We've done all of our big computer upgrades. So what's in it for you?

How about -- speed? Our machine is much faster than it used to be. That means faster searching, faster connections to other library computers.

Or how about -- dial-in renewals?

If you've got a computer and a modem, you can connect to our library computer either directly (688-1428) or through ACLIN (440-9969, 294-7260, 291-0986). Once you get to our main search screen, choose "Review patron record."

Here you'll be asked a couple of questions. First is the significant numbers of your library card. The "significant part" is anything after 2 3025 and any zeroes that immediately follow those digits. So if your number is 23025001234567, you would type 1234567.

The second question is the last four numbers of your phone number (alternatively, you can provide us with a PIN number, as for a credit card).

Assuming you've entered this information correctly (and also assuming that you HAVE a library card and phone number in our database), now you get a screen that lets you view several kinds of information: which books you have checked out, what's waiting on hold for you, and a few other extras. If you choose to review the books you have checked out, you can also renew any of them that don't have somebody waiting for them.

Another new option here is at the end of this "Review Patron Record" screen. It's called "Yearly Holds List." Ask a circulation clerk to turn on this option for you. Once activated, this lets you go back and see all of the items you have placed on hold (even the ones you've already read). This new feature of our software can be a handy way to keep track of which bestsellers you've already looked at.

While you're talking to the clerk, you might also ask them to turn on another new option: e-mail notices. Many people in Douglas County have e-mail accounts. How about getting all of your hold notices, overdue notices, etc., straight from our computer to yours? No more fumbling at the mail box or missing a phone call. Find out the very hour your book comes in!

We're working on some other options, too. The big one is web-based access to our catalog. While our patrons have always been able to log into our catalog through the Internet, this has been based on a "telnet," or non-graphical, session. The web-based version will let you navigate our catalog much as you navigate any World Wide Web page -- pointing and clicking. This will add a significant level of ease-of-use to our offerings.

Some of these new services are still in process (there are still a few kinks in the e-mail notices, and the web-based catalog needs a little tweaking, too). But most of them should be up and running by the time this column sees print.

And with these changes mostly behind us now, it's time to back to the core of our work: connecting people and books.

See you at the library, real or virtual.

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

July 1, 1998 - Upgrade Congratulations

As I've written before, the library recently had to go through two intense computer upgrades. The first was hardware. Based on the experiences of other libraries, we figured that would take about three to five days.

The next upgrade was software. This one was a little trickier. It involved not only an operating system upgrade (to take care of the pesky Year 2000 problem), but THREE library software upgrades. (The first two didn't have much that was significant to us. The last one did.)

Because of the complexity of this second upgrade, we'd figured we'd be down for five to seven days.

Well, that didn't happen. The first upgrade took 22 hours. The second took 17 hours.

The fact that both of these were so smooth, so swift, is largely due to the work of five staff members. They deserve to have their names in the paper.

The team consisted of:

* Kevin Watkins, our Network Administrator;

* Julie Halverstadt, our Cataloger (and backup System Administrator);

* Donna Harrison, Technical Services Manager;

* Missy Shock, our Software Specialist; and

* Holly Deni, Branch Manager of the Philip S. Miller Library.

Kevin, Donna, and Julie were responsible for the almost obsessively detailed planning during the many months preceding the change.

These folks, with a crucial assist from Missy and Holly, were responsible for the jump-on-it effort to troubleshoot problems from the instant the software upgrade was complete. Library software is a complex universe of inter-related functions. You cannot imagine how much they tested in a matter of hours.

Most of our patrons just see the folks at the public service desks. But there's another whole sphere of library activity that goes on behind the scenes.

The one that has the most obvious impact on our services has to do with ordering, receiving, cataloging, and "processing" (marking, jacketing, etc.). Nobody does it faster or better.

But our automated services folks are another important piece of the library puzzle. Once again, I won't mince words. I have to say that this team is one of the best.

Frankly, I didn't contribute much. During both upgrades, I finagled a way to let people keep looking things up in the OLD (and a little out-of-date) computer catalog while we worked on the new one. That's it.

The real achievement was the planning, the careful preparation -- followed by a thoroughly conscientious and intelligent implementation. That was entirely the work of the people mentioned above.

I am very often impressed by the work of our staff. This time, I think they made history, at least in library land.

Incidentally, we now have a thoughtfully divided system of "servers." One of them (catalog.douglas.lib.co.us, accessible by telnet) is our library's catalog. Another looks after our World Wide Web offerings (http://douglas.lib.co.us). A third (not accessible from outside our buildings) manages our Internet workstations. What this means is that if any one of the systems crashes, the other two keep chugging along.

We think this strategy wrings the most life out of our machines, and protects us to the greatest possible extent from Murphy's Law.

Once again, I'm very proud of our staff. To all of you: congratulations on a job well done!