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, September 30, 1998

September 30, 1998 - Banned Books Week

September 26 through October 2 is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. This is the 17th year of its observance.

At the end of last year, all of Colorado’s public libraries were asked to submit a list of all of the library materials that had been “challenged” (complained about) by library patrons.

Eighteen public libraries reported 68 challenges to materials, exhibits and even library architecture around the state. (The full report can be found at http://douglas.lib.co.us/97challenges.html.)

The Library Research Service noted with some surprise that no formal complaints had been filed about Internet sites.

Next year, there will be. Here’s some background: a couple of years ago, the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. It mandated various criminal and financial penalties for people providing access to pornography on the World Wide Web. This Act was eventually struck down in many particulars by the Supreme Court.

Well, in September of 1998, just in time for Banned Books Week, the same Congress that wanted to CENSOR Internet pornography is now a PUBLISHER. Yes, you can find the Starr Report through the Douglas Public Library District’s web site. We point to it from our Government Information page: http://starrreport.excite.com/toc.html.

But I remind you that the library didn’t publish this. The federal government did.

I’ve thought a lot about the issue of censorship through the years. And I’ve reached two basic conclusions.

First, things really aren’t so bad. Aside from Salmon Rushdie, no authors have been threatened with death -- and even that situation seems to be looking up. No Colorado authors or librarians have been burned at the stake.

As for the Starr Report, I’m so disgusted by the whole thing that I’ve stopped reading anything at all about it. When it comes on the radio, I turn the radio off. I have a choice, and I use it.

Meanwhile, I can guarantee that more than 68 library materials were complained about last year in Colorado. Not all complaints get reported.

But it’s important to contrast that with the hundreds of thousands of materials added to libraries’ collective shelves last year. Statistically speaking, the complaints are small to the point of insignificance.

Moreover, objecting to the content of books is almost as much fun as talking about the things you like. That’s what free speech is all about. You’re entitled to your opinion -- and at least you’re reading!

Second, I’ve decided that the real problem in America isn’t the decline of intellectual freedom. It’s the decline of civility.

A small part of the population has always abused whatever information retrieval systems were in place at the time. Good public policy doesn’t take the worst case as the norm.

If 18 uniformed men walked into the library and started setting up a baseball diamond, I wouldn’t sue them for criminal acts. I’d say, “Whoa, guys! Wrong place!”

The same thing holds true for those who seek to turn libraries -- funded by the general public primarily for research -- into peep shows. We don’t need the federal government to adopt a new Prohibition. We just need library patrons who realize, “Whoa! Wrong place!”

On the other hand, there are lots of circumstances when what may seem pornographic from a distance is actually a perfectly legitimate medical inquiry, or concerns art.

As always, the purpose of Banned Books Week is to pause a moment to reflect on the balance between public decency and consideration for others, without trampling all over the fundamental civil liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. It’s a worthwhile exercise.

Wednesday, September 23, 1998

September 23, 1998 - Marilyn Monroe's Dress Size

On occasion, libraries are called upon to decide weighty matters.

Recently a local Rotary newsletter editor who shall remain nameless (except to admit that it was me) stuck in filler material from another newsletter. Among these "odd facts" was the statement that "Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16."

This was promptly challenged by another Rotarian (Jim Watson), who pledged $100 to the club if it could be proved true. He said the only way Marilyn Monroe -- from now on, MM -- could have worn a size 16 was if she were pregnant at the time.

I could quickly dredge up two sources confirming that yes indeed, MM wore size 16. Those sources were: People Magazine (Sept. 29, 1997) and the prestigious New Statesman (July 31, 1998). Moreover, the claim was repeated in a number of web sites, many of which contained remarkably comprehensive information about MM's life.

End of story, right?

Wrong. Just having sources doesn't mean that something is true.

Besides, various other web sites denied it. One site stated (rather authoritatively, I thought) that MM wore a dress size of 12, pants 8, shoes 7AA.

So I combed through some MM biographies. No help there.

One of my magazine articles mentioned that MM's famous white dress of "Seven Year Itch" (the one she was wearing when she stood over the subway grill) was at the Debby Reynolds Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. There I managed to locate and speak with one Michael Rennie, Manager of the Hollywood Movie Museum, of the Debby Reynolds Private Collection.

This collection boasts 15 MM dresses, all sized differently. According to Rennie, the white dress was a size 8 "in today's sizes." The other dresses range from 4 to 8. "But she was busty," he said. That's a significant comment.

Here's what I can verify from several sources. MM was 5' 5-1/2" tall. Her weight varied from 118 to 140 (during her pregnancy, when "Some Like It Hot" was filmed).

Again according to Rennie and other sources, MM's measurements around 1955-56 really did reach what she herself said should be her epitaph: "Here lies Marilyn Monroe, 38-23-36."

According to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she once wore a 36D bra. (Isn't it terrible when a newspaper knows your underwear size?) (And isn't it worse that here I am, repeating it?)

Today, a 5' 5-1/2" woman weighing 140 pounds probably would wear a size 12 dress. A dress chart from 1962 (culled from dress making patterns) shows that anyone with a bust of 38" would wear a size 18 dress. A dress chart from 1976, however, gives the same measurement a size 16.

Dress sizes (for you men out there) are based on bust and hips measurements. Usually, there isn't 10 inches difference between the larger of these measurements and a woman's waist. Because of MM's famed "hourglass figure" (generous bosom and hips, but very slender waist), all of MM's most memorable movie dresses were custom-made. Custom dresses don't really have "sizes."

But, as suggested above, dress sizes have changed over the years. According not only to the charts I cited, but an article quoting Ellen Goldsberry, director of the Southwest Retail Center for Education and Research and a professor of retailing and consumer studies at the University of Arizona, women's clothing sizes are deceptive.
A size 8 dress, for example, would have been a size 12 back in the 1940's, when clothing standards were originally determined. "Over the years manufacturers have added on slightly, then slightly more, to areas of the body where women have gotten larger -- the waist, the hips, and the bust," she said.

According to Goldsberry, "Women feel better about buying dresses in smaller sizes, so the designers figured out that they could please customers by cutting the clothing larger." Dubbed "vanity sizing," this trend has caught on practically everywhere. The article concluded, "The result is that women who weigh a few pounds more than they did a decade ago may actually be purchasing clothing a size smaller -- no matter where they shop, from the classiest boutique to the cheapest discount house."

So what's the answer? Basically, MM did not wear (for most of her career) a dress that would be considered a size 16 today. But since dress sizes have changed by at least two sizes over the past forty years, she might well have worn something considered size 16 in the fifties even when she wasn't pregnant.

So it seems to me that MM both did, and did not, wear a size 16 dress. Reluctantly, I have to conclude that Jim Watson does NOT owe $100 to the club.

And that's the reference business in a nutshell: interesting, informative, but not necessarily quite what you wanted to hear.

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

September 16, 1998 - Adult Literacy Statistics

If you’re reading this column, congratulations! You have mastered a skill denied to some 40 million adults.

You are literate.

About a year ago (October 1997), the teacher’s journal Phi Delta Kappan reported on the results of the First International Adult Literacy Survey. The adults (ages 16-65) were tested on their ability to understand text information. The news wasn’t good: 20.7% of US adults are at the lowest reading level. Just 3.8% of US adults were at the highest level.

Again, the raw number of adult illiterates in this country is estimated at around 40 million. What’s the cause? Poverty is often correlated with illiteracy, although in fact the inability to read stretches across every socioeconomic class (as well as age group). Some attribute illiteracy to our cultural fascination with electronic media and the emphasis on visual imagery -- but even before TV, not everyone learned to read.

Some interesting research into the history of textbooks demonstrates that shortly after World War II, textbooks suffered an abrupt decline in the complexity of their vocabularies. This roughly parallels the introduction of the staggeringly boring and inane Dick and Jane reading primers.

In a recent column I lamented the rise of USA Today as the most popular newspaper in America. But it should surprise no one that when you treat children as morons, they grow up demanding newspapers based on little words and big pictures.

In schools, even the best schools, there are educational trends, swinging from highly structured phonics to more unstructured immersion, to such faddish approaches as the “look say” method (where you were supposed to learn to recognize words by their SHAPES), then back again. Many educators seem not to grasp the obvious fact: some children learn best through one method, some through another. ANY method, if offered as the sole approach, will inevitably fail some students.

Other research proves that it takes just 20 hours of instruction and practice for most people (barring profound learning disabilities) to learn at least the basics of reading.

So consider this a challenge. Would you be willing to give back that 20 hours, or perhaps twice that in a year, to pass on your skill to another human being?

If so, the Adult Literacy Program of the Douglas Public Library District needs you. At this writing, we have 7 students waiting for tutors.

All of our tutors receive training and materials, provided by Penny Perkins, Coordinator of our program. Our next training session will be held at the Parker Library, 9 a.m. to noon, and stretches across three days: October 17, 24 and 31. All are Saturdays.

In the training, you’ll learn about all kinds of tips and tricks to help people grab hold of a skill most of us can’t imagine living without. And you’ll come to realize just how precious that skill can be.

Our tutors are volunteers. Most of the tutoring happens at one of our libraries -- a sort of business appointment with the student, typically one hour a week. The program is free to those in need of it, although we may ask them to purchase a workbook -- our experience is that the modest purchase makes students literally feel “invested” in the process, and stick with it.

It takes courage for adults to come forward and admit their inability to read. To overcome that inability, it takes thoughtfulness, discipline and patience for student and tutor alike.

But every single year, our program racks up incalculable human victories: people who become citizens, people who get their GED’s, people who for the first time fill out a job application by themselves, people who are now able to read a book to a beloved grandchild.

Please call 303-841-6942 if you would like to be a part of that. I guarantee: it will change your life. And you will make a difference in someone else’s.

Wednesday, September 9, 1998

September 9, 1998 - Staff Day Ideas

On August 28, the last Friday of the month, the Douglas Public Library District held its 7th annual Staff Day. On that day, we close all locations and assemble our entire staff -- the 160 people scattered across the county.

The day follows a certain pattern. I get a short period to give a "state of the district" talk -- our notable achievements over the past year, our plans for the next. Then we have a series of workshops, lunch, service awards, more workshops, then we end with a real live author.

In past years, we've tended to bring in some "outsiders" to teach our workshops. But this year, with just one exception, we used our own staff.

They were great. Some talked about our "outreach services" -- for instance, the Adult Literacy Program, our use of Volunteers, our Books by Mail program for the residents of far-flung Deckers. Others talked about those tricky situations that pop up at the front desk, and how we like to handle them. Still others talked about computer trouble-shooting.

Our final speaker was Connie Willis, a science fiction author from Greeley. Connie has won more Hugo and Nebula awards than any science fiction author in history (5 and 6, respectively). Not only that, she has a wicked tongue, and peppered her talk with references to some half a hundred books.

At the end of the day, I heard our staff members spilling out saying, "I have GOT to do more reading." Not a bad attitude for library workers, in my opinion.

The other important thing I get out of the day is the direct opportunity to hear what our staff is really thinking about. I gave every one a card: what one thing would you change at your branch? At the district? I asked them to fill out the cards sometime during the day, then drop them off in a box by the door.

Almost everybody did take the opportunity. And a very clear message emerged. Our current system of telephones is breaking down. I don't mean mechanically. I mean that our traditional system of picking up the phone at the front desk has begun to interfere with our service.

What's the answer? A central switchboard? Staffed how many hours a day? An electronic telephone menu (ugh)? A rotating position whose job it is to keep the calls away from the circulation desk? At this point, I don't know. But we'll be taking a closer look at those calls to see the best way to handle it.

Another problem that came up was the relatively slowness of one part of our Internet connections: old Macintosh LCIII's, pressed into service once more, and this time, beyond their capacity. But we've budgeted for their replacements next year.

Yet another issue we spent some time on this year was around the persistent issue of inappropriate use of the Internet by some of our patrons.

To tackle that one, we'll be holding a series of what we're calling "Roundtables: Libraries and the Internet" -- part staff presentation on both the benefits and the dangers of children accessing the World Wide Web, part public commentary. We're taking another look at our policies.

Our first Roundtable will be held at the Parker Library, from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday, September 24.

The second will be held at Highlands Ranch, also from 7-9 p.m., on Thursday, October 22.

The third and final Roundtable will be held the following Tuesday night (October 28) at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, again from 7-9 p.m.

I hope you can join us. As you can see, we try to pay close attention to what our staff and public tell us.

Wednesday, September 2, 1998

September 2, 1998 - Reading Levels

I started writing newspaper columns in 1987. Shortly afterward, I stumbled across a great little piece of software called PC-Style. You ran it against a text file, and it told you what grade level the piece was.

In general, the more short words you used, the better you scored. It was better to use fewer words in a sentence, rather than more.

As a fledgling newspaper columnist, I found the software useful. If I scored high on the "Fog Index," the average reader probably wouldn't know what I was talking about. I was trying to train myself to write clean and comprehensible English. PC-Style helped.

I sometimes wonder how publishers determine reading level. Some books say right on the dust jacket that they're "Easy," meaning that they're for children just learning how to read. Others say, "3rd-4th grade."

I suppose publishers use something like PC-Style to come up with these ratings. I don't always agree with them, though. You shouldn't, either.

Reading level ratings always raises two questions in my mind. First, how do you tell if a particular book is too hard for your child?

Second, so what if it is?

But let's start with the first one. I have a nice little hand-out produced (I think) by a neighboring library. I regret that I don't know the author. It's titled: "How Can You Tell Whether a Book is on Your Children's Reading Level?"

"Some educators suggest using the 'rule of thumb.' Have your child read a page of the book aloud. Have her hold up one finger for each word she doesn't know. If she holds up four fingers and a thumb before the end of the page, the book is probably too difficult for her to read alone. However, it might be a great book to read aloud."

There's some good advice in that passage. Particularly for young readers who don't much care for books yet, this is a quick check on how frustrating a particular book might be.

And note another bit of good advice: there's a difference between what you read, and what you hear.

My reading vocabulary is much greater than my speaking vocabulary. That's true for most literate adults. My eye recognizes words that my tongue has trouble with.

But for children, their HEARING vocabulary is often richer yet. That's not too surprising: think about how we learn to speak. Nobody gives infants a series of thorough definitions, carefully built up in logical and consistent sequence. Our kids get tossed bodily into the sea of language -- total immersion.

I find it fascinating to watch how people talk to babies. Some people talk baby talk. Some speak slang. A rare few speak grammatically.

And yet, somehow (usually) by about the age of 4 or 5, almost all children demonstrate a remarkably sure grasp of syntax and meaning. The more exposure to language they get, and the sooner they get it, the stronger that grasp can be.

That's one of the reasons my wife and I have always read aloud to our kids, and why we didn't limit our selections to books of the "One Fish, Two Fish" variety. (Although we didn't rule them out, either.) As a result, Maddy and Perry (ages 10 and 4) do have astonishingly varied vocabularies.

That leads me to my second point. Suppose you find your children reading something that is clearly way past their reading level.

Encourage them! I can remember working my way through some books almost sentence by sentence, with a heavy reliance on a dictionary. I still like to keep a dictionary handy. (Warning: a good dictionary can be more interesting than the book you're trying to read.)

Finally, "reading level" is a deeply individual, profoundly personal thing. It has no necessary connection with your age, and it can change overnight. Just one book can spark a bonfire of linguistic acquisitiveness. I think of my daughter, who raced from elementary to secondary reading skills in what seemed like a matter of days: from American Girls to the Animorphs series to Star Trek novels. Now she can read anything she wants to read.

USA Today, the most successful newspaper in America, is written for a 7th grade reading level. We can do better than that.