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, October 28, 1998

October 28, 1998 - Running the CLA Conference

I was the eldest of five children. We rotated the chore of doing dishes.

On the whole, I can't say I enjoyed it much, mostly because five kids and a varying number of adults produced a lot of things to be washed. But it could be OK, depending upon my partner.

I learned from this experience something fairly important: some things just have to get done, whether or not there's glory, money, or pleasure in it. Sometimes, it's just your turn.

Two years ago I was approached by the outgoing president of the Colorado Library Association. She asked me if I would consider tossing my name in the hat for the position she was leaving.

Basically, it was a three year job: the first year you were "President-Elect." What you got for the glory was the privilege of planning the annual conference for the state.

Then you were "President" for a year, and mostly just presided over association business meetings. Then you were "Past-President," when you finally had enough experience to be useful. Most Past Presidents spend the year cleaning up the messes they made the year before, and serving as counselors to the next folks.

There's no money in it, of course, and at first the thought of a three year commitment scared me off.

But then I realized: sometimes it's your turn. Nobody else wanted the job, so it wasn't hard to get elected. My own backyard was pretty much in order, and there were several state-wide issues facing libraries that I had some strong opinions about.

I decided it was my turn to do the institutional dishes.

Running the conference -- which went from October 16 through the 19th at the DoubleTree Hotel-World Arena in Colorado Springs -- was fascinating.

First, I had to locate some committee chairmen and chairwomen. We had a Programs Chair, responsible for getting enough (mostly unpaid) presenters on subjects of interest to librarians. By the time we were done, we had over 90 programs, delivered from Friday morning through noon on Monday.

We had an Exhibits Chair, our own Holly Deni. The task here is to contact companies who sell to libraries, and set them up in a hotel display area, where they interact with potential customers. Holly pulled in so many vendors that they spilled out of the exhibit area into the hotel hallways.

We had a Local Arrangements Chair, responsible for coordinating meals, identifying sources for audio-visual equipment, and generally making sure the room arrangement worked.

We had a Publicity Chair, responsible for letting the roughly 500 Colorado Library Association members know about the conference. We had a Registration Chair, who set up a way to register for the conference over the Internet. By the time we were done, we'd swelled the ranks of CLA to some 800 people, over 700 of whom came to the conference.

We had some other positions: DPLD's Cindy Murphy and Patt Paul looked after special events at the conference, such as evening entertainment, author signings, and back up for vendor support.

My job? I talked to the hotel a lot, brought in a couple of big library speakers, and worried myself into insomnia.

And you know what? I enjoyed it! While I don't plan to run another conference for at least a decade, it was interesting to get a close-up at the inside of the conference business. I'll never look at a conference the same way again. It's a lot like running a library, with a big focus on service, intellectual content, and a host of details about the facility or facilities. It works, or doesn't work, depending upon how well you pick your people. I picked some good ones.

And I also had a chance to touch base again with two of the more influential people in my professional career: Michael Gorman, Dean of Libraries for University of Southern California-Fresno, and Will Manley, director of the Tempe Public Library in Arizona. They're both famous librarians -- which means, of course, that nobody but librarians knows about them. Fame is relative.

But by the end of the conference, I was proud of my profession, glad to have been of use, and amazed by the sheer diligence, passion, and intelligence of my colleagues.

Now I'm ready for year two, CLA President.

So what dishes need washing in your professional life? Could it be your turn?

Wednesday, October 21, 1998

October 21, 1998 - Buying a Car

Most of the time I drive an utterly distinctive 1978 Datsun. It satisfies all my requirements for a car: it starts (except the time I filled the tank with Diesel fuel), it moves, and it stops.

But recently, our family car, a 1990 Plymouth Acclaim, had one trouble too many. In 8 years it had required us to replace the head gasket not once, but twice. Finally, we put a rebuilt engine in it. Then the electrical panel failed. Then the heater and air conditioning unit failed. Then we had to spring for a couple of expensive brake jobs.

On the day the transmission failed, we said, "That's it!" We gave it to the Big Brothers, providing that they came and hauled it away. I hope they won't hate us for it.

But then we needed a new family car, and I find that my standards for my loved ones call for something better than a 20 year old Datsun.

My wife is very active, trekking kids not only around the county, but all up and down the Front Range, with the occasional cross-county trek. We needed something safe, comfortable for long trips, with enough power to move up and down hills at highway speeds.

For some men, I realize this would be a masculinity crisis. Yes, I'm talking "minivan." Of course, I was thinking V-6.

But I'll be honest. The power of the engine wasn't as big a deal to me as something else: reliability. I am not mechanically inclined, I will never be mechanically inclined, and I deeply resent having to parade my ignorance in front of those who ARE mechanically inclined. I wanted a car that was as close to maintenance free as possible.

So I turned to the library to do something I've mentioned in this column many times: consumer research.

I started by looking on the library web site, where I connected to "SearchBank" -- a database of some 600 of the most popular general interest magazines. I typed in phrases like "best car for family." Then I narrowed the matches to full-text articles, so I could read the reviews right on the screen. I learned about everything from handling to consumer satisfaction surveys.
The library reference section also has a number of car buying guides. I pawed through those.

I also spent some time at several free web sites. The two I found most useful were Edmunds (www.edmunds.com) and the Kelly Blue Book (www.kbb.com). These sites not only rated the various cars according to many factors (what's new in that model year, warranties, insurance costs, etc.), but also provided dealer invoices. That meant I could find out just exactly what a local dealer had paid for a car, with any options I wanted.

Along the way, I discovered something else. If you belong to triple-A (the American Automobile Association), you have already paid for a "buyer." These buyers take care of all the dirty work, and depending upon the car, they can save you a lot of money, or just a respectable amount of money.

At any rate, thanks to library resources, I think we picked just the right vehicle for us: a 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan.

I sure hope so. It's got to last us 20 years.

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

October 14, 1998 - Lone Tree Library Opening

I still remember the very first time I went to a public library. I kept thinking, "What's the catch?"

First, there were more books than anybody could read in a lifetime. Second, there were people who were paid to help you FIND books precisely tailored to your interests, even if you were just a kid.

Third, they let you take most of these books (just excepting reference materials) home with you -- for free. Sure, there were fines if you didn't get things back on time. You had to pay for stuff you damaged or lost. But if you played by the rules -- and those are some mighty lax rules -- it was essentially free.

Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote that "Public libraries are the only thing towns do for smart kids." I don't know as I was particularly smart, but thanks to the library, I was certainly better read.

The library had a profound effect on my understanding of the world in another way. It showed me by example that the community was looking out for me.

Today it's fashionable in some circles to think of any governmental expense as some kind of boondoggle. But from the beginning, I experienced the public library as tangible proof of the competence and good-will of the society I lived in. It was "good government." I grew up in my public library, in more ways than one; it gave me an enduring faith in the power of human achievement.

It happens that just a few days after this column hits print, I begin a year as President of the Colorado Library Association. As President-Elect this past year, I've attended a handful of library openings around the state, from the west slope to suburbia. Every time, I am thrilled all over again by the excitement of a library opening, the genuine appreciation of parents, business people, students, seniors. When I attended the grand opening of the new Montrose library, the children were lined up for two city blocks.

I like most of the libraries I see. But I'm particularly proud of the first library we've built from the ground up in the 8 years I've worked here.

So I am pleased to announce the Grand Opening on Saturday, October 24, of the Lone Tree Library. The celebration lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Designed by the architectural firm Humphries Poli of Denver, the building grows right out of a river bank on the corner of Lone Tree Parkway and Yosemite.

From the south, the building is a long, low wall. At the western edge, by the entrance, is a "kiva" -- an altogether distinctive, inward tilting barrel that will serve as our public meeting space. At the east end of the building is the children's reading garden.

Most staff spaces -- circulation desk, work rooms, offices, etc. -- live within a tear-drop nestled against the south wall. Heading north, the building blinks higher and higher to the sky, wider and wider to the view, culminating in commanding windows that bring in that fine, even, northern light.
On opening day, not only have we reassembled the materials of the former Oakes Mill Library and the bookmobile, but we have added over 4,000 new items. The library will also have a reference desk, CD-ROM and Internet workstations, a quiet study room, many tables and chairs, and a fireplace.

The old Oakes Mill Library had just 3,000 square feet upstairs, and about an 800 square foot meeting room downstairs. The new building has 10,000 square feet, all on one level.

I warmly invite the public to attend the opening. This is a community library, geared for families. I gratefully acknowledge the extraordinary design work of Humphries Poli, the construction expertise of Ash and White, the profoundly thoughtful involvement of Gina Woods, Library Manager, and the strong community support evident in a variety of touches throughout the building.

Please join us in this celebration. And do bring the children.

Thursday, October 8, 1998

October 7, 1998 - New Philip S. Miller Library Manager

I recently hired a new manager for the Philip S. Miller Library -- Greg Mickells. He'll be starting the first week of November.

The position opened because I've promoted Holly Deni to Associate Director for Support Services. She'll be directing our computer operations, staff training effort, and the building of our collection. These operations have grown rapidly in our district, and I need some help coordinating them.

I picked Greg after he went though a (frankly) grueling day. Our library uses something called the "assessment center."

When you apply to be a library manager at the Douglas Public Library District, you run several gauntlets. Here's how it worked this time.

First was the resume, where candidates were screened for relevant experience. Second was the phone interview, where I narrowed the field from around a dozen to three or four.

The third gauntlet was a half-day when candidates had to participate (among other exercises) in a panel discussion with all of the other candidates. I gave them three questions our library is really grappling with.

This is called a "leaderless discussion group." I said, "here are the questions. Think about them for 5 minutes." Then I said, "Begin."

I'm looking for folks who demonstrate good communication skills. In this library district, managers need not only to be self-starters, but also to pay close attention to the people around them, patrons and staff. Many people talk a good game. This exercise forces them to SHOW their skills.

The rest of the morning was aimed at the other side of the "interview." It gave our candidates an opportunity to decide what they thought about us.

In the second half of the day, the candidates went away. I gathered together many of the staff of the branch, and several other folks from around the district -- about 16 in all. We talked through the observed behavior of each candidate, and thought about what that behavior revealed. It was a great set of choices.

I should stress that this is not quite a democracy. I pay very close attention to staff comments, and I usually learn a great deal. Those comments always influence me, and on occasion they persuade me to change my mind. But it's not a vote.

Why did I select Greg?

I liked the way he looked to staff to come up with good ideas. In my experience, that expectation is justified. I was also impressed with Greg's ready grasp of the importance of community outreach, particularly to local small businesses. You can expect to be hearing more from him in the future.

The trick to managing an organization that has to keep up with an ever-growing population of patrons and staff is to find good people. The assessment center has proved to be an important and successful tool toward that aim.