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, December 30, 1998

December 30, 1998 - 1999 Resolutions

Three times a year I grow pensive: the anniversary of my hiring (April), my birthday (July), and the end of the year. April tends to be a review wholly related to my job. July tends to be a backward look on my personal life. New Year’s Eve tends to be about “resolutions” in both spheres.

Here’s what I’m resolved to do in 1999.

WORK. The top priority for the library district is to get our “support services building” up and running in Castle Rock. A recent study conducted by Holly Deni, Associate Director for Support Services, demonstrated that our technical services staff is among the most productive on the Front Range. Each full time employee orders, receives, catalogs, and processes some 6,000 items per year in less physical space than any neighboring library. If we’re to keep up with the growth of our collection, we have to move even more books. To do that, we need this new building (and additional staff) yesterday; we probably won’t see either until August. This is the crunch in the district right now.

The next big issue is trickier, because it’s less tangible. Despite our rapid growth as an organization, I think we’ve managed to hang on to a “service first” philosophy. But larger organizations tend to lean more on policy than independent judgment; on hierarchical communication rather than less formal means. The great challenge our library faces is how to remain responsive where and when it matters most: at the front line, at that make-or-break moment of contact between staff and patron.

I keep thinking of one of my granddad’s favorite sayings: “You can teach a monkey to follow the rules. It takes a human being to make an exception.” We must remember to be human.

One of my strategies for staff communications is to launch a staff intranet: a way for the curious employee to stay abreast of what’s happening all around the district. But it will take more than that.

More immediately, I have to hire a new manager for Lone Tree Library, which I hope to accomplish by the end of January.

We hope to break ground on our Highlands Ranch Library by summer of 1999. Before that can happen, a whole lot of developer infrastructure -- and local community networking -- has to happen first.

I also resolve that we will find some better service solution for Roxborough patrons: staff are exploring two options right now.

PERSONAL. I resolve to give myself the great gift of more time with my wife and children. I resolve to write at least one really fine poem. I resolve to work through Scott Joplin’s piano works until I can finally master a Fats Waller number. I resolve to land a minor part in a local musical production, and to steal the show at least once. I resolve to read more, both in the pursuit of pleasure and of wisdom. (Besides, it’s good for business.) I resolve to start some regular schedule of writing to finish this book I’ve been carrying around in my head for the past five years.

Finally, I resolve not to start using Rogaine, although I’m powerfully tempted. At this stage of the game, it’s as important not to give into vanity as it is to fight cynicism. Surely wisdom and grace do not require a full head of hair.

Here’s wishing you a resolute 1999.

Wednesday, December 23, 1998

December 23, 1998 - Christmas Gift-giving

Back in 1992, I reprised a column I'd written even earlier. I find that I still don't have much to add. So here it is again. Happy holidays!

What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else? -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three of four books. Wrap the card and the books and set them under the tree. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books.

After your children have gotten bored with all their expensive toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week after the main event. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

A few years back, former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It was good advice then; it's good advice now.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue?If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best Christmas card you'll ever send.

OK, so I do have something to add. Recently, a patron complained about some "Christmas" decorations in the library, and some of the Christian newspapers set out -- not by library staff -- as giveaways. I do recognize that many people do not celebrate Christmas. The public library certainly does not promote any religion over another, nor intend any slight to people of faith, or of no faith. Our decorations are meant to be seasonal and non-sectarian.

On the other hand, the giving of gifts is not the exclusive property of any belief system. Whether you're a Jew, a Muslim, a Baha'i, a Hindu, a Zoroastrian, an agnostic or an atheist, all of the above still applies.

To all, Peace.

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

December 15, 1998 - Northridge Snake Story

The real reasons for things don't always get written down. For instance, Gina Woods, manager of the Lone Tree Library, recently passed on a bit of library district history that was certainly news to me.

I'd read that we once had a small library outlet at the Northridge Elementary School. But before I started working here in April of 1990, the library had been asked to move out. I never knew why.

A couple of times over the years I asked people connected with the school district what had happened, but they didn't say very much. I could tell the topic made them uncomfortable.

It turns out that we had a library employee back then who collected snakes. One day, she brought her 20 foot python to the Northridge Library as Exhibit A for a library program. As always, she'd fed the snake ahead of time, which tended to make it a little sluggish. A sated and sluggish snake, as you might imagine, is better than a hungry and quick one.

There was still a large bulge in its body that corresponded to a slowly digesting rabbit. This is the sort of gruesome detail that children love.

Well, right before the program, the snake did something unexpected. It peed on the new school carpet. A lot.

Despite the prompt best efforts (and cleaning compounds) of library staff, the rank odor persisted. Immediately thereafter, we were asked to take our books (not to mention our incontinent animals) and go.

For the record (finally!), I don't blame the school district one bit. While I strongly doubt this contingency was covered in our agreement with them, the event reeks, you might say, of poor manners on our part.

Since then, we've had both sheep and performing pigs in our branches. Staff have taken appropriate precautions. Here we see proof that even if knowledge is not recorded, the lessons remain.

I'm grateful that Gina passed this story on. But she's been in a storytelling mood lately, as soon she will be leaving the library. Her last day of employment is December 23. After that, she'll focus on being a sports mom during her son's last semester at DCHS. Then she'll be joining her pilot husband, who is now based in Cleveland.

During her time with us, she's seen the library grow from an institution of just 12 Full Time Equivalent employees to our current 80 FTE's. She's seen the astonishing growth of library use in Douglas County, and a host of transformations within the district. She's even built a new library branch.

Throughout all these changes, Gina has served as one of the district's touchstones for warm, neighborhood-based service. That's one of the things we'll try to hang onto in her absence.

Meanwhile, do stop by and see Gina before she leaves. As a favor to me, though, leave your pets at home.

Wednesday, December 9, 1998

December 9, 1998 - In Pursuit of Peace

Stop me if you've heard this one. You're doing more and more racing around. If you're a white collar worker, you're slipping in late from one meeting and sliding out early to make another.

Or consider traffic. Recently someone asked me where young families hang out around here. "In minivans," I said, and my family is no exception. If you have any driving to do (or to put it another way, if you live in Douglas County) you're either tearing through traffic, sitting in traffic, or fiddling with your car to get it ready for traffic.

Or think about Christmas shopping. No, on second thought, don't. Don't think about your Christmas card list, either. If you're reading this column at all, it's not to have somebody add to the guilt and stress you're already carrying.

Enough. What nobody talks about these days -- in part because no one has the time -- is the pursuit of peace.

I have a friend back east who learned a hard lesson. He had a tendency to focus on just one thing -- whether a job or a hobby -- until he totally burned himself out. Then it was on to the next obsession. Finally his wife told him something that he never forgot: the secret to peace was two things to worry about.

I remember a slim volume I read some 35 years ago, which I think my mom got from the Book of the Month Club. It was written by Winston Churchill. Churchill, I think it's safe to say, was an overachiever. He wrote that it was hard for him to be idle. If he wanted to find refreshment -- and there were times when he desperately required it -- he just turned to something else, something intensely involving and demanding. In his case, it happened to be painting. Others may turn to different art forms: music, say, or dance.

Judging from health club memberships, many people at least intend to find peace in physical activity -- "working out."

Some people find refreshment in travel. Probably, nothing that happens in a human community in the remotest corner of the globe is much different from what happens in your home town. But travel wakes you up, gives you perspective. Some people travel to make sociological observations, and find that those observations have surprising validity back home.

Others travel just to get another landscape in their heads. I think of the trip my wife pushed me to take earlier this year to the Pacific Northwest. There I was utterly absorbed in a landscape of water and the tallest trees -- it broke the spell of too much focus on work in Colorado. It brought me, as she intended, a measure of peace.

Some find "surcease of sorrow" in prayer, meditation, or some other spiritual exercise. The quest is for states of attunement -- a pause in life that listens to what's happening inwardly, rather than reacting to the insistent rhythms of the external life.

But for those who can't afford to travel, don't have a lick of artistic ability, are bored by recreation centers, and don't feel particularly drawn to any religious pursuit, there's still a way to change the channel of your life that doesn't involve total vegetation in front of the television.

You can go to the library.

You have my most solemn promise that none of our libraries will pipe in Christmas carols. If you just sit quietly in your library chair, our staff will leave you alone.

It happens that reading is a marvelous path to peace. It lifts you out of the troubles of your life. It allows you to follow a host of new interests, all without spending a dime.

At a time in our society's life -- and perhaps yours -- when everything is rush rush rush, the public library serves no purpose so important as providing a place where you can seek peace, as no one else but you defines it.

There's a word for that. Sanctuary.

Wednesday, December 2, 1998

December 2, 1998 - Libraries Last

Before I came to Colorado I was Assistant Director of Lincoln Library, the public library of Springfield, Illinois. I replaced a fellow named Jim Sleeth, who went on to become director of the Elmira Public Library in New York.

Our director, Carl Volkmann, was a wonderful teacher, scrupulously ethical, well-respected in the community, modest, hard-working, conscientious. He retired a few years back, whereupon he became a full-time community volunteer, to his genuine joy. I've stayed in fairly close contact with him, as well as developing a warm friendship with Jim, mostly through correspondence.

Just before Thanksgiving, we learned that Carl had had surgery for colon cancer. The doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to his liver.

It's only been about a year since I went to Illinois for my father's funeral. He died of cancer that had metastasized to the liver. Frankly, I hadn't planned to go back for a long time. There were too many painful memories.

But Jim and I contrived to meet in Springfield. My family and I got to have Thanksgiving dinner with Carl's family and friends -- some 22 folks. Jim arrived the next day, and we got to spend most of the afternoon and evening with Carl, who for now is still in reasonably good health, in that fragile holding pattern between chemo treatments. He'd lost some weight, but he'd never been especially overweight. He looked trim and vigorous.

We reminisced together about some of the characters who worked at Lincoln Library. There were plenty, from cataloging assistant Paula (who worked with a cardboard box on her head and bubble wrap on her legs) to Russell, the head of Security, who had once created a sign declaring, "The door is alarmed." Someone immediately attached another sign nearby: "And the carpet is terrified."

We also compared notes about politics. The big lesson of directorship is that so many outside factors can affect the success (or failure) of your library. You have to pay attention. In Springfield, the library is a part of city government. The past few years have been very hard on it. Despite good times locally -- a 20% population increase, solid business expansion -- the library is in decline, a political football apparently designed to be kicked. Even though he's been out of the job for almost 6 years, this pained Carl, much as it hurts his wife to have to witness his ill health.

In New York, Jim struggles along with annual handouts from some six municipalities, plus federal grants, plus a grudging partial stipend from the county, plus an ever-shifting amount from the state. His library system is succeeding, Jim said, but just barely, entirely dependent upon his sales skills. Once he tried to form a library district like ours, a district that is directly accountable to the people it serves -- but incredibly, that takes an act of the state legislature, which is almost impossible.

Both Carl and Jim were fascinated by a Colorado phenomenon not present in Illinois or New York: the state-wide referendum. To their minds, this was a Western thing, a repudiation of the very idea of representative government.

They were also astonished to hear about the three kinds of tax limitation imposed on Colorado's public libraries: the mill levy limit, the TABOR limits (local growth plus inflation), and the 5.5% growth limit on property tax revenue. They shook their heads when I said that just which limits applied to you varied according to various elections, changing interpretations of state agencies, and the latest court decision.

But just before our very emotional farewell, I realized that both Jim and I really had learned something important from Carl: libraries mattered to us, spoke to the best within us, even when the tasks of librarianship were momentarily frustrating. We always know that the life of our institutions is important to the thousands and thousands of people whose lives it touches, to the remarkably varied communities we serve.

Carl laughed when I joked about the two students coming back to study again at the foot of the master (and Jim and I both bowed), but it was true.

Some things survive.