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 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.

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