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 29, 1999

December 29, 1999 - Libraries and The Millennium

Welcome to my last library column of the millennium. (I know, some people think that won't happen until the last day of December, 2000. Spoilsports.)

It happens that the idea of libraries stretches back quite a ways. The printed word has been around for about 5,500 years. The oldest library was probably that of the ancient city of Nippur, where the Sumerians stored over 30,000 clay tablets.

Although papyrus libraries were extant before 1,000 B.C., probably the most famous ancient library was that of Alexandria, Egypt (around 330 B.C.). It was believed to have a copy of every existing papyrus scroll then "in print" -- about 400,000. Nobody knows what happened to it.

The Romans established a number of libraries. In A.D. 337, a survey of important Roman buildings identified 28 libraries. Most of them are gone, too. The exception is the collection of a Roman nobleman named Piso, who lived at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. There, his library lay buried in volcanic ash from about A.D. 79 to the 1750ís, when its 1,800 ancient scrolls were uncovered.

Then next big writing format was leather. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, were written on animal skins, somewhere between 150 B.C. to A.D. 68.

But now let's skip from the beginning of the millennium, to the end.

As of the end of this century, there are over 33,000 libraries in the United States. About 15,000 of those are public libraries (the rest are school, academic, and corporate libraries). If you live in Douglas County, you have access to over 340,000 library materials -- which doesn't compare too badly with Alexandria. Moreover, through our many arrangements with other libraries -- Interlibrary Loan agreements, and the Colorado Library Card, for instance -- you can lay your hands on many millions more.

Print in new formats continues. While we no longer collect print on clay tablets, papyrus, or animal skins (or, for that matter, 75 rpm records, 8 mm movies or 8 track tapes), we do have books on tape, books on CD, and print in the breakthrough technology of the World Wide Web. Print in the traditional form of paper, however, remains by far our largest inventory, and accounts for the greatest percentage of our use.

We also have a dedicated readership. I recently conducted a survey of Colorado libraries to see how their "business" of checking out materials compares with last year. Here's the chart, listing the library, then the percent change from last year:

Arapahoe, 9%
Buena Vista, -3%
Cortez, -14%
Fort Collins, 8.4%
Garfield, 4%
Lafayette, 5.9%
Longmont, 6%
Mesa County, 1%
Montrose, 8.2%
Pueblo, 6.4%
Westminster, 14%

The average change was 5.1%. Circulation use at the Douglas Public Library District jumped by 19.2% -- making us far and away the leader statewide.

But there's more to libraries than checking out books. In every area of modern day librarianship -- the offering of reference services, the provision of high quality children's programs, the instruction of the public in electronic resources, to name just a few -- we have seen extraordinary leaps in demand and use.

I believe that the key skill in the next millennium will be the ability to search, organize, and form critical judgments about information. These are precisely the skills of librarianship.

We'll see you in another thousand years.

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

December 22,1999 - Christmas Column

[Some years back, I wrote a Christmas column that I still think says what I want to say. So here it is again.]

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.

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

December 15, 1999 - Harry Potter Donations

Back in March, 1999, I wrote a column on a book my family was crazy about. It was the first installment of the Harry Potter series -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in England. Since then, my household has purchased the entire boxed set, including Ms. J.K. Rowling's two other books: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I've read and loved them all. My 12 year old daughter has read them all twice. My wife is working on the third one right now.

For all my appreciation, however, I did not predict that Harry Potter would zoom to the top of the national bestseller lists -- all three of the titles are, after all, children's books.

I did think there would be local interest. But I underestimated that, too. Together, the library's Harry Potter books have checked out over 500 times. As of this moment (December 10, 1999), we have a total of 353 people waiting for them.

It is the policy of the library district to purchase 1 copy for every four holds -- the idea being that we don't want people to have to wait longer than 3 months to read something that's popular. And thanks to some recent donations, we do indeed have a ratio of 3.27 holds per title.

About those donations: I'm grateful to report that Castle Rock bookstore Hooked On Books, under the new management of Kathy Church, has graciously contributed two complete sets of the series to the Douglas Public Library District (see accompanying photo). This means we now have (counting those copies currently on order) 38 copies of Sorcerer's Stone, 36 copies of Chamber of Secrets, and 34 copies of Prisoner of Azkaban. Not that you'll find them on the shelf!

In part, this donation was in response to a recent Denver Post article by columnist and former Douglas County School District Board President Gail Schoettler. She encouraged people to help out their local libraries by donating books she felt were being suppressed within Douglas County schools.

But as a bookseller, Kathy Church has her own reasons for the gift. She notes that "The amazing phenomenon that is Harry Potter is unlike any other worldwide literary phenomena to date. "

Kathy told me how remarkable she finds it that "in this high-tech age of escape into video games; computers and alas, television ... this beautifully written and brilliantly imagined fantasy (and it is FANTASY), has created a positive tidal wave of incredible magnitude. ... For this, I stand and applaud what the Harry Potter books have stimulated and can only fervently hope ... this is just the beginning."

Certainly, fantasy is nothing new in literature and entertainment. Fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia Chronicles, Tolkien's Trilogy of the Rings, the recent video Prince of Egypt (based on the Biblical story of Moses), and even the surprisingly popular Shakespeare (see various current movies) all attest to the persistence of magic in our minds and imaginations.

Yes, some people have found Harry Potter controversial. But for librarians and booksellers, the news that our children are enthusiastically reading anything is good news.

While not all books are equal, they don't all have to be morality plays, either. Some things are just for fun. On the other hand, it happens that I believe the Harry Potter books have something fairly unusual in today's crop of literary offerings: a solid moral center buttressed by an exciting and deftly handled story.

In my professional opinion, the only way you can get hurt by a Harry Potter book is if somebody picks one up and throws it at you.

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

December 1, 1999 - Libraries Online and Food for Fines

At a recent Library Board retreat (nothing fancy -- just a Saturday meeting in Castle Rock) we talked about two perennial concerns: containing costs, and growing new services.

One of the costs involves keeping in touch with our patrons. Our circulation -- the number of items we check out -- continues to grow by double digits. So we have to let people know when their holds have come in. We have to let them know when their items are overdue.

At present, we only have two ways to do that: mail patrons a notice, or call them on the phone. Multiply this by the million and a half items we check out in a year, and you see the problem.

We had hoped that a new service we introduced about a year ago would help. That's the ability to conduct all kinds of library business online. If you give us an e-mail address, unique to you (not shared by the rest of your family) we can send all of your notices that way. The advantage to us: no printing, folding, or paying for postage; no repeated attempts to catch you at home or find your answering machine.

The advantage to you: timeliness. When the book is checked in, you get notified within 24 hours. (Please note: this ONLY works if you select "mail" as the way to be notified of a hold. Our software has some peculiar twists. Think "mail = e-mail" when placing a hold.) Overdues are automatically sent to the e-mail address as well.

It could be that this hasn't been as well-used as I'd hoped because of my reluctance to put a whole family on a single e-mail address. I have two main concerns.

The first is that items that don't get returned are eventually passed over to a collection agency -- part of our stewardship of public property. E-mail accounts are simply far more transient than addresses. I'd hate to attach library records to somebody's credit history just because they changed an e-mail provider and neglected to tell us. Right now e-mail service is sufficiently new that it's hard for us to catch things like that. This is an acceptable risk for a single individual -- we'd probably catch it when the collection service sent out THEIR first letter, which goes to a physical, not a virtual address. But when you toss spouses and children into the mix, it just makes me uncomfortable.

The second issue is confidentiality. It may be that spouses open each other's mail, or parents open all mail addressed to their children at home. But at least the library sent the letter some place where the child could get it. E-mail probably doesn't work like that. The parent again has access to the correspondence between library and child -- but does the child?

I know that most of the time, there's nothing so awful that the parent couldn't know about it. But I also think libraries shouldn't be too eager to erode anybody's online privacy -- that's happening fast enough. On the other hand, perhaps I'm being too cautious, and will have to reconsider.

At any rate, As time goes on, more and more people WILL have e-mail, and the prospect of that does open up an avenue for new services. For instance, suppose you got a monthly e-mail library newsletter that offered the library's program schedule, or highlighted new reference materials, available to you from home -- all just a click away?

Just as many online companies offer a "My Netscape" or "My Yahoo," customized to show just the things you're interested in, the library might offer a "My Library," configured to keep you automatically updated about new book clubs, author appearances, or new bestsellers in the realm of science fiction.

At the dawn of the new millennium, there will be many such new services.

December 8, 1999 - Catalog Research Tips

Some time back, I mentioned that I assigned my daughter a homeschooling project to trace the historical development of Christianity. The subject interested me, too.

Our first stop was the encyclopedia. I tossed off a list of possible entries (Jesus, Apostles, Pope, Luther, etc.). Then Maddy read aloud to me as I made dinner one night. Enyclopedias don't tell the whole story, but they give a good overview. Maddy made notes of other topics to follow up on.

(By-the-bye, this is one big advantage of having a PRINT encyclopedia at home. Kids can fetch a volume and drag it into the kitchen. Try that with your CD-ROM drive.)

Our next step was to go to the library. Here I taught Maddy how to quickly build a list of more precisely focused resources. Here's the abbreviated outline:

1. Do a title keyword search on whatever subject interests you (for example, "Christianity" or "Pope"). Using a question mark at the end of the term is often useful. For instance, "christ?" brings up "Christ," "Christian," and "Christianity."

2. When the list of matches comes up, choose the titles that look most like what you're after.

3. If the titles DO match what you want, type "RW" (without the quotes) to pull up a list of Related Works. Then choose the subject heading that best seems to describe what you want.

4. You now have a list -- a bibliography -- of all the items we own on that topic. Typing "SL" allows you to Sort the List by author, title, or publication date. Sorting by publication date puts the most current materials first. The bibliography can be further "limited" by entering the letter "L." Then just select from the menu to choose, for example, only those titles owned by the library you happen to be in, or just kid's books, or just videos. Alternatively, you might want everything we've got. It's not hard to put a hold on a title that belongs at another location.

5. Save the titles under "SB" (Saved Bibliography). Write down the unique combination of letters and numbers the computer gives you to identify your list. Then back up to the main menu with "SO" for Start Over.

6. From the main computer menu, choose Print Saved Bibliographies. Then, assuming your terminal is attached to a printer, you can print out the list. The default list includes subject headings and call numbers.

7. Repeat the above steps for any of the other subject headings that came up under the titles you liked. You can add any new titles to your previous bibliography, or build several separate ones.

If you've taken care to include books that have their own bibliographies (usually noted in the computer record), you now have a solid beginning for your research. Then, you just have to carve out the time to start reading.

The next part of Maddy's research involves attending area churches in roughly the order of their denomination's founding. So far we've only gotten around to four churches, but they've all been fascinating.

I particularly like going out for tea afterward, when Maddy and I talk about what we've seen and heard. After all the church visits, Maddy also has to do some follow-up interviews with ministers -- which introduces an entirely new sort of research process.

The older I get, the more things I discover that I do not know. But it's a relief also to discover that almost any area of my ignorance can be overcome by sustained and systematic inquiry. This may be the biggest lesson of our project: Research is fun!

Wednesday, November 24, 1999

November 24, 1999 - Thanksgiving

Unlike most of America's holidays, which are driven by Hallmark cards and commercialism, Thanksgiving hits me where I live: give me a great dinner, the warmth of family and friends, and I'm a happy man.

Not only that, I like the IDEA of Thanksgiving. Many, perhaps most of us spend huge portions of our day whining. For instance (circle all that apply): Can you believe how that guy cut me off on the highway? My boss doesn't appreciate me. My children don't talk to me. Women: "after the age of 35, everything just DROPS." Men: "at least I have some hair and many of my teeth left."

After the death of my father a couple of years ago, I was particularly sensitive to what seemed to me deliberately negative energy. I have strong armor when I need it, but what got to me, what sapped my own strength, was pettiness, the unnecessary dig. I thought, "We all have troubles. Buck up! Be positive!"

But that period of my life has passed. And now I give about as much time to casual complaints as most of the folks I know. Whining is a kind of bitter humor, a way to keep ourselves entertained as the clock winds down.

Thanksgiving, though, gives us the opportunity to look around and realize just how good we've got it.

My family has shelter and clothing. And food.

My wife is a true companion -- our schedules permitting. Our children are healthy, happy, funny, and smart. I have at least some of my hair and teeth.

I have gathered up in my 45 years some deep, dear friendships that enrich my days and illuminate my insights.

I have the great fortune of working in a profession I care about passionately, whose premises -- of abiding respect for the dignity of individual inquiry, of confidentiality -- genuinely matter to me. Working in libraries has brought another great boon: the time to get to know at least some of the thoughtful, dedicated, and principled people who work with me. For instance, there's Cindy Murphy, who just left us last week, but is possibly the best schmoozer who ever lived.

I am thankful to have been involved these past six years or so with the local Rotary club, a group of service-minded men and women characterized by an utter lack of reverence for their leadership. I'd always heard that Rotary tended to be kind of stuffy. Not in Castle Rock. What impresses me most, though, is their continuing faith in our young people, both those brave souls we send out to act as our nation's ambassadors overseas, and those equally brave young "inbound" students we open our homes to FROM overseas. Rotary reinforces what remains for me a fundamental belief in humanity, that most of us are decent people with a ready handshake and smile.

I am thankful for books. I have been surrounded by them most of my life. Thanks to them, I have traveled to other places -- other worlds! -- and other times. I have conversed with some of the greatest minds of all human history. I have laughed at our foibles, wept over our tragedies, and tried, in the company of these beloved books, to glean a little wisdom.

The greatest wisdom of all just might be ... gratitude.

From all of us at the Douglas Public Library District, Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

November 17, 1999 - Too Busy to Read?

By Laurie Van Court

(Douglas Public Library District Director, Jamie LaRue, is on hiatus this week. DPLD trustee, Laurie Van Court, is delighted to take over his column today.)

As a life-long avid reader, I'm often asked, "how do you find the time to read so much?" I'm sometimes perplexed by this question, because it seems to me that the time usually finds me.

Books and magazines have rescued me during those life experiences when time seems endless. I remember quite clearly the book that got me through the night after major surgery when my anesthesia didn't last quite long enough (Insomnia, by Stephen King, since you ask). When my husband, Don, went through the agonies of cancer treatment, many books guided us: In the Country of Illness, by Robert Lipsyte, and Mainstay, by Maggie Strong, were literally life-changing for me. A miraculous book (Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck) comforted me through the long hours when Don was in hospice. Other wonderful books, including Living Through Personal Crisis, by Ann Kaiser Stearns, Widow and Lifelines, by Lynn Caine, and Widowed, by Dr. Joyce Brothers, carried me over those awful first hours and days of widowhood.

Of course, most of my reading occurs in far more mundane circumstances: during yawningly long airport delays, at the beauty salon, while waiting my turn at the Department of Motor Vehicles. And many books have been around for joyous occasions: Fodor's Guide to Hawaii, The Complete Book of Foaling, Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. How could I get along without the cartoons in New Yorker Magazine, the movie reviews in Time Magazine, everything by Baxter Black?

No, I don't think the problem is finding the time to read. I believe the problem is finding the time to get your hands on all those wonderful things to read. So, here, from a devoted reader with far too little time herself, are a few tips.

First, let the library staff do the retrieving for you. If there's something you'd like read, log on to the Douglas Public Library's Web Site (http://douglas.lib.co.us) and click on the public access catalog. Look up whatever catches your fancy, place it on hold and let the library call to tell you when it's in. Really, this is just as quick and easy as going to Amazon.com, and a whole lot cheaper, too. You can ask to have your books held at whichever branch is most convenient - that is to say, if you live in Franktown, but drive by Park Meadows every day, specify that your requests be held for you at the Lone Tree Library. There's no need to go to Parker or Castle Rock, if they're not part of your usual route.

Second, if you worry about the hassle of returning those books, return them to any public library in the Denver metro area. Or, for that matter, check them out somewhere else and return them to us. Through remarkable efforts on the part of Colorado's State Library, most public libraries in our state cooperate with one another. You can even check out books in Vail with your Douglas County library card!

Finally, if you spend the time you'd like to be reading behind the wheel of your car, check out some recorded books. The Douglas Public Library District has a tremendous collection of books on tape (and as many on CD as are now available) because we know many of our patrons do a lot of driving. I think some recorded books are even better than the print versions. Try, for example, Charlotte's Web and My American Journey, read by their authors, E.B. White and Colin Powell. There'd probably be a whole lot less road rage out there if more drivers were utterly captivated by words coming out of their car stereos.

All of us in Douglas County pay for library service, whether or not we use it. Except for buying lottery tickets, I doubt that any of us likes throwing money away, even if it's tax money we may not remember spending. Besides, we all deserve as much pleasure as we can get - even if it comes while waiting to buy our license plates.

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

November 10, 1999 - "Why Did You Leave Us?" Survey Results

I have certain beliefs about our library district. I have tried to build a public institution that lives up to two commitments: first, to responsive, thoughtful, and cost-effective service; and second, to the promotion of individual staff growth.

I THINK we've succeeded in growing a mostly intrigue free environment that encourages employees to make good decisions for our patrons.

But this is the sort of thing that it can be easy to fool yourself about. That's why, about a month ago, the library sent off our "Why Did You Leave Us?" survey. Was there some horrible, previously undetected problem with our services that was driving patrons away?

Well, we got over 500 responses out of a mailing of 2500. And the answer, I'm relieved to say, is "No."

That's not to say that we didn't get any complaints. But even the complaints tell a story. The LEAST amount of complaints concerned our staff. For instance, fewer than half of one percent of the survey respondents stated that our staff were "not knowledgeable." That's a credit both to our employees, and to our training effort.

The next big thing I noticed was that over 20% of the people we surveyed DIDN'T leave us. They may not have checked out any books from us these past six months, but they still made use of library services.

The primary use of the library by people who didn't check anything out was .... to pick up federal and state tax forms. This service, which can be nightmarish from our end, is clearly, for some people, the only contact they have with the library in a whole year. That's good information for me. We will keep this service.

The second way people used the library was for reference services (19%): using print based reference tools, the photocopy machine, our reference staff, and browsing the magazines and newspapers. Only then do we get to Internet access (5.7%), use of public meeting rooms (4.2%), or bringing children to a program (3.5%).

So why, then, haven't these people been checking out anything from us? Here, in David Letterman format, are the top ten reasons (and recognize that survey respondents can check more than one -- the percentage figure just tallies how many people checked this choice out of the total responses).

10. I want a longer lending period (6.7%). Most of our items go out for three weeks. Is a month checkout too long?

9. Someone else checks out my library materials for me (7.7%). For instance, the wife picks up books for the husband. If it's OK with the husband, it's OK with me.

8. I buy books online (8.4%). It may be that amazon.com is a good answer for people who have disposable income and don't want to wait for their holds to come up on the bestseller lists.

7. My children use school libraries (9.1%). Many parents see a public library card as a support for formal education. Clearly, for some parents, the school library works fine.

6. The DPLD collection is insufficient for my needs (9.1%). We probed this question further in another part of the survey, and indeed, in yet another survey we also conducted last month. About 85% of the patrons who DO come to the library say they find what they're looking for. The ones that don't are mostly looking for graduate level research materials. While DPLD is not an academic research institution, this may well indicate an unmet patron need we should address.

5. I buy my books at a bookstore (12.8%). Take THAT, amazon.com!

4. "Other" (18%). This is the perennial question on surveys, and as usual, turned up a grab bag of responses. Nine people said they hadn't come in because of the smoke damage at Highlands (OK, but we were only closed for one month, REopened months ago, and the survey was about people who hadn't checked out a book in SIX months.) Some said they'd left for college. My favorite responses were: "I'm stupid!" and "My wife says you can't fight inertia."

3. I just don't read as much as I used to (19%). This is the health club syndrome. You join up because you MEAN to be improve yourself, but somehow...

2. I have Internet access at home or work (28.9%). We know that many more people than this have Internet access in Douglas County, so these people are saying they get their library needs met through the Internet. This is significant.

And finally, the number one reason people have not checked out books in the past six months: "I am just too busy" (45.9%). It's hard to know what to do about that one. Time management classes at the library?

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

November 3, 1999 - Reading Tips for Parents

The Colorado State Library's Reading Readiness Project, using Federal funds from the Library Services and Technology Act, has recently published a brochure that should be required reading for anybody who has children. It's called, "Reading Tips for Parents."

The tips are divided into various observations about, and reading techniques for, children who are under two years old, between 2 and 3, between 3 and 4, and between 5 and 6. As is often the case, I find that the expectations for children often seem pretty minimal. For instance, surely a child doesn't have to be 5 or 6 to "begin to understand that print carries a message" or to "like being read to" and "have favorite books and stories."

At the low end, I think the developmental observation that a 12 month old "understands simple words," "understands and reacts to hand movements, faces, and changing tone of voice" doesn't ask very much of what is, after all, a human mind.

Nonetheless, there are some general reading tips that work for any age, and are worth repeating here.

* Choose a quiet spot for you and your child.

* Read aloud at least 15 minutes a day to your child.

* Establish a routine time and place to read to your child (not just at bedtime).

* Talk with your child when you play and do daily activities together.

* Visit the library/bookstore with your child to attend story times, choose books to read at home, etc.

* Obtain library cards for yourself and your children.

* Make a special place in your home where your child can read and write.

* Keep books and other reading materials where your child can reach them.

* Keep washable, nontoxic crayons and markers and paper where your child can reach them.

* Take books and writing supplies whenever you leave home, so that your child can read and write wherever you go.

* Show your child how you read every day for fun and work.

* Point out to your children the printed words in your home and in the community.

* Talk with your children about their experiences.

* Encourage your child to read independently in his or her own way ("reading" words that aren't really in print to tell a story).

* Verbally "label" familiar objects as you talk with your child.

* Talk to your child as if he or she is a reader now (in process).

* Listen to your child.

* Talk about how you use reading every day.

* Talk about every day happenings. Explain what you are doing and how things work.

* Make your reading fun by using different voices for different parts of the story.

* Talk about the books that you are reading with your child. Help him or her to make connections.

Now all of this won't necessarily turn your son or daughter into an avid reader. But it certainly improves the odds. Not only that, the simple practice of talking and listening to your child makes for an interesting connection in its own right.

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

October 27, 1999 - Communities that Care Follow-up

Some 70 people showed up on October 15, at the Douglas County: Building Communities that Care community forum. The highlight of the day was Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar's discussion with 12 Douglas County high school students. Salazar was an amazingly sensitive facilitator. Our students were articulate and impressive. It's clear that we should give their views -- and the opportunities to express them -- more attention than we have.

For instance, there was strong consensus among the students that physical security measures do not tend to make young people feel safe. Rather, such measures make them feel like inmates of a prison.

The community forum was the brainchild of Rich Bangs, publisher of the Douglas County News-Press, and had two purposes. First, it sought to raise awareness about the environment in which our youth find themselves. Second, forum planners urged the adoption of a formal model for assessing and improving the communities of Parker, Castle Rock, and Highlands Ranch. (These areas were chosen by broad high school "feeder" area.)

Parker has participated in the Communities that Care model for the past year, allocating Town resources to the task. Castle Rock, to date, has not. Highlands Ranch lacks a municipal government, but members of the Highlands Ranch Community Association, the Metro Districts of Highlands Ranch, and board members of the school district have all shown an interest in the program.

But as one of our presenters made clear, the issue of too many risks and too few supports for our young people touches all of our communities in Douglas County, whether or not community leadership has gotten around to admitting or doing anything about it.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Metro Districts, the News- Press, and the Douglas Public Library District all offered to send interested community members from Castle Rock and Highlands Ranch to leader training in the Communities that Care model. The training will be held in Littleton on November 9, 1999, from 8 to noon. The slots have been filling fast, but if you're interested, call the Metro Districts at 303-791-2710, extension 237, the News- Press at 303-688-3128, or the Douglas Public Library District at 303-688-8752.

Since the October 15, meeting, I find that I've been thinking about our communities in a different way. The defining characteristic of Douglas County in 1999 is growth, meaning the rapid influx of people. But I've come to realize that such growth often overwhelms existing social patterns (in the case of a small town), or finds a void (in the case of a brand new one). The smallest and most durable social unit is the family. But what else is there? Well, there are neighborhoods, and neighborhood associations. On the other hand, when the defining home architectural style involves three car garages, operated by remote control, it can be tough to make a connection to your neighbors.

Other choices include: civic groups, recreation centers, churches, schools, libraries, political parties, and various job associations. But all of these have their drawbacks: sometimes the sheer number of people using them makes it almost impossible to develop a genuine contact.

The more I've thought about this, the more I'm convinced that the most pressing problem of the new millennium will be the balancing act between freedom of speech and action VERSUS the need to belong to an integrated and mutually supportive social web. It's the tension between individualism and the public good, and there's no easy answer. But talking to each other (and reading about it) is a good place to start.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on this newspaper for future developments and coverage.

Wednesday, October 20, 1999

October 20, 1999 - NetLibrary

By Holly Deni

I'm here to report that rumors of the demise of the paper and ink book, in my opinion, are wildly exaggerated. It is true that electronic books are out there, lurking on the pages of the mail order catalog and taking up air space in the information cloud that now rings the earth. And do you know what? I'm surprised to say that I kind of like them.

Here at DPLD, we've recently "gone live" with our first public experiment in the world of electronic publishing. We've subscribed to a service called netLibrary (sic). netLibrary is a Boulder-based company on the cutting edge of the electronic publishing revolution. They've negotiated with many, many publishing houses to acquire the rights to publish books that can be seen on screen rather than in print.

netLibrary has presented us with the opportunity to build our first e-book library right on our Internet terminals. Basically, the way it works is that a patron will come into any DPLD branch, go to our home page and click on the "library catalog and state resources" link. One level down from here, you'll see a place to click on netLibrary. From there, if you wish to use this product from your home computer, you'll need to take a few minutes to fill out a very short patron profile (all information given is confidential, just as all your library records are).If you do so, in a few minutes you'll have an open door to the world of electronic books.

Why, you might ask, would you want to explore an e-book when the print version has served perfectly well up until now? One reason might be that all the print titles we own on a particular subject are already checked out by others. Another reason might be that an early-winter snow squall has rendered you housebound when you have a presentation due first thing the next morning. Going to the netLibrary page will give you a way of getting instant access to books, 24-hours a day, in an electronic format that exactly duplicates the print version (down to including the dedication page, footnotes and all pictures and charts), from your home Internet connection while still in your pjs.

Not only do you get instant access, but there are some really cool things that an e-book can do that the print equivalent can't even attempt. For example, you can go to the index of the e-books at netLibrary, find the word or phrase you're interested in, click on it and go directly to that page and that word instantly. You can enter a search phrase or a name and search across the entire DPLD netLibrary catalog for occurrences of same. You can move quickly from highlighted phrase to highlighted phrase throughout the book. You can even download an image or a chart to a gif file and re-paste it into a paper you're working on or a power point presentation you're developing (provided, of course, that you comply with copyright law by making the proper citation to the source).

You can simply browse through titles and tables of content, stopping to take a brief look at a few section of text, or you may virtually check out the title for a 4 hour period (seems like a short use period, but really, just how long can you last, reading from a computer screen). At the end of your four hour window, the book will disappear from your home electronic library; if no one else has asked for it, you can check it out again... and again.

You can develop your own set of library shelves that will house information on all your favorite titles. Best news of all - there are no fines!

Of course, because this technology is still pretty new, you can count on netLibrary to go through several permutations in the next year or so. Right now, DLPD's netLibrary consists of about 250 titles. We'll be adding a few more this year, then we'll wait to see what the public response is. The subjects of the e-books we've chosen to buy include: Colorado history, natural history, computer software, information technology, sports coaching, business and personnel management, small business information and social issues. So far, there are no fiction titles, but those aren't far down the road.

Come by and ask any of our reference librarians to give you an introductory tour of the netLibrary world. Then go home and brag to all your friends that you've just experienced the 21st century firsthand.

Holly Deni is a guest columnist and the Associate Director for Support Services at DPLD.

Wednesday, October 13, 1999

October 13, 1999 - Library Commercials and Signs

Some months ago, I was asked to give a career talk to some local elementary kids. I couldn't help but notice that nearly everybody went to see the cops and firefighters. Librarianship just didn't seem to generate as much excitement as a career option, at least for that age group.

But one of the kids that joined me had something important to say. I commented that it never ceases to amaze me that very small children -- and I mean 2 years old and under -- can spot a McDonald's, but often seem clueless about the whereabouts of their local library.

The young man in my career session put his hand up. "It's simple," he said. "Libraries don't advertise on TV. And you don't have signs you can see from the highway."

Well, I think he's right.

That's why I'm heartened to report that the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recently announced the winners of its 13th annual government programming awards. According to their press release, "The Awards recognize excellence in broadcast, cable, multimedia and electronic programming developed by municipal agencies." There were over 700 entries nationwide this year.

In the category of "Public Service Announcement (Operating Budget to $200,000)" the winner was (envelope, please) ... "The Game (Library)" by Douglas County Television. (Applause!)

You may remember that I reported back in March of this year that Douglas County Television shot a truly zany series of library commercials. The locale was out at Bob Schultz's historic saloon. You may have caught these on our own local Channel 8.

The production team at Douglas County TV DESERVES the award. Furthermore, it is my hope that by demonstrating that the local public library can be a place just packed with pulse-pounding drama, we will encourage more municipalities to cast a promotional eye on our services. That goes for Chambers of Commerce too -- let's not overlook the big contribution to the quality of life from an intelligently staffed and well-stocked library.

And speaking of drama, I'd also like to encourage people to check out the Castle Rock Players' Masquerade Murder Mystery Silent Auction Gala. This interactive murder mystery will be held on Saturday, October 30, 1999 from 5:30 p.m. to Midnight. The location is Kirk Hall, on the Douglas County Fairgrounds. The event also features a meal, catered by the Carrabbas Italian Grill. For tickets, call 303-814-7740 or www.crplayers.org. The prices are $30 for single attendees or $50 per couple. For those of you who haven't attended a live mystery before, it's an exciting way to match wits with cast and your fellow diners. It's also a wonderful excuse to dress up in costume. All proceeds will benefit future productions of the Castle Rock Players, a youth-oriented theatrical group. It happens that your local library director will play a truly modest role at the conclusion of the event -- hauling off the miscreant(s).

So the library is doing its bit to break into show business. Now to get cracking on that 75 foot library sign. I'm thinking neon.

Wednesday, October 6, 1999

October 6, 1999 - Scientific and Cultural Facilities District

I was raised just north of Chicago. Unlike most of my friends, I have to say that I really didn't like the city. It was too dirty, too cold, and too dangerous. But there were three things I did like: the Lake, the el (the "elevated train" used by commuters), and the museums. When I was a high school kid, sometimes I'd combine all three: hop the el, then ride along the Lake toward either the art museum (Impressionists!), or Chicago's absolutely staggering Museum of Science and Industry.

Now that I'm in Colorado, I have to say that I genuinely do like Denver, a cleaner, warmer, and far more tolerant place than the Windy City. I've traded the Lake for the Rocky Mountains. Although the light rail is no match for the el, it's a step in the right direction. And I do very much enjoy Denver's art museum, zoo, and Natural History Museum.

But lately I've come to realize something else. First, culture costs money. I run a library district, which I consider a cultural institution, and have learned that it takes a reliable and sufficient income to open our doors every day.

Second, while culture is a pleasant amenity for adults, it is something far more to our children. Most tangibly, it is a sign that adults can, if they put their minds and their pocketbooks to it, build some pretty interesting places for kids, our malls and discount stores notwithstanding. Significant cultural institutions change lives, develop lifelong interests, and contribute to something that doesn't get much advertising: the development of a rich inner life.

I raise all this because many Douglas County citizens are facing a vote this fall: whether or not to join the Denver metropolitan area's Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. Highlands Ranch and Parker already belong, and as a result, collect some $128,000 annually, funding (among others):

* the Colorado Children's Chorale
* the Colorado Scottish Festival
* the David Taylor Dance Theatre
* the Douglas County Children's Chorus
* the Golden Eagle Brass Band
* the Imagination Makers Theater Company
* the Parker Area Historical Society
* the Parker Community Theatre
* Speaking of Dance, and
* the Town Hall Arts Center.

If successful, the vote this fall will decide whether or not Lone Tree, Acres Green, Castle Rock, and other points south of Castle Pines North will also qualify for arts grants from the SCFD, not to mention participating in existing cultural programs that now skip over us.

The vote is on the establishment of a new sales tax for those areas: a penny on every ten dollars. If the voters approve, the amount of money available to Douglas County residents will jump to over $300,000 a year.

Some people have objected to the disproportionate flow of revenue. About two-thirds of the tax stays in Denver. But that doesn't trouble me. For one thing, it was the citizens of Denver that built these institutions in the first place, not the citizens of Douglas County. For another, every time I buy anything outside of Douglas County I pay the tax anyway, and get nothing local to show for it (I live in Castle Rock). I don't object to supporting the sort of world class institutions that make the Denver metropolitan area such a wonderful place to live.

Moreover, if the tax IS established in those parts of Douglas County currently outside the district, then all of those people who come from elsewhere to buy goods at the Park Meadows Mall and the Castle Rock Factory Outlets will also be contributing to OUR local culture. And I happen to know that several Douglas County communities are having discussions about the need for performing arts space.

To me, participation in regional districts that provide quality of life services makes good planning sense.

The issue with all tax questions is the same, however. Those people who bother to show up at the voting booth are making a simple choice: do I believe that what I spend is worth what I'll get?

To put it another way, how much do Douglas County citizens value culture?

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

September 29, 1999 - Seduced by AOL

[Three weeks ago, I wrote a column about a survey we mailed out. Called "Why did you leave us?" it was an attempt to find out why a surprising number of people who recently got library cards, never checked anything out again. Below is the altogether marvelous response of one of the people who received that survey. It is a tale of seduction ... and perhaps of redemption. I am deeply indebted to the author for her permission to reprint it.]

Dear Douglas Public Library District:

Thank you for the enclosed survey.

When I pulled that out of the mailbox this evening, I felt as if I'd just been informed that I hadn't bothered to contact my best friend in six months. Rather, I had turned my back, resolutely walked away, ceased contact, and never given that loyal friend another thought.

I needed your reminder that that's a lousy way to treat a friend, and I sincerely thank you for taking the time to ask why I haven't used my library card in six months. In this day and age of databases, everybody's-a-number, and faster-smarter-moreinyourface-internet access, it's nice to know that somebody out there still cares whether or not I've cracked the covers of a book lately.

I shamefacedly admit the truth: I succumbed, as so many Americans have, to America Online. Just about...well, six months ago, to be exact. In that time, I've traded real, paper letters for e-mail, lapsed a Denver Post subscription in lieu of 'downloading' it every Sunday morning (and let me tell you, lingering over a cup of coffee and a computer screen on a lazy Sunday morning is NOT as satisfying as wrestling back the pages of that oversized weekend edition), stopped reading magazines altogether (why bother when you can 'interact' with them on the 'net?) and even sunk so low as to shop at Barnes and Nobel's bargain book table without ever leaving my desk. Clicking a mouse is nothing compared to the sheer joy of finding that copy of William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, way down at the bottom of a pile of cookbooks, for five bucks. I've done all this in the guise of 'progress' and 'simplifying' my life, and in the process of that, I've driven right past the library quite a few times.

I've just gotten too busy with all this instant information to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading (and I used to read, and read voraciously, and read so much I kept a reading list throughout the year, just to see how many books I could finish in a year), and until I got your survey, I didn't realize how much I'd missed it.

I have no desire to settle in before a warm fire this winter and send e-mail.

I'd much rather read a good book.

So thank you for the reminder, the much appreciated human touch of asking where the heck I've been, and why I haven't used my card. It meant so much to read that, and it touched my heart so much more than that come to think of it downright annoying "you have mail..." I come home to every day.


Kathryn Jennings-Hancock
Elizabeth, Colorado

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

September 22, 1999 - Building Communities That Care

Sometimes, though, such paths are not only the quickest way through town, they are also the most illuminating. Often, the distance between the facade of a town and its reality is a matter of a couple of blocks.

Adults see the facade -- because that's the way main roads are designed. (See how prosperous we are!) Kids -- at least kids that don't drive -- get to see the reality, or at least a different reality.

The way a community feels to members of different generations is one of the key points of the upcoming "Douglas County: Building Communities that Care" program on October 15, 1999.

As reported by Rich Bangs last week, the morning event (8 a.m. to noon, in the County's Philip S. Miller Building in Castle Rock) features a keynote address by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. This will also involve area high school students. Then program attendees will hear a presentation about how to go about analyzing Douglas County communities.

When Rich first approached me about the need to "do something," the context was the tragedy at Columbine High School. We envisioned something like a public awareness campaign. We were going to explore the many dimensions of Douglas County communities, and focus on how they affect our young people.

What are some of these dimensions? We talked about the role of the media, and access to disturbing content whether through TV, radio, or library Internet terminals. We talked about the availability of drugs -- and of guns. We talked about the important roles of family, of faith, of the culture of the public schools.

Rich brought more people into the planning process. Then Beryl Jacobson let us know about the "Communities that Care" program -- a research-based approach that has been proven to make communities safer, less risky, more nurturing for young people.

The program begins much the way Rich and I first talked about this: by assessing the many factors, both positive and negative, that exist locally. And if that's all it accomplished, that would be a good start.

But there have been plenty of reports written up already. The strength of this particular program is that community members then have a process to take that assessment, and begin to make a real difference in how the local community operates.

The event will have two kinds of attendees: an invited list of community leaders that we EXPECT to work to implement positive change. But of that 150 people we're aiming for, some 50 are members of the community, regular people whose time, and whose conscience, is absolutely necessary. If you would like to attend, please call 303-660-7337.

Sometimes it takes a walk in your children's shoes to see the truth about your community.

Wednesday, September 15, 1999


I'm pleased to report that the Douglas Public Library District survived 9/9/99 -- an early test of the computer date problems collectively referred to as Y2K. Our computers did NOT fail, as some people predicted they might.

That's good, because I've noticed that we now have a surprising number of electronic reference works, and I'd hate to lose them. Available through the Internet, we have Colorado Newspapers, Reference USA, Standard and Poor's Stock Reports, Searchbank (which includes business, medical, and general periodical information), SIRS Researcher Online, and "What Do I Read Next?" which is a sort of electronic reader's advisor.

When I say these resources are available "through the Internet," that doesn't mean just anybody can get to them. The Douglas Public Library District pays for subscriptions to these databases on behalf of our patrons.

The significance of this is threefold. First, much of the information floating around the Internet isn't very reliable. The sources we pay for generally are. We apply the same standards to these purchases as we do for the reference books we add to our shelves: they have to be authoritative and useful.

Second, electronic resources tend to be far more current (no pun intended) than print versions. Some of these databases are updated daily, even hourly. This lets our patrons get today's information today, not a week from now.

Third, Internet subscriptions enable us to offer all of the above at every one of our full service library locations. In most cases, that's much cheaper than buying multiple paper copies for the branches. It also helps us establish a set of core resources that our library users can expect to find no matter where they go.

Not all of our electronic resources are provided through the Internet, though. Some are available on CD-ROM.

The advantage of CD-ROM is usually a combination of factors: it's faster than print versions (because both indexes and content are interfiled) and it has more multimedia -- pictures, sound, and filmclips.

Many of our CD-ROM titles are related to nature: Amazing Animals, Discovering Science, My Amazing Human Body, My First Amazing World Explorer, National Geographic/DVD 1888-1997, Topo Maps USA, and so on.

Others cover business needs, history, biography, quotations, authors, and maps.

We also have a couple of encyclopedias -- Microsoft Encarta, and World Book, for instance. And here's an interesting thing. The print and electronic versions of things are different, and not always to the detriment of paper.

For instance, while print encyclopedias will not, obviously, have sound and animation, they do tend to have longer, more comprehensive articles. This can make research a little more complicated, so when in doubt, don't hesitate to talk to a librarian.

I should note that our CD-ROM products are not consistent around the district. I've encouraged our branches to experiment, to test the market and see what gets used. Many students, particularly young ones, seem to prefer the CD-ROM products.

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

September 8, 1999 - Why Did You Leave Us?

When I was an undergrad, I did a lot of poetry readings. Of all my poems, the one that got the most rueful response from the men in the audience went like this:

And again a woman says
"You're such a wonderful man
I can't imagine why
I left you"

On more than one occasion, I couldn't imagine why, either.

Well, everything returns. But instead of having solely a personal interest in the subject, I now have a professional interest as well. As part of our routine statistical analyses, we've noticed what seems an odd anomaly: a fair number of the patrons, all over the age of 21, got their library cards between June, 1998 and January, 1999, then never used them again -- or at least, haven't checked anything out from us after that.

I have to wonder -- was it something I said?

The question (not "what I said," but why people might sign up for a library card then never use it again) is significant. Libraries are much like businesses in that we depend upon the continuing support of our customers. Am I losing customers? Or are they still using us, but in ways that don't show up in our circulation statistics?

Of course, there are many reasons for such a drop-off. A whole family might sign up as soon as it settles in Douglas County. But after that, most materials get checked out just by one person in the family.

Or it could be that people signed up for a Douglas Public Library District, but work downtown Denver, and use a non-DPLD library somewhere closer to work.

Or it could be that people get their cards for purposes of identification, but mostly fetch what they need from the Internet, either at work or at home.

Or it could be that the library really disappointed them in some respect -- that there is some profound defect in our services, collection, staff, or parking.

Or it could be something else entirely.
But the answer matters to me. Am I looking at a trend in new kinds of library use? If so, that may have budget and planning implications. Or have we got a problem that needs a closer look?

Instead of just idly speculating, I've decided to do some market research. A good sample of these people should be receiving a short survey from the library this week, mailed direct from us. We've also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The survey takes just a couple of minutes to fill out. We've tried to list all of the explanations we can think of -- and also provided some space for you to tell us something we haven't yet suspected.

I emphasize that the library is not watching WHAT you're checking out. Library records are still confidential -- just between the two of us. But your honesty will help us better understand the library needs of the people we serve, and help keep US honest about the quality of our services.

I need at least 300 responses to get some statistically significant data. So please, if you get such a survey, take a few minutes to fill it out, and get it back by September 30. You'll recognize the survey by its heart-rending title: "Why did you leave us?"

But please, whatever you write, do NOT let it be: "I'm not interested in seeing you anymore. Can't we just be friends?"

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

September 1, 1999 - Home Schooling Revisted

My daughter, Maddy, is just about to turn 12 years old. We taught her at home through first grade. From second through fifth grades, she attended a charter school based on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Curriculum. But at the end of last school year, she asked if she could be home schooled again.

Naturally enough, we asked her why. Her reply was illuminating. "Learning," she said, "isn't fun anymore."

I have strong feelings about all this, and don't want people to misunderstand me. I think it is absolutely essential to have a strong public education system. I also support the charter school movement. Any institution has its failings, and sometimes they're not failings at all. Sometimes, a child just needs another choice.

Home schooling, for our family, is a choice based on two simple facts. First, for us, home schooling IS fun. My wife is a librarian too. When anyone in our family shows the slightest interest in a subject, he or she is bombarded by books, videos, audiotapes, magazine articles, and web page printouts. My wife is also a wanderer and an explorer. Give her a topic -- butterflies, for instance -- and she's planning multiple trips to Westminster's Butterfly Pavilion, and the Denver Natural History Museum.

I submit that most kids, with a mother like that, do indeed find education marvelously entertaining, engaging, and challenging.

But there's another factor. Most people now know that home school kids tend to outperform their public school peers by several grade levels. That's not surprising: one teacher to one student is an ideal ratio, and it's a luxury we clearly can't afford in public schools.

But people tend to forget one of the more troubling aspects of public education: segregation. For all that Maddy, these past few years, had good teachers and a demanding curriculum, she spent most of her day cooped up in a building with people who were mostly her own age. Home schooling got her out more, got her interacting with a more diverse range of ages and backgrounds. She liked that.

So we've decided to give it another whirl. And in addition to the usual stuff (still mostly following the outline of the Core Knowledge Curriculum), not to mention Maddy's violin lessons, I've come up with four assignments for Maddy.

The first one is to volunteer some time with the Castle Rock Players community theater group. She's interested in just about everything to do with theater: set design, costuming, script-writing, and acting. This will give her the opportunity to get some real-life experience, and meet some fascinating people. If that means some weird hours, that's OK.

The second is to figure out what to do with our back yard. We have inherited all kinds of plants back there. Some of them require special care that, frankly, I have not bestowed on them. We have huge areas that cry out for something that is appropriate to Colorado (as opposed to sparse bluegrass and dandelions).

Maddy needs to learn about Colorado flora, and probably spend some time with the good folks at CSU Extension. Then she needs to spend some time putting what she's learned into practice. Again, here's a wonderful "hands-on" experience.

The third is to put together a chart describing the history of the Christian religion, and in particular, how the various sects and denominations in America are connected historically.

The fourth is to write a paper about the evidence for evolution. As part of this, Maddy has to spell out what the "Scientific Method" is. Does "theory" just mean "somebody's opinion?"

Hint: no. But the average lay person -- or Kansas State Board member -- certainly seems to think so. In my opinion, even a 12 year old should know better.

Ironic, though, isn't it? It soon may be that the only way you can study both religion and evolution is if you DON'T go to school.

To accomplish all the above, Maddy will also be spending more time at the library. I am confident that she will quickly discover that once you start reading about anything at all, sooner or later, it connects to everything else.

As I've written before, education isn't something that's done to you; it's something you do for yourself. Maddy is going to have a swell time -- and I'm going to have a swell time watching her.

Wednesday, August 25, 1999

August 25, 1999 - Connie Willis at Book Club

My mother used to tell me that her favorite poem was "O Captain, My Captain," by Walt Whitman. At least, it HAD BEEN, until some smart-aleck English teacher announced that the subject of the poem was Abraham Lincoln. Utterly shocked, my mother went back to the poem and pored over it. Not a word about Abraham Lincoln.

It left her suspicious of poetry for the rest of her life. If she could have met Whitman, she said, she would have asked him how come he couldn't have just said what he meant.

One of my favorite poems, much of which I committed to memory when I was 12, is "The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe. "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary..." For sheer lugubriousness, it has no equal.

So I was pleased, then entranced, then amused, when I ran across a piece Poe had written some time later about how he'd gone about writing "the Raven." The rhyme scheme, the line length, the choral elements ("Nevermore") the subtext ("that rare and radiant maiden...Lenore"), indeed, every syllable had been carefully and consciously chosen.

It made a pretty good story, until suddenly I realized it was all hogwash. In my experience, people can only do that kind of thing after the piece is written. They certainly don't do it before.

To a lesser extent, the same is true of prose. On one level, there's a story. But sometimes, when you know the author, you begin to glimpse part of the deeper structure of a book, something that helps you understand both it, and the person who wrote it.

For instance, I know Connie Willis, who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than anybody, ever. (Those are the top two awards in science fiction, and she's won six apiece.) Locus Magazine just named her Best Science Fiction Author of the Nineties. Among her award-winning novels is "Doomsday Book," a time travel tale set simultaneously in the Middle Ages and the not-too-distant future.

I happen to know that Connie's father died when she was young. I also happen to know that she's a devout Christian. But it was only when I was reading the first draft of her book when I realized that the deep meaning of "Doomsday Book" was a longing -- through difficult times -- for the absent father. It added a resonance to my appreciation both of the book and of Connie.

But wouldn't it be great, after finding a book that you love, if you could dredge up the author and make him or her account for it, clear up the parts that didn't make sense, ask if there weren't really something else going on there in chapter 6, and so on?

Well, thanks to the Douglas Public Library District, you can. Connie recently published another book, "To Say Nothing of the Dog," again a time travel tale, but this one set in Victorian England. It's a charming, funny, and erudite love story.

One of the district's many book clubs is the Philip S. Miller Senior Book Discussion group. On September 13, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., not only will folks be talking about "To Say Nothing of the Dog," Connie Willis will join them.

The public is invited to attend. The event is free. It would be polite to read the book first, though. It is available from your local library and area bookstores.

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

August 18, 1999 - Culture of Fear

I'm always amused by educators who think we should teach "critical thinking skills" to our young. I agree the skill is important, even very important. But where are we going to find any adults who can demonstrate it?

For instance, this seems like a simple enough question. Are things getting better, or worse?

Let's start with teen pregnancy. According to Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, "It was not many years ago in this country when it was not common for thirteen year-olds and fourteen-year-olds to be having children out of wedlock."

That deserves three responses. First, it's not "common" now. Second, the age of menarche -- the onset of menstruation -- has dropped from age sixteen a century ago to age thirteen now, and sometimes as early as nine. Nobody knows why, but it's probably related to nutrition. So biologically speaking, an earlier menarche might be expected to result in earlier teen pregnancies. But third, guess when the highest rate of teenage births occurred in this country? It was during the 1950's, era of "Father Knows Best." Between 1991 and 1996 alone, the teenage birth rate declined by nearly 12 percent.

How about crime? In 1997, more than half the respondents to a public survey disagreed with the statement, "This country is finally beginning to make some progress in solving the crime problem." But the crime rate had fallen for a half dozen consecutive years, and continues to fall.

What about drugs? A majority of adults rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America's youth. Nine of out ten believe the drug problem is out of control. But in the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier.

Or as Barry Glassner, author of The culture of Fear: why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, puts it, "Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story."

Glassner's book, a closely reasoned, impeccably researched analysis of popular culture, dissects broad areas of utter false alarms. In large part, The Culture of Fear is a collection of news stories from the most prestigious journalistic institutions of our country. These stories -- and the appalling disregard of context behind them -- make for reading that is alternately sidesplitting ("flesh-eating bacteria") and sobering (the rise in whooping cough deaths after scares about DTP vaccines).

Clearly, a big cause of American's panic about almost anything is the media. There is far more violence in the evening news than anything on prime time. News executives follow a simple dictum: "If it bleeds, it leads." Moreover, it's just catchier to run a story about an "epidemic" than an isolated instance -- whether the topic is moms who kill their children, crack babies, or people who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

But another cause is what we might call "innumeracy," an ignorance of what various numbers signify. The biggest confusion is between the terms of incidence and rate. So one might note with accuracy that the incidence of plane crashes has increased. That makes some people feel that it's more likely. But the rate has dropped sharply. In other words, despite an increase of millions of flights each year, the number of crashes per 1,000 is dropping. Flying is safer this year than last, and in any case, far safer than driving.

Frankly, I don't have much hope that The Culture of Fear will turn things around. Alarmism sells. Newspaper people, TV reporters, televangelists, and even our politicians make gobs of money preying on our fears, however misguided they might be.

But you'll find a copy of the book at your local library anyhow. Don't be afraid to check it out.

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

August 11, 1999 - Lone Tree Limerick

It all started with a letter on February 24, 1999. It was addressed to "Reference Librarian / Oakes Mill Library" in Littleton, Colorado. (This branch is now the Lone Tree Library, in the newly incorporated city of Lone Tree.) The letter was from a man, let's call him Mr. Smith, in upstate New York.

It read, "I am writing to see if you can help me locate a poem entitled, 'Little Lem Fitch,' which begins, "At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch....' I have searched through local libraries and have not located it. I thought perhaps your town of Littleton, Colorado, might know of this particular poem."

Our reference librarians pulled out the stops. But by March 20, they had to report that, "We were unable to locate the poem entitled 'Little Lem Fitch.' We looked through the Douglas Public Library District catalog; Granger's poetry indexes, the Internet; many poetry anthologies; and queried a reference librarian's Internet site to no avail. We also called several local libraries including the main branch of the Denver Public Library. No one was able to locate this particular poem.

"We didn't want to disappoint you completely so one of our creative staff members made up her own version of 'Little Lem Fitch.' We humbly offer it for your consideration.

At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch
He lost control of his Bronco and slid into a ditch.
The SUV was history
But Lem phoned Frank Azar*
And now he is rich!

* a local personal injury attorney who advertises incessantly on television here."

Mr. Smith responded by March 30 with "Thanks so much for the delightful little verse, 'Little Lem Fitch...' It was splendid and it certainly made me chuckle."

We were even fortunate enough to receive a phone call from Mr. Smith. He let us know that although most of the libraries he had contacted (there are several Littletons in the country) had done a thorough and professional job of research, we were the only ones who, well, made UP an answer.

I hope it will shock no one to learn that sometimes we do in fact fail to answer a question. I have a friend, also a librarian, who once suggested to a reference book publisher that what we really need is a book of questions for which no answer exists. It would be nice to point to an authoritative resource that said, for instance, "No one knows why Napoleon stuck his hand in his blouse for his portrait."

The problem with reference services is that until you know that no definitive answer can be found, you believe that just one more book, just one more e-mail inquiry, will nail it. But our patrons usually need the answer by a particular date. So at some point we have to call off the hunt.

But I'm very proud of our staff, particularly Kathy Schnebly, for putting something more than the impersonal face of bureaucracy on our library's response. Real people ask us questions. And real people scramble to answer them.

But only at the Douglas Public Library District, by golly, do we crank out a limerick when we need one.

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

August 4, 1999 - Highlands Ranch Library Closed Due to Smoke Damage

I'm very sorry to report that until further notice, our Highlands Ranch Library, located at the Convenience Center on Springer and Broadway, will be closed.

On Thursday evening, July 29, there was a fire at the sandwich shop a few doors down from us. Apparently, the fire occurred somewhere between 9:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. It was mostly put out by 10 p.m. -- a testament to fine firefighting.

But a lot of smoke, and some water, did find its way into the library. At this point, we have no utilities in the building. Right now, it seems that we probably won't have power until August 2.

By Friday morning, we had folks from a group called Disaster Restoration, Inc. on site. (One man's disaster is another man's business opportunity.) DRI had generators set up, and a handful of enormous fans to blow out the smoke.

Some water had apparently seeped along or under the floor, so they also had to vacuum that up.

Since no staff had been injured, my first concern was the status of our collection. Since 1991, we have been rapidly buying materials to keep up with the ravenous demand in Highlands Ranch. By next summer, we hope to have our new library open, and we are going to need every book, audiotape, and video we could lay our hands on.

Right now, we've got over 75,000 items in the building. I'd estimate the value of the collection at at least $1.5 million. But it also takes TIME to build a collection of any distinction. It's hard to put a price tag on eight year's worth of collection building.

If you've ever been given a book that had been recently handled by a heavy smoker, you know the problem: some odors can't easily be removed from paper. My fear was that we would have to replace all of the affected items.

It's too soon to say just how bad things are. We won't know until we get power again, and run the "air scrubbers" through their paces. I'm cautiously optimistic, however, that most of the collection is OK, or at least salvageable.

In the meantime, we've had to do some shuffling around of services. Highlands Ranch Library users are being directed to our Lone Tree Library to pick up materials on hold (only for items that came in on July 31 or after). We'll have staff stationed outside the Highlands Ranch Library from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. week days to provide maps to the Lone Tree Library, and also to distribute a temporary story time schedule. We've beefed up the daily number of programs for the duration.

Incidentally, our Lone Tree Library is our newest building, and is worth a trip for its own sake.

We also ask that patrons who have items due at the Highlands Ranch Library to just hold onto them until further notice. No fines will accrue for them, and we simply don't have any place to store them. I'd rather have things being used than stacked somewhere.

I realize that this can be tricky. Sometimes people request books that come from somewhere other than their local branch. So you might, for instance, pick up a Parker book at Lone Tree, or a Highlands Ranch item in Castle Rock. So let's try to keep this simple: if you picked it up at Highlands Ranch, figure it's a Highlands Ranch item. I'm not declaring a fine free period for all libraries, just for the one that people can't get to. If you get an overdue notice or bill in the meantime, just call the Lone Tree staff at 303.799.4446 and explain the problem. Emergencies make messes. But if everybody is patient and polite, we'll sort it out.

Again, right now, I can't predict when the building will be up and running again. We've had building inspectors and structural engineers looking at things, and do have to put public safety first.

But I'm touched by the outpourings of sympathy our staff have gotten from patrons. Highlands Ranch residents seem genuinely saddened. On behalf of library staff, I'd like to extend my gratitude for the kind words and comforting gestures of our many library friends.

We'll get back in business as soon as we can.

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

July 28, 1999 - Thanks

When asked to state his ideas about God, F. Scott Fitzgerald replied that he had never wished for a God to blame, but he often wished there were one to thank.

In that same spirit, I'd like to formally take note of the many people who have stepped in to help the library.

Foremost among them are our volunteers. And foremost among our volunteers is our Board of Trustees. A stint on the Board lasts 5 years. Our Trustees get no money, and precious little glory. Nonetheless, they give most generously of their time and their minds. In our age -- a time defined by a conservative swing socially and a mind-boggling series of technological surges -- our Trustees bring a thoughtful and temperate approach to new policy issues. They also cast an expert eye on library finances.

Other volunteers include the many people who give their time to provide children's story times, organize county-wide historical resources, and contribute to our daily operations in countless ways. Our library wouldn't be the same without them.

A major focus of library efforts this past year has been the construction of the Highlands Ranch Library -- a 42,000 square foot building. Through a series of exhaustive financial analyses, combined with some grueling cost-containment, we think we've figured out a way to open the library at "build-out" -- both floors will be functional at our projected opening date of June, 2000.

But I'd like to highlight a few key contributions. First is Shea Homes, which is donating the land -- 3.04 acres -- and kicking in an additional $200,000. Ten thousand of that went into our first Highlands Ranch Library, the current storefront building. The remaining $190,000 will go to upgraded finishes of the new building.

Shea Homes has also been a key player in the Town Center Work group. Sensitively and intelligently facilitated by Shea Homes's Steve Ormiston, this group has brought comprehensive research and much-needed coordination to the development of a new civic heart for the Highlands Ranch development.

Next is the contribution of the Highlands Ranch Metro Districts. I've worked with a lot of local governmental agencies -- most of them in the county, in fact. The HRMD is my favorite.

From the beginning of the project, they wanted to know how they could help. The HRMD was planning a Town Center Park. They were eager to talk about how it might relate to the library. They wanted to explore with us every possibility to gather citizen input. They impressed me with their obvious enthusiasm for public projects, their keen interest in cooperative planning, and their flat out generosity (they waived some $80,000 in development fees for the library).

Every single HRMD person I've dealt with -- Terry Nolan, Jeffrey Case, Tom Hoby, Brian Muller, and the members of their governing board -- has been almost frighteningly bright, personable, and dedicated. I learned a lot from them. They made our project better.

The Friends of the Highlands Ranch Library also came through for us. They anted up some $12,000 toward a fireplace in the new library. This fireplace -- one of the key features of the building will be composed of rhyolite. It will also have a tile mosaic depicting the entire floor plan of the library. This echoes the central fireplace of the Phipp's Mansion.

There are many other people to thank. The Douglas County Planning and Community Development Department waived its various fees for the Highlands Ranch Library. In past projects, so did the Town of Parker. So did the new City of Lone Tree (which even made a contribution of over $50,000 for a community reading garden).

I am deeply grateful for the cooperation of all of these individuals and governmental agencies for their assistance. Truly, Douglas County citizens seem to have grasped that the library belongs to all of us.

From my heart: thank you all.

Wednesday, July 21, 1999

July 21, 1999 - The Right to Arm Bears

A couple of weeks ago I remarked that I didn't know much about gun control. Well, since then, I've been doing some reading. In the process I've learned some things that the NRA doesn't want you to know. Here they are.

Every one talks about "the right to bear arms." There's much speculation about just what the Founders of this great nation had in mind.

Well, there are two theories, and neither one of them is what you'd expect.

The first theory was propounded by historian David W. Crockett, in his classic, "Dan'l, We Bar'ly Knew Ye." This still-popular biography of the famous frontiersman, Dan'l Boone, recounts a curious episode. Dan'l's father, Will'm, had some peculiar ideas about the relationship between the natural world and mankind. Crockett cites an occasion when Will'm learned that young James Madison was drafting a Constitution. Late one night, the rustic woodsman burst into Madison's hotel room, wild-eyed and stammering with indignation.

Disgusted by the growth of civilization, Will'm proposed that the Constitution give "critters" explicit legal authority to protect themselves. As Madison recorded in his journals, Will'm said, "I reckon a musket in the hands of a grizzly'd do more to curb the spread of these dag-nubbed cities than anythin' else."

In other words, Madison didn't mean to pen, "the right to bear arms." He was SUPPOSED to have written, "the right to arm bears."

I unearthed a second theory recently in the admittedly obscure collection of essays on the topic "Weather and Politics" (National Meteorological Society: Pittsburgh, 1995). Here one essayist notes that the weather in the District of Columbia (which even in 1786 had been identified as an early candidate for a national capital), was so beastly that ambassadors stated their intent -- if they had to summer anywhere near the place -- to seek hazard pay from their home governments.

This is understandable. As the author makes clear in a series of striking graphs, the air in D.C. does not move, apparently, at all. Ever.

Moreover, as numerous paintings of the Revolutionary era attest, diplomats, politicians, and men of letters were expected to wear yards of woolen clothes, heaped in fashionable layers.

The author writes, "Could the 2nd Amendment have been a simple recognition that no young country could survive if its leaders had to conduct their deliberations in the swelter of a swamp? Might not the plain meaning of the text be that all men have the inalienable right -- when faced with certain meteorological conditions -- to 'bare their arms?'"

It's an intriguing hypothesis. Certainly, misspellings were rife in the period before the publication of the inimitable Webster's Dictionary (1st edition).

Of course, the rest of the text of the Amendment does tend to cast aspersions on either of the above theories. In final form, Amendment II to the Constitution of the Unites States reads, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

But that's just one more value of the library. There are so many stories to choose from. I'm sticking to mine.

[Jamie LaRue is director of the Douglas Public Library District. And as the preceding demonstrates, he is long overdue for a vacation.]

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

July 14, 1999 - Kid's Rights

I'm still haunted by a cartoon I saw some 30 years ago. A clean- cut man in a business suit stands next to his wife. She's pushing a baby carriage and holding the hand of a little boy. They're all peering into a jail cell.

The man says, "It's looks so nice and safe in there."

I'm also haunted by something else. According to the most current report of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (based on 1996 data):

- Almost 1 million children were the victims of substantiated or indicated child abuse and neglect in 1996. That's about an 18 percent increase since 1990. (The incidence of most crimes has fallen since 1990.)

- Nationally, there were 15 victims of child abuse and neglect per 1,000 children in the population.

-An estimated 1,077 "child maltreatment fatalities" occurred in the 50 States and the District of Columbia in 1996. (You have to admire the bureaucratic circumlocution here. In plain language, this means that in 1996 alone, over 1,000 children DIED at the hands of their "guardians.")

Moreover, according to the national Child Rights Alliance, ten to thirteen children are stabbed, raped, beaten or burned to death by their parents or caretakers every single day in the United States.

Meanwhile, the press is filled with reports about how we're cracking down on minors. In Tennessee these days, you'll be relieved to know that no minor can get a tattoo unless accompanied by a parent. We're on our way to hanging the Ten Commandments in our schools. (Remember: "Honor thy father and thy mother?" Nothing about honoring thy children.)

There's talk about teenage curfews (let's get them off the streets and into their homes). There's a national push for school uniforms at least through elementary school. There's a tough new initiative by movie theaters to restrict children from buying tickets for R- rated movies. (Not from seeing them -- impossible to check ID's outside every door in the multiplex.) There's a national push to force libraries to use "child-friendly" Internet filters on Internet terminals, brushing aside the awkward truth that they are utterly ineffective.

Some well-intentioned souls are convinced that the answer to youth violence is simple: structured and supervised activities all the live long day. From sun-up to sun-down, let's get our children corralled into church groups, school groups, sport groups, and any other sort of group under the watchful eye of adults. (The adults can all be trusted. Right?) Plus, there's the opportunity for more uniforms.

And a recent poll shows that the American public is more than willing to rein in the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, in particular Freedom of Speech and the Right to Bear Arms. There are no specifically identified minors' rights in the Constitution, an omission that makes it far simpler to pass such urgent laws as the "parental consent to tattoos" legislation mentioned above.

Am I alone in thinking that this is all appalling? Columbine notwithstanding, by a clear and overwhelming margin, children are the victims of crimes, not the perpetrators. Yet suddenly adults seem bent on children's virtual imprisonment, or at least their military internment.

Last week I wrote about our summer reading program. Since then, I've realized all over again just how important the library was to me when I was growing up. It is, on occasion, absolutely vital that a child have a place to go where he (or she) can just sit and read, where the role of grown-ups is restricted to answering his or her questions -- any questions -- with thoughtfulness and courtesy.

The ways things are going, there won't be many places left where a child has the simple right to be left alone.

Wednesday, July 7, 1999

July 7, 1999 - Be A Bookaneer!

My daughter is now 11. My son is 5. I don't think they've missed a library reading program yet.

You might suspect that a librarian's children would be FORCED to participate. But the truth is, they've always been pretty eager. Maddy (my daughter) loves the process: getting the forms, filling them out, keeping track of everything. She's a highly organized person who reads constantly with or without an external reward.

Perry (my son) is the mercenary of the family: he's in it for the prize. Sure, he gets into the books (once a parent latches onto a good read-aloud) but for my boy, the payoff is the present. (This may change -- lately he's expressed some keen interest in learning how to read by himself.)

There are different philosophies about reading programs. Some parents and librarians think that reading should be enjoyed for its own sake. And certainly this is the HOPE of many librarians: we rope you in for the game-like aspect of the program, and pray that it sparks a lifelong interest.

But we also track program statistics: how many people sign up, how many finish, how many people came to the special performances. And the clear fact is: the better the prizes, the better we do in all these areas.

I believe our two most effective prizes to date have been the Olympic medals (with some real heft to them) and our Western camp cups (made out of mottled blue tin). We had ADULTS signing up for the cups.

This year, we go from a western theme to pirates. Or as it says on our web page (http://douglas.lib.co.us/missy/pirateprg.htm) "Come Aboard and be a Bookaneer! You'll find your treasure as ye read 15 books. Write the titles on your treasure map log, then bring the map to your library and ye'll get a prize: A real pirate hat and pirate gold to boot!"

I happen to know that demand for the hats has been pretty intense. Perry has been even more interested in another prize -- pirate tattoos for the young swabs! (Calm down, parents. The tattoos do peel off.)

Also to be found at our web site is a schedule of all the programs related to our summer reading focus, a thoughtful collection of books about pirating, and even some charming and/or educational piratical sites on the World Wide Web.

Many Douglas County students are in year round schooling, of course. As DCSD Superintendent Rick O'Connell told me some years ago, the relatively shorter breaks do help kids retain more between classes.

But quite aside from the fun of our reading programs, surely it can't hurt to have your children keeping their reading skills sharp at the library.

So avast, me hearties! A fair wind blows from the docks of the Douglas Public Library District. Take on this high sea book adventure or walk the plank, ye salty dogs! YOHOHO and a bushel o' books!

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

June 30, 1999 - Scholarships and Education

Recently I facilitated the review of some scholarship applications for a large corporation. It was an eye-opening experience on several levels.

The first surprise was how expensive college has become. My own kids are 11 and 5, so aside from establishing some pre-tax savings accounts, I haven't given this much thought. At this point, most colleges seem to cost more than I made my whole first year as a professional librarian.

The second is how many families (mostly single-parent families) make less than $35,000 a year and are trying to put more than one child through college at the same time. They have my profound sympathy and admiration.

The third (although it may have something to do with the second) is that there are still a surprising number of people who say that they are the first people in their families to go to college. That was true for me, but I expected that things would have changed a generation later.

The fourth is how clueless most people are about how their lives "add up" on paper. I include myself in this category, certainly through high school. When money is handed out, when applications are being judged for college, it is very difficult to capture the flavor of a life.

So what gets "points" are such things as participation in school activities, community service work, job experience, as well as the more usual academic measures of grade point average, ACT/SAT scores, and the average gross income of your parents. Who thinks about all this in high school?

Answer: the ones who get scholarships.

The fifth is how well-heeled some corporations are. Without giving too much away, there are companies whose budget for chairs in a building exceeds the budget for most entire libraries built in Colorado this past decade. Good for them for sponsoring college scholarships for their employees. Investing in education is probably good business, too.

Yet I have many, sometimes conflicting feelings about public education. The first is my deepest criticism: I truly believe that we have taken six year's worth of curriculum — suitable for children ages 8 through 14 — and stretched it into something that now reaches from ages 4 through 21. This masks the real purpose of our public education system, which is to serve as a de facto national daycare system, and to keep our adolescent children (ages 14 through 20) some place where they won't get in the way. The sad truth of life in the post-industrial age is that we really don't need our children the way we did in the agricultural age — and we don't know quite what else to do with them.

But even if we mask our discomfort and ignorance, we can trust that our children notice: we don't need them. There is no useful work for them to do. How would that make you feel?

Another sentiment is that real education does take place, every day, in pre-schools, elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges, and in charter schools, private schools, and home schools. This education happens because teachers care. It happens because parents care. And finally, it happens because all the evidence to the contrary, human beings — even young ones — are irrepressibly intelligent, and at some level delight in exercising the keen joy of comprehension.

For more information on colleges and scholarships, consult your local library.

Wednesday, June 23, 1999

June 23, 1999 - How Filters Work

I frankly admit my biases about this issue: I am flabbergasted that as part of a post-Columbine response, all across the country we’re loosening laws regarding access to guns — which do kill people — and locking down library terminals — which don’t.

I don’t have much of an opinion about gun laws. It’s not my area of expertise. But I do know something about libraries and the Internet. The current crop of proposed legislation requiring software “filters” (two bills at the federal level, some dozen at the state level) is so wildly off-base that I thought I’d point out some significant technical issues.

How do filters work? Well, there are only five kinds of data in a web page:

- the URL (Uniform Resource Locator) — as in “douglas.lib.co.us.” Some filtering software consists of databases of “bad” URLs, which are then blocked. But some tens of thousands of new sites come up every day, from all over the world, which makes tracking them a problem.

- the IP (Internet Protocol) address — as in This is the machine language version of the URL. And we have the same problem as with URLs, but with a new wrinkle: there are several ways to enter an IP address such that (at least at this writing) it will bypass most filtering software. For instance, the IP can be entered in hexadecimal.

- metatags — this is coded text appearing in the header of a page, usually invisible when you view the page through a browser. The purpose is to offer information to a search engine about the content of the page. There are two problems here. First is that some disreputable types put deliberating misleading information in the metatags. For instance, shortly after Columbine, some pornographic web sites added “columbine” to their metatags. Many other common words and phrases are used the same way. Filtering software cannot possibly block these words without blocking access to nearly anything of interest.

The second problem is that filtering software tends to be very literal: it looks for word patterns, but has notoriously bad judgment about the thousands of exceptions. My favorite example is “XXX” — which just happens to appear in the site for several Super Bowls (where “XXX” stands for “thirty”). Another commonly cited problem is “breast” — which then blocks access to information about breast cancer.

- text within the page. Here, too, filtering software stumbles over pattern recognition. Some filtering software vendors are working hard on using new technologies — fuzzy logic, artificial intelligence. Nonetheless, it is still very difficult to determine the difference between an anti-Semitic web site, and a web site ABOUT anti-Semitism. Should both be blocked? Should either?

- graphics. If a web page is nothing but a picture (as many web pages are), filtering software simply can’t deal with it. Cartographers, meteorologists, and many others would love to see some pattern recognition regarding images. But that looks to be some 10 years out.

See why librarians have a problem with this “solution?” On every count, it can, and has been, clearly demonstrated that filtering software simply does not work.

Moreover, many of the things that are blocked raise serious issues of censorship. Exhaustive studies conducted by librarians show that not only do tons of inappropriate materials still get through, but also that many fine, perfectly appropriate sites do not, for reasons that are often unclear.

There’s a librarian out in Oregon who’s a big believer in filters. He recently crowed that libraries that use them only get an average of two complaints per month. Well, we don’t use filtering at all, and we only get about one complaint per quarter. (Of course, we don’t put Internet terminals in our children’s areas, either.)

I get more complaints from our patrons about almost anything else — the air-conditioning, the dandelions — every single day. If wanton Internet access isn’t a local problem, why do we need a state or federally mandated solution?

As I noted in a recent column, librarians aren’t wearing blinders. If we observe something that demonstrates extraordinary incivility — a man summoning Penthouse photos just as a Girl Scout troop arrives at the library — we would ask him to stop. And he would, or he would be ejected. In other words, we continue to supervise public space, as we always have.

So far, we have yet to be required to peer over your shoulder — physically or electronically — to see what text you’re reading, and to stop you if somebody in Denver or DC doesn’t approve. So far, librarians have yet to be persuaded that the root cause of youth violence is children who are spending too much time at the library.