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, January 27, 1999

January 27, 1999 - The Great Magazine Giveaway

Magazines tend to have two uses in public libraries. First, our patrons like to browse through new issues. People dip into a few articles, flip through photographs, and generally surf the waves of popular culture.

Once a magazine issue is no longer current, however, it has another life as a reference source. Older magazines are used by high school students doing papers, adults doing consumer research, and reference librarians tracking down recent facts.

One of the surprises of our 1998 statistics is that for the first time ever, the circulation (checkouts) of magazines is DOWN. Likewise, our use of pamphlets dropped since last year.

How come? I think people have discovered just what the Internet is good at: rapid retrieval of short documents on current subjects. Given the fact that we "subscribe" to more magazines in electronic format than we do in paper -- not to mention the fact that it's faster to search an electronic index -- it makes sense that the public is turning to the new format for research.

Besides, it's a snap to print out the article and take it with you -- easier than checking something out, or making a photocopy.

This trend raises an interesting question: do we need to hang on to paper copies as long as we have in the past?

At our Parker Library, we keep periodicals for three years: the current year, and the two previous years. Beyond that, the kinds of magazines we subscribe to don't have much enduring historical value. (There are exceptions: we keep National Geographic magazines, anything to do with Colorado history, and a sprinkling of others.) In years to come, we may move from three years of paper copies, to something less. (Just the current year? Current issue? I'm not sure yet.)

On occasion, patrons ask us what happens to the older magazines. The answer is that we put them in our booksales. If nobody buys them (and they do have a tendency to get lost in our sales), we usually throw them out. In this, libraries operate much the way your own household does: there comes a time when you can't make space for everything. So you only keep the things that are genuinely useful.

Sometimes people ask us to please reserve the older magazines in their name. We don't. In part, there's no easy way to track such requests. But also, there are issues of fairness. Who should get priority? Public entities? Private citizens?

This year, Patt Paul, the innovative manager of our Parker Library, came up with something she calls "the Great Magazine Giveaway." On Saturday, January 30, 1999, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., we're putting out most of our 1995 and 1996 magazines -- about 150 titles. It's first come, first served. The advantage to you: it's free. The advantage to us: we clear out space for the 1999 arrivals.

So all you craft, car, or travel buffs, you charter school, home school, or public school teachers, here's the chance of a lifetime -- the opportunity to scarf up hundreds of photographs, articles, advertisements, and artwork, all for free.

The essential purpose of the public library is precisely the fact that it pools public money to benefit private citizens far more than their individual resources permit. So I see this as just another way we give back to our public what they have already paid for.

Thank you, Patt, for a fine idea!

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

January 20, 1999 - Let Kids Play

About a hundred years ago in some rural, illiterate areas of Russia, folks had an odd way of insuring that important events were remembered.

Let's say an emissary of the Czar visited. The leader of the village would choose a 4 or 5 year old child, then box his ears. When the child would cower, cry, and protest, the leader would repeat, "In 1889 the czar's emissary visited our village!"

You shake your head. But trauma works. All his life, the boy would remember what he was supposed to remember.

This same principle is behind what we call "public education." (No, I'm kidding. I think.)

But speaking of education and child abuse, according to a study by the University of Michigan, children from the ages of 3 to 8 spent three times as many minutes on homework in 1997 than they did in 1981.

There are at least two ways to look at this. One of them is that the jump isn't that big: 24 minutes a week for the 3 to 5 year olds; about an hour and quarter per week for the 6-8 year olds. Many parents would tell you that if this modest investment of time improves the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, it's time well spent.

Another view is that parenting styles are changing. Exhibit A: the word "parenting." Grown-ups used to say that they were "raising a family" or "raising kids." Now we're "parenting." Isn't it interesting how that moves the focus from the child to the parent?

Exhibit B: all day kindergarten. Add to that a gaggle of prestigious, academically-oriented preschools with long waiting lists. (Pregnant? Sign up now!)

Exhibit C: soccer, girl's basketball, and a host of other organized sports for children.

It happens that my daughter played soccer and now plays basketball. On the whole, it's probably been good for her, too, even when it's been hard on us. (I'm thinking of a frosty soccer field at 8 a.m. on a Saturday.) But I can't help but notice a distinct pattern lately: Baby Boom parents are programming our kids' time far more than we were programmed.

So by way of contrast, consider a January, 1999 article in "The Futurist" magazine titled, "Career advice for kids: play more." According to the abstract: "Career experts agree that parents should allow their children to play more rather than force them to study or make career decisions at an early age. Free play .... enables children to discover how the real world operates and improve their personality and emotional health."

And consider this from an article called "Play and the arts: the importance of the 'unimportant'" ("Childhood Education," mid- winter, 1997): "Perhaps an adult's most important contribution to children's play is to create enough time and protected space .... Children need undisturbed time to explore the world of play."

I'm not sentimental about my childhood. But I find that the moments I treasure were utterly unstructured: conversations with my grandmother, time spent sitting in trees, books I read sitting in window wells and staircases ... and libraries.

When I was a kid, the school and public libraries were places where grown-ups left me alone. As long as I was reading, I was free to dream, to imagine, to "play." Nobody told me what to read, how quickly to turn the pages, or what I was supposed to learn from the books I loved.

On behalf of the children tired of having their figurative ears boxed to remember things that otherwise wouldn't matter to them: let's remember to leave them a little time in the day to just be kids.

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

January 13, 1999 - DPLD Web Statistics

Putting up web pages isn’t the most important thing we do, or even the most useful. But it’s newer than many of our other services, so I keep a sharp eye on it. We have a built-in “counter,” which tells me what people look at. I’ve spent some time the past couple of days thinking about the data, and trying to glean from it how best to manage this new library resource.

From December 1, 1998 through January 10, 1999 our home page (douglas.lib.co.us) has been “hit” some 48,000 times. But that’s a little misleading, since our terminals log in to the home page all by themselves after every couple of minutes.

The next most popular selection is Missy Shock’s World Wide Web search tools page. In part, that’s because that’s where many of our reference librarians begin their searches.

But Missy’s work (she’s the district’s Computer Trainer) pops up a lot. Her front page is number three in use. This isn’t surprising: not only has Missy identified some great links, she’s got a flair for web page design.

Fourth is the link to our library catalog. It’s comforting, I think, that one of the key uses of this technology by our patrons is still mainly to find books right here in Douglas County.

Next is the link to some recommended World Wide Web resources.

Next is the link to the page to search the Douglas County News-Press. One of the most interesting things we’ve done on the World Wide Web is this “joint publishing” of News Press highlights. These pages get used a lot.

The fifth most popular choice is a little surprising: our Making Democracy Work page. Since the elections are over, I wouldn’t think it would be getting quite so much use. But apparently our goal in this project -- to increase citizen access to political information -- has been successful.

The sixth most popular hit is Missy’s page on Colorado History. Some of these hits, I’m sure, are coming from elsewhere around the state. The next two most popular are also her pages -- one on arts, and one on good sites for kids.

Next comes our page to track the Highlands Ranch Library project. It’s time for me to update this one (and I’ll shoot to have the updates in by the time this column hits the paper). At this point, we’ve completed all of our drawings, and our architects are prepared to roll out some striking color images of the proposed building.

It’s clear that the heaviest use of our web pages is as a launchpad to the Internet. But I’m intrigued by the fairly intense use of newspaper resources. In addition to highlighted articles, many patrons make use of our online version of the News Press’s “Douglas County Guide.” It’s time to bring that one up to date, too.

I’m also startled to see how many people have read my newspaper columns, which have only been available on our pages for a couple of weeks. Beginning in 1999, I’ll also post the library columns of other library staff.

Overall, the web resources of the Douglas Public Library District provide a remarkably good look at what goes on in and around Douglas County. The lesson seems to be that the way to be a well-used stopping point on the World Wide Web is to pay attention to what’s going on in your own community.

The top 15 sites on our website (excluding our main home page) are:

douglas.lib.co.us/missy/tools.html - Where Missy starts on the Internet.
douglas.lib.co.us/missy/ -- The links of Missy Shock.
douglas.lib.co.us/catalog.htm - Gateways to our library catalog.
douglas.lib.co.us/www.htm - World Wide Web resources and starting points.
douglas.lib.co.us/dcnpmas.html - The new, one page overview of all News-Press articles online.
douglas.lib.co.us/mdw/ - Making Democracy Work -- a joint project of DPLD and the Douglas County League of Women Voters
douglas.lib.co.us/missy/cohistory.html - Online resources about Colorado History.
douglas.lib.co.us/missy/arts.html - Missy’s resources on art.
douglas.lib.co.us/kids.html - Fun sites for kids.
douglas.lib.co.us/hrproject/ - Our Highlands Ranch Library project.
douglas.lib.co.us/compmag.html - A quick list of full-text magazine articles.
douglas.lib.co.us/missy/preschool.html - recommended World Wide Web sites for very young children.
douglas.lib.co.us/dcguide/ - The News Press’s handbook to the county.
douglas.lib.co.us/larue/lc98/ - My columns for 1998.
douglas.lib.co.us/about_dpld.html - An overview page of library organization.

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

January 6, 1999 - Measuring Library Performance in 1998

For a long time, the best way to examine our library performance was to look at circulation statistics -- the number of items people checked out.

These stats still tell an interesting story. At all but one of our full service (7 day a week) libraries, business is up. Circulation at the Philip S. Miller Library increased about 5% over 1997. Highlands Ranch is up 15%. Parker is up a little over 8%.

The exception is Lone Tree, which went from being open in a real building for 12 hours a day, to being in a bookmobile open just a smattering of hours. Despite a strong showing in November and December, our use for that location is down some 65%.

Overall, use of the entire library district increased by just over 3 percent. Excluding Lone Tree, it's closer to 9.6%.

But 1998 is a good example of why circ stats no longer tell the WHOLE story about our library. The real victory of the year was indeed the opening of a new, more modern library building. A new building changes the dynamics of the system in much the same way that a new child changes the dynamics of a family.

Another growth area for our system in 1998 was reference services. This change was both quantitative and qualitative.

Just a couple of years ago, the only library that staffed a reference desk every hour we were open was the Philip S. Miller Library. Now all of our full service locations have reference desks, and people working them.

But it's much harder to measure the difference in staff time between a checkout and answering a question. Typically, there aren't as MANY reference questions as checkouts. But each reference question tends to be more demanding of staff and library resources. That difference affects the way we run the whole show.

The best way to measure reference services isn't by a simple count. It's by sampling the count, and following that up with interviews with the patrons. "Did we actually find what you were looking for?" This too, takes more time than tallying up checkouts. Nonetheless, our ability to answer patron questions has improved dramatically.

Last year we signed up over 15,000 new patrons. Then we purged our database of all the patrons who haven't used their cards in a couple of years. The new total was 86,430. I'll have to see the latest Douglas County population estimates to know how good that is. I'd very much like to see every single person in the county have and use a library card. I suspect we're closer to 55% these days.

But that brings me to one of our other successes last year. Our Library Assistants -- the front line of our district -- are also responsible for our children's story times. Last year I got more compliments than ever before about the warmth of our staff, the quality of their performances, the welcoming environment of our libraries. All of this translates into something else that isn't easy to measure: the kindling of a real love for literature in young minds.

That love, in turn, can lead to more articulate, thoughtful, open-minded and knowledgeable adults. And THAT is a accomplishment far more important than numbers.

To all our staff, my congratulations, and my thanks, for a job well done.