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, February 24, 1999

February 24, 1999 - Internet E-mail Reconsidered

In ancient Japan lived a wise old man. He had a son who grew up strong, handsome, and a good helper on the farm. His neighbors often told him, "How fortunate you are!"

"Maybe," the old man invariably replied.

One day, the son tripped over a root in the field and broke his leg. "How terrible!" said the villagers.

"Maybe," said the old man.

Two days later, the emperor's men came through, conscripting all able-bodied men. The son, clearly unable to fight, was passed over. "How lucky you are!" said his neighbors.

"Maybe," said the old man. And so on.

The point to this old Zen joke is that you never really know how things are going to turn out. So it's best to view sudden turns of events with equanimity.

Take Internet access at the library. Like most of the libraries in the country, we've tended not to place too many restrictions on how patrons use our terminals. Why? Because the technology is so new, no one is quite sure what its true purposes will turn out to be.

The only limit we've placed is one of time. We see Internet workstations as reference tools, and to make sure all of our patrons get some kind of opportunity to use them, we say, "you're limited to 20 minutes." If no one is waiting, we tend to be lax. But if somebody comes up and you've been there for awhile, you're expected to move along.

Such a rule is a little hard to enforce, of course. We can't afford to have our staff standing behind each patron making sure he or she watches the clock. But the rule is based on something it happens I put a lot of stock in: courtesy. The more polite everybody is, the fewer rules we need.

Although what gets the most, and usually sensationalistic, press about library Internet use is minors accessing pornography, the truth is, that doesn't happen very often. What happens far more often is that patrons tie up Internet workstations to do personal e-mail. And when we ask them to move along, I'm sorry to say that far too many people have been most inconsiderate. Rude, even.

Why is this a problem? Because we're buying more and more reference tools that are available only through the World Wide Web. Such tools tend to be far easier to use than print. Moreover, they are more current, and instead of buying multiple copies for multiple library branches, we can just buy one, and people can look at them not only from anywhere in our district, but even from home.

But if people are typing nice long letters to their friends, these tools aren't available to library users in-house. And although I'll admit that e-mail can be a very powerful research tool on occasion, it isn't generally used that way. Our purpose in providing these terminals was to provide access to a powerful new reference tool.

Some of our libraries provide courtesy telephones, for use by children who don't have money for a pay phone, and need to call for a ride home. But just as we're not in the business of providing free telephone service to all comers, neither is it our job to provide free Internet e-mail.

So, reluctantly, I've decided to recommend to our Library Board of Trustees that we find ways to block access to a variety of locations offering free e-mail. If possible, I may try to set up a single workstation for that purpose at each location, but you'll have to sign up for it, and time limits will be strictly enforced.

If you have strong feelings about this, now would be the time to let me know. Write me care of your local library, call me at 303-688-8752, or e-mail me (from home!) at jaslarue@earthlink.net.

Is this policy change a good idea?

Here's what I think: Maybe.

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

February 27, 1999 - Isabella Bird

Isabella Lucy Bird is one of the striking characters of Colorado history. One hundred and twenty-five years years ago, this remarkable Englishwomen climbed Long's Peak.

Isabella recorded her journey in letters back to her ill sister. These letters were later published (1879) as A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Earl Murray, a novelist raised in Montana but now living in Fort Collins, said in an interview, "Late one afternoon, while riding the shuttle back to my home from the airport, I had a discussion with a woman who had read Isabella Bird's book ... She pointed out the window to Long's Peak, rising high in the distance, and told me that Miss Bird had climbed that mountain and had fallen in love with an outlaw named Rocky Mountain Jim. I thought to myself that there could be no better story than that."

Murray's latest novel, In the Arms of the Sky, proves the point.

Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent actually existed, and much as Isabella described him. Half of his face and one eye had been ripped off -- the result of an encounter with a grizzly. Yet despite his ruined visage and a history of violence, Nugent had the soul of a poet. Nugent and Isabella fell in love.

Nugent was locked in a fierce struggle with Lord Dunraven, a wealthy British sportsman determined to buy Estes Park and turn it into a a private hunting reserve. This feud, as well as Isabella's connection to family back in England, did not augur well for the romantic relationship between the mountain man and the Victorian Englishwoman.

When asked, "What intrigued you about Isabella Bird?" Murray replied, "I saw her as a woman well ahead of her time, independent and unafraid of what others might think. I believe she was also a risk-taker, as traveling alone in the American West of 1873 was a strong test for anyone."

On March 8, In the Arms of the Sky, by Earl Murray, will be the book considered by the Senior Book Discussion Group in Castle Rock. The time is 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The place is the Philip S. Miller Library. The author will be present.

Earl Murray has written over thirty novels dealing with the West. His novel of Wounded Knee, Song of Wovoka (1992) was a finalist for Best Historical Novel in the Western Writers of America annual Spur awards competition. Murray has also worked as a botanist and rangeland conservationist. He has even participated in two Sun Dances and numerous bundle and sweat lodge ceremonies.

Of course, you could simply read his book yourself. But something special happens in a book discussion group.

Rachel Jacobsohn, author of The Reading Group Handbook, estimates that the number of reading groups has doubled in four years, in part because of Oprah Winfrey. Jacobsohn suspects that there are now a million book groups in America. Most of our libraries sponsor at least one, and new ones are popping up all the time. Some are sponsored by churches, others by local book stores. Ask around.

What's the appeal of book discussion groups? In part, it's the search for community. Some reading groups embrace decades of change in the lives of its members.

In part, reading groups are a stimulus to set aside time to think about something other than the details of your life. And if you're going to think about the details of somebody else's life, Isabella Bird is an inspiring choice.

Wednesday, February 10, 1999

February 10, 1999 - E-Books

I made the classic mistake. I bet against technology.

I predicted that books as we know them today -- ink on paper, bound volumes -- would endure for many reasons. But a key reason was that the resolution of type is many orders of magnitude superior to the resolution of fonts on a monitor.

Right now, computer monitor resolution stands at about 72 dots per square inch. Almost any commercially typeset book has about 1200 dots per square inch. I thought that gap was insurmountable.

Well, IBM just announced a new liquid crystal technology that almost doubles screen resolution. That puts it in the same ballpark as what came out of "letter quality" dot matrix printers about 10 years ago.

Speaking as someone who once bought a computer with 64K of memory -- and thought I was getting a heck of a deal, too -- I should have known better. Technology tends to jump by doubles and factors of four. It now seems entirely possible that in 2-5 years, we'll see handheld devices with text-resolution approximating print.

Of course, there are still many other reasons to believe that traditional books will last. But rather than try to hedge my bets, I've decided to face the music.

The library will purchase at least a couple of these electronic books, probably NuvoMedia's $499 Rocket eBook reader and SoftBook from SoftBook Press ($299). Once staff have had a chance to put these devices through their paces, we'll invite the public in for a demonstration. Nobody knows quite what effect electronic or e-books will have on libraries, but I've made up my mind to be ready.

Come to think of it, there are several ways a book could be improved. How often have you been reading a particularly fine fiction title and then met up with someone who would appreciate a scene that is now some fifty pages back? Or you've just come across somebody in a Russian novel and don't have a clue who he or she is. The ability to quickly search through text is something computers are good at. Coupled with something no more sophisticated than a built-in "clipboard," the e-book could greatly simplify the process of taking notes, or (for the student or teacher) building study guides.

For some kinds of uses, e-book will be perfect -- although fiction probably isn't the best example. Technical manuals that are frequently updated are the likeliest starting place.

Librarians are like any other business people. We keep a sharp eye on the competition. So far, our competition has been the chain bookstores, video stores, and the trucker stops that rent audiotapes. And the presence of a library enhances, rather than detracts from, those commercial outlets. A good argument could be made that we actually boost each other's business.

But historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin once wrote about something called the "Displacive Fallacy." In brief, the fallacy is the idea that new technologies always push out or displace the old. This is what TV was supposed to have done to radio. But radio has many more listeners, and generates many more millions of dollars, than it ever did.

So that's my new prediction. Tomorrow's public library will also have e-books.

Wednesday, February 3, 1999

February 3, 1999 - Deckers Books by Mail Program

There are costs to living in remote rural areas. You can't just run down to the supermart. There are no movie theaters or big hardware stores. There aren't, when it comes right down to it, many of the trappings of civilization.

But some might call these benefits, not costs. There are no traffic jams. There are no stoplights. At night, you can still see the stars. Deer wander your land. It is quiet.

Let's face it: Most of what we call "civilization" is just blind consumerism and noise. Getting just beyond the edge of all that madness may just mean things get a little less convenient from time to time. You have to plan your shopping trips, for instance (although this is also more efficient).

However different the outward signs of life may be between city life and life way out in the country, one thing is the same: taxes. And here things do seem unfair. Whether you live in downtown Parker or the edge of Deckers, you pay for library service. But in Parker, you actually get a library. In Deckers, you don't. Or at least, you didn't.

Some years back, Cindy Murphy, Public Relations Manager for the Douglas Public Library District, attended one of former County Commissioner Michael Cooke's town meetings. It was held at the fire station outside Deckers. Cindy came back from the meeting very thoughtful. "Isn't there some way we can do something for our patrons up there?"

Until then, Deckers residents who wanted library services were more likely to drive to Woodland Park than to drive to Castle Rock. Thanks to something called the Colorado Library Card, they were able to use the Woodland Park Library District for free. But Deckers residents paid taxes to us, not to them.

So we spent some time investigating options, and finally came up with a program we call Books By Mail.

Here's how it works. First, we get Deckers residents to fill out "reader profiles" -- a description of the kinds of materials they like to read. Then we solicit some volunteers to run around and match up materials from our collection. These materials are then placed in special mailing pouches. Another volunteer drives these bundles to the Sedalia Post Office each week (Sedalia gets them out to Deckers faster than Castle Rock, which routes things through Denver). Then the packages are sent right to the houses of our Deckers patrons. Patrons can also call in specific requests. The library pays for postage, both ways.

How successful is the Books By Mail program? Well, last year, we mailed out 1,175 items. Our extraordinary book-selecting volunteers were Ginny Fife and Mickey VanderKooi. Our postal courier was Tillie Teets.

Another partner in this program deserves a special thanks: IREA (the Intermountain Rural Electric Association). For the past several years, they have made an annual donation of $600 to help underwrite this outreach effort to Deckers residents. This money, which covers just about half of our postage costs, comes from the interest earned on IREA's unclaimed capital refunds.

So thanks to the good work of many volunteers and benefactors, we have added one more sound to the quiet of the high country: the soft shuffling of pages.