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, April 28, 1999

April 28, 1999 - Columbine

Last night over dinner, a friend noted an irony in the Columbine tragedy. "Everyone responded with a call to prayer. Yet the one place you couldn't pray was school."

Others put their faith in statistics. Nationwide (according to the Denver Post), roughly 250 people have died as a result of school-associated violence since 1992. Until Columbine, the most people to die in a single incident was 5, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

By contrast, according to a recent National Vital Statistics Report, in 1997 alone almost 2,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 died in motor vehicle accidents. In the same year, 345 children died through homicide -- most often, and most startlingly, by people they knew, either at home, or in their immediate communities. Guess how many children died by their own hand in this age group -- 313.

Between the ages of 15-24, deaths by homicide were a staggering 5,793. By suicide, over 4,000 died. That's in a single year.

So by contrast, schools are relatively safe.

Overall, the evidence suggests that we don't do as well by our children as we should. But that problem reaches far beyond school walls.

In times of trouble, people look for causes. So the pundits trot out all the usual suspects. Guns were either too easy (for the children), or too difficult (for teachers), to come by. Hollywood action movies and shoot-'em-up video games have established a uniquely American culture of violence. The Internet, and even the local library, provides access to too much dangerous information. School officials failed to protect the innocent from bullying, or alienation, or smuggled weapons. Parents never noticed that their children were building pipe bombs in the garage.

But most Americans who have guns or watch action films don't become murderers. Any information is dangerous to someone who intends to use it dangerously. Schools are institutions of learning, not prison camps or psychiatric wards. And even the most caring parents miss things, make mistakes, and for their blindness and errors have their hearts torn from their breasts.

Here's what I believe: accidents happen. The students and teachers who died at Columbine, all the victims, had the soul- rending misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were not to blame.

But I also believe something I have yet to hear anyone else say about this black mark in our nation's history. Beneath the desperate quest for an explanation for Columbine lies a simple truth: two young men decided to kill.

Choice, free will: it lies behind the greatest evil and the greatest good in the world. We must remember that for every horror, every act of cruelty one human chooses to commit on another, there are countless, counterbalancing acts of kindness and compassion. That's why -- and how -- our species survives.

Sometimes we have no control over what happens to us. We do have control over how we choose to respond.

My own choices in the wake of Columbine are threefold: first, I'm going to send a donation to the Littleton Jaycees, who are sponsoring an UnDinner to benefit the Columbine High School Library. There is no event to attend, but the $10 donation will be used to help replace items in the library, the locus for much of the carnage on April 20. (Send your donation to Columbine High Library Fund, c/o the Littleton Jaycees, P.O. Box 1008, Littleton 80160-1008.)

Second, our library district will proceed with its plans to hold a groundbreaking for our new Highlands Ranch Library, on Saturday, May 1, 10 a.m., at the new library site. The right response to acts of destruction is to celebrate our choice to build.

Third, like many parents in Douglas County and around the globe, I will be holding my children a little closer for a long time to come.

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

April 21, 1999 - DebtCollect

Once I caught a Seinfeld monologue about librarians. The gag was that we're like a kid who keeps letting you borrow his stuff just so you'll like him. It all sounds a little pathetic.

There's some truth to it. We quite consciously hire people who hate to make patrons unhappy. So we take the extra step, and try to find a way to make people walk out of the library with a smile on their faces.

But I have decided that there's one area where we're just going to have to get tough.

Most of the books we check out come back right when they're supposed to. Of all the ones that don't, the first overdue notice (when your items are exactly one week past the date you were supposed to return them) fetches back half of them. The second notice (one more week later) again brings back half of what's still out. The third notice brings back another half-of-a-half-of-a-half. Finally, when an item has been overdue for a month, we send out a bill for the cost of the item.

And this is precisely where we used to be pathetic. Sure, you couldn't check out anything else until you settled up, but some tiny fraction of our patrons never came back at all. They just kept our books.

Well, those days are over. Starting very soon now, once you owe us $50 -- and that $50 must include an item you never returned, not just fines -- we will pass your account along to a collection agency. They will send you another couple of notices, and if there's STILL no response, well, the value of those library books will be showing up on your credit record.

Once you get a letter from the collection agency, even if you bring the books back, you'll not only need to pay overdue fines, but a $10 processing charge. That $10 covers our costs for the collection agency.

Let me stress again that our concern is not to humiliate anyone, or to hassle people about their credit rating. We just want our stuff back. To be perfectly blunt about it, taking library books is theft. After getting four notices from us, and a sprinkling of notices from the collection agency, there's really no excuse for not bringing our books back. Or if there ARE extenuating circumstances, it's still your obligation to call and talk to us. We're not unreasonable people, and weird things do happen to our patrons from time to time. But we take our stewardship of public property very seriously.

Based on an analysis I did a while back, we lose some $12,000 of materials every year to patrons who check out materials and keep them. These people are not our regular customers. Frankly, I don't have much sympathy for them. They steal precisely the books and tapes that are most popular. It takes time and money to replace those items.

So we've come full circle. We're still wonderful friends. We'll welcome your children as our own, and delight them with stories. We'll smile every time we see you, and work hard to answer even your wildest or most frivolous questions. More to the point, we'll lend you some of the best stuff in the world, over and over, things you could never afford to buy on your own.

But bring it all back, hear?

Wednesday, April 14, 1999

April 14, 1999 - National Holocaust Awareness Week

This week happens to be both National Library Week and National Holocaust Awareness Week. At first blush, there wouldn't appear to be much in common between them.

But I have a picture from May 10, 1933. A "brown shirt" (Nazi) is throwing an armful of "un-German" books onto a bonfire. The place: Berlin.

In January of the same year, Adolf Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany, the most powerful position in the government. The aging President Hindenburg hoped Hitler would lead the nation out of its grave political and economic crisis.

But among Hitler's first acts was to convince the cabinet to invoke emergency clauses of the Constitution allowing suspension of individual freedoms of the press, speech, and assembly.

Also in 1933, new German laws forced Jews -- who comprised less than one percent of the total national population -- to quit civil service jobs, university and law court positions, and many other positions of public service. Five years later, in November of 1938, Jewish synagogues, homes, and shops were destroyed and many Jews arrested and murdered, in what the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum describes as "a centrally organized riot" or pogrom. Today we remember it as "Kristallnacht" -- the Night of Broken Glass.

Additional targets of Nazi persecution were the Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Poles, and the handicapped.

Then came the concentration camps -- six central sites. The death toll at each was as follows: Chelmno - 150,000 deaths. Belzec - 600,000. Sobidor - 200,000. Treblinka - 750,000. Majdanek - 275,000. Auschwitz-Birkenau - more than 1.25 million.

We must never forget such horrors. And librarians will never forget that it all began with book-burning.

Just fifty years later, a radical group of neo-Nazis began claiming that the Holocaust never happened, a monstrous lie. But the only way to drive out bad information is through the production of, and access to, contrary evidence. Such evidence resides -- in incontrovertible detail -- in libraries.

Usually, librarians focus on the positive side of our profession: our focus on childhood and adult literacy, our position as a public gathering place and a quiet sanctuary in a culture dedicated to the frenzy of consumer consumption.

But one of our most important roles is often uncomfortable. We are the repository of human memory. That memory includes much that is nightmarish.

In recent years, libraries have come under fire for documents the American Library Association has adopted to guide its members: mainly the Freedom to Read Statement, the Freedom to View Statement, and the Equal Access to Minors Statement. In these increasingly conservative times, many believe that libraries should "protect" children. But children don't need to be protected from ideas. They need ideas to protect themselves. The same is true for adults.

While it sounds almost un-American to say so, consensus doesn't have anything to do with truth. To put it another way, just because we all agree with each other, doesn't mean we're right. There was a time when everyone agreed that the earth was flat. People who disagreed were tortured and even killed for their heresy. There was a time when a whole nation permitted the virtual extermination of Jews within its borders.

Libraries stand at the other end of the Inquisition, the other side of the fear-mongering of the Nazis. We not only permit intellectual curiosity, we actively encourage it. Even when such a role is not popular, it is nonetheless altogether proper for us.

The fundamental dignity of individual inquiry is the whole meaning of the public library. If we don't stand for that, we stand for nothing.

Wednesday, April 7, 1999

April 7, 1999 - Simplify!

It started when I was reviewing a batch of evaluations for new employees. A theme began to emerge. "I had no idea working in the library was so complex!" "There's so much to remember!"

At first, I thought I was seeing the benefit of the district's new employee training. There really is more to working at a library than checking books in and out. That's one of the things new staff discover when they get a glimpse behind the desk.

But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. Is the job really so much denser than it used to be?

It was tempting to think, as many staff members did, that all the new stuff involved technology. But some of my managers had a different slant. They agreed that there was a lot more to remember lately, but thought it had more to do with the proliferation of our own procedures than with computer functions.

So I had a notion: let's try to pare things down. But that's hard to impose from the top. Library procedures are applied at the front line. So I thought we should pull together front line staff from around the district to take a close look not at how we do things, but whether we ought to be doing them at all.

I wanted to call this committee, The Simplification Committee, or perhaps, The Purge. It finally wound up as The Innovations Committee, which certainly has a more positive ring to it. (As Monty Python used to say, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!")

I was invited to talk with another group of library staff who supervise the front desk. They wanted to know what kinds of things I was looking for, exactly. So I asked them some questions.

One of them was, "What do you spend your time on that feels inefficient?" One of the big ones was "damaged materials." A staggering number of items come back either with important pieces missing (the problem with books on tape), or with various degrees of broken, ripped, torn, or graffitied parts.

As I suspect is true of many organizations, my staff was victimized by their own conscientiousness. Over 90% of the time, such damage is normal wear and tear. After all, we're in the business of lending things. Lending is use, and use means wear.

But sometimes, that ten percent is egregious and willful damage. My staff then saw themselves as agents of the taxpaying public, determined to recover the costs of public property.

The problem is, sometimes the cost of recovery is more than the value of the item.

I'm not proposing that librarians should just say, "Oh well!" every time somebody destroys a library book. But there's such a thing as proportion. We shouldn't be spending 90% of our time on 10% of our business. Was there a way to make the process of reviewing items and notifying patrons less time-consuming?

Then, in the course of just a couple of hours, the circulation supervisors reeled off whole lists of tasks that really don't make much sense anymore. They were just things we used to do when we were smaller. When we added on the new tasks of a larger library, we were too busy to ask ourselves if the older things were still necessary. A lot of them weren't. We should get rid of them.

I've decided that it takes work to make things simpler. Procedures need weeding sometimes, just like library collections. If you don't prune back internal procedures, you get stifling bureaucracy and perpetual exhaustion.

Thoreau said it best, "Our life is frittered away by detail....Simplify, simplify, simplify."