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 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."

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