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, 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.

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

June 16, 1999 - Father's Day

While these two events are not exactly equal, they do teach similar lessons.

The first event is that one day you realize your eyes need adjustment both for distance and for nearness. So you get bifocals.

The second event is that one day your last parent dies. In my case, it was my father. But once again, I found that I began to see through two kinds of lenses.

One looks back. My father and I went through five stages. The first, the one before I remember anything, was when he apparently adored me. (Here I'm relying on photographs and the testimony of my father's friends.) The second was a period when (at least this is my honest memory; he probably had a different view) he verbally berated me, from about the age of four until the time I left home at 17. The third was when we mostly ignored each other. He was working swing shifts at the power plant. I was in college, then hitchhiked around the country.

The fourth was when we decided that we kind of liked each other, and began to seek each other's company. It was all a little tentative.

After my mother's death, and on through his own long illness, we reached a fifth stage. We began to reckon with one another, where "reckoning" means "taking each other's measure." There are bonds of blood and time that reveal things to the patient eye.

There were times when I helped dad. When mom died I found out that my father had never written a check in his life, had no idea what the costs of running a house might be. I helped him work that through, identify his revenues and expenditures, set a budget, define regular routines.

There were times when he helped me. There was some assistance with a down payment for my first home.

One kind of lens looks forward. Here I'm thinking of dad's connection to my son Perry, then just three. They lit up like Christmas trees around each other, both of them grinning and following each other from room to room. I'd had that kind of connection to my granddad, too, and it shocked me to see it again. But it also changed me, matured me, made me profoundly grateful. Perry and my dad never had the chance to build the kind of long term relationship I had with my mother's father.

I balance the richness of my experience against the aborted promise of my son's bond with my father and I am saddened. Not for me. For Perry.

It just might be that all of life is about stories. There are stories we tell ourselves. There are stories we tell our peers. There are stories we tell our elders. But most important are the stories our elders tell to us, and we tell to our children. Not all of these tales are true. Nonetheless, they are deeply important.

Last week I looked at our program schedule for our libraries. I was very proud. The Douglas Public Library District offers some 50 programs every single week. Most of them involve storytelling. Just recently, many of those programs have been about Father's Day.

I hope that those of you with young children were able to attend. And for those of you whose children are too old for storytimes, I have a request.

Tell a story to your children. Tell them about your fathers.

Wednesday, June 9, 1999

June 9, 1999 - Owens Vetoes Library Bill

Colorado is unusual in many respects, but not least is the way we make it easy for people to use our libraries. I've lived in states where crossing an invisible line meant that you suddenly had to fork over $100 a year to use a nearby library. And if you wanted to directly connect to your local library's computer, then the next library to it, that meant two phone calls, usually running two different telecommunication protocols.

But here we have something called the Colorado Library Card. If you're a bona fide resident of one library's service area, most of the rest of us give you a card for our library, too. Cost to you: zero.

We also have something called ACLIN -- one phone call that connects you to every library web page and catalog in the state. That's all free, too.

In other words, your local Colorado library has expanded its mission to serve not just local constituents, but a state-wide community. Using mostly local revenues, we have put in place a remarkable system for sharing resources. It is truly a model to the nation.

But now that we have built a fine network for borrowing each other's materials, we need something to lend. Since these resources serve a populace well beyond that of our local funding bases, it's logical to seek state-wide, supplementary income. As President of the Colorado Library Association this past year, I've been working on this, along with many, many others.

I'm pleased to report that our proposal -- Senate Bill 93 -- passed both the Colorado Senate and the House this year. It enjoyed strong support from both parties, as libraries often do.

I'm dismayed, however, to report that last week Governor Owens vetoed SB93, which would have provided $2,000,000 annually to Colorado's school, public, and college libraries for the purchase of educational materials.

The chief beneficiaries of this bill would have been Colorado's rural libraries. The $3,000 minimum grant, for some libraries, would have more than doubled their ability to buy materials. At a time when we're striving so hard to improve our children's reading and writing scores, surely an estimated 100,000 extra books around the state each year might have helped.

In Douglas County, we planned to use our share of the money (about $64,000) to purchase business start-up materials, information that would assist local home office/small office entrepreneurs in forming a sound business plan, and in navigating the maze of government regulations.

What was Owens' objection to the bill? Well, published reports say that he believed children should be protected from pornography and violence on the Internet. According to less official sources, he believed that software filtering should be mandated for all libraries providing Internet access to minors.

But this bill wasn't about the Internet. The grants could only be used for the purchase of educational materials, real CONTENT, not to buy computers or Internet access.

Moreover, most libraries that do provide public Internet access have already adopted policies governing its use; some require filters, others don't. This decision is both institutional and local. For instance, a university health sciences library might quite appropriately adopt a different policy than a rural K-6 schoolhouse.

Finally, while no one -- librarians least of all -- wants to see our public institutions turned into peep shows, it is flat out unrealistic to expect that your local librarian, armed only with software intended for home use, can tame an unregulated, international communications medium. If we were to make such an impossible promise to our patrons, we'd rightly be branded liars and fools.

Meanwhile, most libraries -- like every other institution these days -- are finding that the World Wide Web has changed things. A policy we have long abided by is the idea of equal access to minors: that even young people had the right to examine anything they were liable to find in a library. As I have written many times, literacy is its own defense.

But now, the World Wide Web provides access to things that we didn't put in libraries before, most specifically graphic sexual content. Do the same policies still work, still make sense? Many practicing librarians would say "probably not." So we're thoughtfully trying to figure out what kinds of solutions will work best for our own institutions.

At the Douglas Public Library District, on occasion, we find youngsters looking at something that isn't appropriate in a public setting. We shoo them away. The plain truth is: this "problem" is more a matter of media hype than anything substantial.

Nonetheless, librarians provided to Governor Owens several drafts of language to meet his concerns about this issue. Our only communication in response was a veto -- and a host of unreturned e-mails, phone calls, and letters from around the state.

As a result, Colorado remains one of only 4 states in the Union that does not provide per capita aid to its libraries. That is our collective loss, and no one's gain.

Wednesday, June 2, 1999

June 2, 1999 - Memorial Day Musings

I remember very keenly the moment when I got my first deep glimpse into my father's life.

I was 17, not an age when most sons are in synch with their dads. We were eating dinner and talking about Viet Nam, my discomfort with the fact that I was, in all likelihood, about to get drafted.

I just wasn't sure what Viet Nam was all about. For one thing, my first real exposure had been in my high school's weekly ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) class. Every Wednesday, we watched Army report films that prominently featured the body bag count. It was sobering.

For another, the few people I knew that had gone, and returned, from Viet Nam were very damaged people, scarred by their experiences and convinced it was all a pointless exercise, a hell endured for no good purpose. That made an impression, too.

A third factor was something I'd seen earlier that day. Some anti- war protesters had held a demonstration, right after an ROTC exercise.

The protesters consisted of three groups: Viet Nam war veterans, some members of the Students for a Democratic Society, and some hangers-on. I would imagine that they numbered something like 200 people. The ROTC crowd, with parents, was three times that.

I had a front row seat to the whole thing. The protest was absolutely peaceful. The protesters showed up with signs and leaflets. They waited till the end of the demonstration, then chanted some anti-war slogans, shouted out a couple of emotional and hard-to-hear speeches, distributed leaflets, and that was about it.

Just when things were breaking up, when the protesters were heading home, police wagons screamed in. The police were wearing riot gear -- helmets, shields, and batons. They popped out of the wagons and began swinging. Standing on the sidelines, still wearing my corporal stripes, I watched a group of kids not much older than I was, beaten bloody. I'm talking about heads cracked open, kids dragged over asphalt and hurled bodily into paddy wagons. I remember the policemen laughing.

Later that night, the paper talked about our mayor's courageous decision to send in the troops to break up the communist demonstration. Our mayor had been a World War II veteran.

Well, my father was a WWII vet, too. But his war experience was very different from the 'Nam vets. For one thing, dad had been raised in near-primitive conditions, way back in the Ozarks. When his country called, just at the outbreak of World War II, he didn't even wait to finish high school. He joined the navy. It was an exciting time. As he later told me, in the navy, you got three square meals a day, stayed mostly clean and dry, and got to see some fairly interesting stuff.

More than that, three other key differences emerged between his time and mine. First, he was fighting Hitler, and the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It was pretty clear who the bad guys were, what they had done, and why they had to be stopped.

Second, he got a hero's send-off, and a hero's welcome.

Third (and this goes back to that hero's welcome), America won. They saved the world for democracy.

Tom Brokaw recently wrote a book about my father's generation, The Greatest Generation. It captures many of that generation's accomplishments.

What it doesn't capture is a hard truth. When my dad's folks took over public institutions, they couldn't understand why young people didn't have the same feelings about their country they did. My father's generation responded to youthful challenges (whether anti-war or anti-segregation) with often brutal suppression, not much different, in my opinion, from China's response to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

All of this is compounded by the fact that just last year, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief apologists for the war in Viet Nam, flat-out admitted in HIS book (In Retrospect: The tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam) that the anti- war protesters were right. The government sent in reluctant young men to be slaughtered in a war that was ill-defined and probably unwinable.

Such actions tend to undermine patriotism.

Now all of this may seem a most uncharitable reflection, just after Memorial Day. (I do think, by the way, that my father's generation eventually mellowed, and I do respect it for its accomplishments.)

But I prefer honesty to sentiment, objectivity to jingoism. On occasion, it seems to me that Americans have fought important wars for important causes, made ultimate sacrifices to decide vital matters. The Revolutionary War. The Civil War. World War II.

Americans have also died in wars that are shameful. The French Indian Wars. The Mexican War. Viet Nam.

My insight into my father's life was that if I had been born in his times, I would have had feelings and experiences much like his. If he had been born in my time, he would have shared MY world view. History is generational, not absolute. Each generation sees a different truth, reacts to a different set of circumstances.

Sometimes your nation is in the right, and service for it is a proud privilege. Sometimes your nation is in the wrong, and your dissent is an ethical obligation, however severe the penalties.

But in any case, all wars mean death, often of utter innocents. To those dead, and their devastated families, we can offer our deepest regard, our most profound sorrow.

We can also gather their stories, generational and personal, in that record of human experience that is the library.