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, August 25, 1999

August 25, 1999 - Connie Willis at Book Club

My mother used to tell me that her favorite poem was "O Captain, My Captain," by Walt Whitman. At least, it HAD BEEN, until some smart-aleck English teacher announced that the subject of the poem was Abraham Lincoln. Utterly shocked, my mother went back to the poem and pored over it. Not a word about Abraham Lincoln.

It left her suspicious of poetry for the rest of her life. If she could have met Whitman, she said, she would have asked him how come he couldn't have just said what he meant.

One of my favorite poems, much of which I committed to memory when I was 12, is "The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe. "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary..." For sheer lugubriousness, it has no equal.

So I was pleased, then entranced, then amused, when I ran across a piece Poe had written some time later about how he'd gone about writing "the Raven." The rhyme scheme, the line length, the choral elements ("Nevermore") the subtext ("that rare and radiant maiden...Lenore"), indeed, every syllable had been carefully and consciously chosen.

It made a pretty good story, until suddenly I realized it was all hogwash. In my experience, people can only do that kind of thing after the piece is written. They certainly don't do it before.

To a lesser extent, the same is true of prose. On one level, there's a story. But sometimes, when you know the author, you begin to glimpse part of the deeper structure of a book, something that helps you understand both it, and the person who wrote it.

For instance, I know Connie Willis, who has won more Nebula and Hugo Awards than anybody, ever. (Those are the top two awards in science fiction, and she's won six apiece.) Locus Magazine just named her Best Science Fiction Author of the Nineties. Among her award-winning novels is "Doomsday Book," a time travel tale set simultaneously in the Middle Ages and the not-too-distant future.

I happen to know that Connie's father died when she was young. I also happen to know that she's a devout Christian. But it was only when I was reading the first draft of her book when I realized that the deep meaning of "Doomsday Book" was a longing -- through difficult times -- for the absent father. It added a resonance to my appreciation both of the book and of Connie.

But wouldn't it be great, after finding a book that you love, if you could dredge up the author and make him or her account for it, clear up the parts that didn't make sense, ask if there weren't really something else going on there in chapter 6, and so on?

Well, thanks to the Douglas Public Library District, you can. Connie recently published another book, "To Say Nothing of the Dog," again a time travel tale, but this one set in Victorian England. It's a charming, funny, and erudite love story.

One of the district's many book clubs is the Philip S. Miller Senior Book Discussion group. On September 13, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., not only will folks be talking about "To Say Nothing of the Dog," Connie Willis will join them.

The public is invited to attend. The event is free. It would be polite to read the book first, though. It is available from your local library and area bookstores.

Wednesday, August 18, 1999

August 18, 1999 - Culture of Fear

I'm always amused by educators who think we should teach "critical thinking skills" to our young. I agree the skill is important, even very important. But where are we going to find any adults who can demonstrate it?

For instance, this seems like a simple enough question. Are things getting better, or worse?

Let's start with teen pregnancy. According to Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, "It was not many years ago in this country when it was not common for thirteen year-olds and fourteen-year-olds to be having children out of wedlock."

That deserves three responses. First, it's not "common" now. Second, the age of menarche -- the onset of menstruation -- has dropped from age sixteen a century ago to age thirteen now, and sometimes as early as nine. Nobody knows why, but it's probably related to nutrition. So biologically speaking, an earlier menarche might be expected to result in earlier teen pregnancies. But third, guess when the highest rate of teenage births occurred in this country? It was during the 1950's, era of "Father Knows Best." Between 1991 and 1996 alone, the teenage birth rate declined by nearly 12 percent.

How about crime? In 1997, more than half the respondents to a public survey disagreed with the statement, "This country is finally beginning to make some progress in solving the crime problem." But the crime rate had fallen for a half dozen consecutive years, and continues to fall.

What about drugs? A majority of adults rank drug abuse as the greatest danger to America's youth. Nine of out ten believe the drug problem is out of control. But in the late 1990s the number of drug users had decreased by half compared to a decade earlier.

Or as Barry Glassner, author of The culture of Fear: why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, puts it, "Give us a happy ending and we write a new disaster story."

Glassner's book, a closely reasoned, impeccably researched analysis of popular culture, dissects broad areas of utter false alarms. In large part, The Culture of Fear is a collection of news stories from the most prestigious journalistic institutions of our country. These stories -- and the appalling disregard of context behind them -- make for reading that is alternately sidesplitting ("flesh-eating bacteria") and sobering (the rise in whooping cough deaths after scares about DTP vaccines).

Clearly, a big cause of American's panic about almost anything is the media. There is far more violence in the evening news than anything on prime time. News executives follow a simple dictum: "If it bleeds, it leads." Moreover, it's just catchier to run a story about an "epidemic" than an isolated instance -- whether the topic is moms who kill their children, crack babies, or people who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

But another cause is what we might call "innumeracy," an ignorance of what various numbers signify. The biggest confusion is between the terms of incidence and rate. So one might note with accuracy that the incidence of plane crashes has increased. That makes some people feel that it's more likely. But the rate has dropped sharply. In other words, despite an increase of millions of flights each year, the number of crashes per 1,000 is dropping. Flying is safer this year than last, and in any case, far safer than driving.

Frankly, I don't have much hope that The Culture of Fear will turn things around. Alarmism sells. Newspaper people, TV reporters, televangelists, and even our politicians make gobs of money preying on our fears, however misguided they might be.

But you'll find a copy of the book at your local library anyhow. Don't be afraid to check it out.

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

August 11, 1999 - Lone Tree Limerick

It all started with a letter on February 24, 1999. It was addressed to "Reference Librarian / Oakes Mill Library" in Littleton, Colorado. (This branch is now the Lone Tree Library, in the newly incorporated city of Lone Tree.) The letter was from a man, let's call him Mr. Smith, in upstate New York.

It read, "I am writing to see if you can help me locate a poem entitled, 'Little Lem Fitch,' which begins, "At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch....' I have searched through local libraries and have not located it. I thought perhaps your town of Littleton, Colorado, might know of this particular poem."

Our reference librarians pulled out the stops. But by March 20, they had to report that, "We were unable to locate the poem entitled 'Little Lem Fitch.' We looked through the Douglas Public Library District catalog; Granger's poetry indexes, the Internet; many poetry anthologies; and queried a reference librarian's Internet site to no avail. We also called several local libraries including the main branch of the Denver Public Library. No one was able to locate this particular poem.

"We didn't want to disappoint you completely so one of our creative staff members made up her own version of 'Little Lem Fitch.' We humbly offer it for your consideration.

At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch
He lost control of his Bronco and slid into a ditch.
The SUV was history
But Lem phoned Frank Azar*
And now he is rich!

* a local personal injury attorney who advertises incessantly on television here."

Mr. Smith responded by March 30 with "Thanks so much for the delightful little verse, 'Little Lem Fitch...' It was splendid and it certainly made me chuckle."

We were even fortunate enough to receive a phone call from Mr. Smith. He let us know that although most of the libraries he had contacted (there are several Littletons in the country) had done a thorough and professional job of research, we were the only ones who, well, made UP an answer.

I hope it will shock no one to learn that sometimes we do in fact fail to answer a question. I have a friend, also a librarian, who once suggested to a reference book publisher that what we really need is a book of questions for which no answer exists. It would be nice to point to an authoritative resource that said, for instance, "No one knows why Napoleon stuck his hand in his blouse for his portrait."

The problem with reference services is that until you know that no definitive answer can be found, you believe that just one more book, just one more e-mail inquiry, will nail it. But our patrons usually need the answer by a particular date. So at some point we have to call off the hunt.

But I'm very proud of our staff, particularly Kathy Schnebly, for putting something more than the impersonal face of bureaucracy on our library's response. Real people ask us questions. And real people scramble to answer them.

But only at the Douglas Public Library District, by golly, do we crank out a limerick when we need one.

Wednesday, August 4, 1999

August 4, 1999 - Highlands Ranch Library Closed Due to Smoke Damage

I'm very sorry to report that until further notice, our Highlands Ranch Library, located at the Convenience Center on Springer and Broadway, will be closed.

On Thursday evening, July 29, there was a fire at the sandwich shop a few doors down from us. Apparently, the fire occurred somewhere between 9:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. It was mostly put out by 10 p.m. -- a testament to fine firefighting.

But a lot of smoke, and some water, did find its way into the library. At this point, we have no utilities in the building. Right now, it seems that we probably won't have power until August 2.

By Friday morning, we had folks from a group called Disaster Restoration, Inc. on site. (One man's disaster is another man's business opportunity.) DRI had generators set up, and a handful of enormous fans to blow out the smoke.

Some water had apparently seeped along or under the floor, so they also had to vacuum that up.

Since no staff had been injured, my first concern was the status of our collection. Since 1991, we have been rapidly buying materials to keep up with the ravenous demand in Highlands Ranch. By next summer, we hope to have our new library open, and we are going to need every book, audiotape, and video we could lay our hands on.

Right now, we've got over 75,000 items in the building. I'd estimate the value of the collection at at least $1.5 million. But it also takes TIME to build a collection of any distinction. It's hard to put a price tag on eight year's worth of collection building.

If you've ever been given a book that had been recently handled by a heavy smoker, you know the problem: some odors can't easily be removed from paper. My fear was that we would have to replace all of the affected items.

It's too soon to say just how bad things are. We won't know until we get power again, and run the "air scrubbers" through their paces. I'm cautiously optimistic, however, that most of the collection is OK, or at least salvageable.

In the meantime, we've had to do some shuffling around of services. Highlands Ranch Library users are being directed to our Lone Tree Library to pick up materials on hold (only for items that came in on July 31 or after). We'll have staff stationed outside the Highlands Ranch Library from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. week days to provide maps to the Lone Tree Library, and also to distribute a temporary story time schedule. We've beefed up the daily number of programs for the duration.

Incidentally, our Lone Tree Library is our newest building, and is worth a trip for its own sake.

We also ask that patrons who have items due at the Highlands Ranch Library to just hold onto them until further notice. No fines will accrue for them, and we simply don't have any place to store them. I'd rather have things being used than stacked somewhere.

I realize that this can be tricky. Sometimes people request books that come from somewhere other than their local branch. So you might, for instance, pick up a Parker book at Lone Tree, or a Highlands Ranch item in Castle Rock. So let's try to keep this simple: if you picked it up at Highlands Ranch, figure it's a Highlands Ranch item. I'm not declaring a fine free period for all libraries, just for the one that people can't get to. If you get an overdue notice or bill in the meantime, just call the Lone Tree staff at 303.799.4446 and explain the problem. Emergencies make messes. But if everybody is patient and polite, we'll sort it out.

Again, right now, I can't predict when the building will be up and running again. We've had building inspectors and structural engineers looking at things, and do have to put public safety first.

But I'm touched by the outpourings of sympathy our staff have gotten from patrons. Highlands Ranch residents seem genuinely saddened. On behalf of library staff, I'd like to extend my gratitude for the kind words and comforting gestures of our many library friends.

We'll get back in business as soon as we can.