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, September 29, 1999

September 29, 1999 - Seduced by AOL

[Three weeks ago, I wrote a column about a survey we mailed out. Called "Why did you leave us?" it was an attempt to find out why a surprising number of people who recently got library cards, never checked anything out again. Below is the altogether marvelous response of one of the people who received that survey. It is a tale of seduction ... and perhaps of redemption. I am deeply indebted to the author for her permission to reprint it.]

Dear Douglas Public Library District:

Thank you for the enclosed survey.

When I pulled that out of the mailbox this evening, I felt as if I'd just been informed that I hadn't bothered to contact my best friend in six months. Rather, I had turned my back, resolutely walked away, ceased contact, and never given that loyal friend another thought.

I needed your reminder that that's a lousy way to treat a friend, and I sincerely thank you for taking the time to ask why I haven't used my library card in six months. In this day and age of databases, everybody's-a-number, and faster-smarter-moreinyourface-internet access, it's nice to know that somebody out there still cares whether or not I've cracked the covers of a book lately.

I shamefacedly admit the truth: I succumbed, as so many Americans have, to America Online. Just about...well, six months ago, to be exact. In that time, I've traded real, paper letters for e-mail, lapsed a Denver Post subscription in lieu of 'downloading' it every Sunday morning (and let me tell you, lingering over a cup of coffee and a computer screen on a lazy Sunday morning is NOT as satisfying as wrestling back the pages of that oversized weekend edition), stopped reading magazines altogether (why bother when you can 'interact' with them on the 'net?) and even sunk so low as to shop at Barnes and Nobel's bargain book table without ever leaving my desk. Clicking a mouse is nothing compared to the sheer joy of finding that copy of William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream, way down at the bottom of a pile of cookbooks, for five bucks. I've done all this in the guise of 'progress' and 'simplifying' my life, and in the process of that, I've driven right past the library quite a few times.

I've just gotten too busy with all this instant information to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading (and I used to read, and read voraciously, and read so much I kept a reading list throughout the year, just to see how many books I could finish in a year), and until I got your survey, I didn't realize how much I'd missed it.

I have no desire to settle in before a warm fire this winter and send e-mail.

I'd much rather read a good book.

So thank you for the reminder, the much appreciated human touch of asking where the heck I've been, and why I haven't used my card. It meant so much to read that, and it touched my heart so much more than that come to think of it downright annoying "you have mail..." I come home to every day.


Kathryn Jennings-Hancock
Elizabeth, Colorado

Wednesday, September 22, 1999

September 22, 1999 - Building Communities That Care

Sometimes, though, such paths are not only the quickest way through town, they are also the most illuminating. Often, the distance between the facade of a town and its reality is a matter of a couple of blocks.

Adults see the facade -- because that's the way main roads are designed. (See how prosperous we are!) Kids -- at least kids that don't drive -- get to see the reality, or at least a different reality.

The way a community feels to members of different generations is one of the key points of the upcoming "Douglas County: Building Communities that Care" program on October 15, 1999.

As reported by Rich Bangs last week, the morning event (8 a.m. to noon, in the County's Philip S. Miller Building in Castle Rock) features a keynote address by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar. This will also involve area high school students. Then program attendees will hear a presentation about how to go about analyzing Douglas County communities.

When Rich first approached me about the need to "do something," the context was the tragedy at Columbine High School. We envisioned something like a public awareness campaign. We were going to explore the many dimensions of Douglas County communities, and focus on how they affect our young people.

What are some of these dimensions? We talked about the role of the media, and access to disturbing content whether through TV, radio, or library Internet terminals. We talked about the availability of drugs -- and of guns. We talked about the important roles of family, of faith, of the culture of the public schools.

Rich brought more people into the planning process. Then Beryl Jacobson let us know about the "Communities that Care" program -- a research-based approach that has been proven to make communities safer, less risky, more nurturing for young people.

The program begins much the way Rich and I first talked about this: by assessing the many factors, both positive and negative, that exist locally. And if that's all it accomplished, that would be a good start.

But there have been plenty of reports written up already. The strength of this particular program is that community members then have a process to take that assessment, and begin to make a real difference in how the local community operates.

The event will have two kinds of attendees: an invited list of community leaders that we EXPECT to work to implement positive change. But of that 150 people we're aiming for, some 50 are members of the community, regular people whose time, and whose conscience, is absolutely necessary. If you would like to attend, please call 303-660-7337.

Sometimes it takes a walk in your children's shoes to see the truth about your community.

Wednesday, September 15, 1999


I'm pleased to report that the Douglas Public Library District survived 9/9/99 -- an early test of the computer date problems collectively referred to as Y2K. Our computers did NOT fail, as some people predicted they might.

That's good, because I've noticed that we now have a surprising number of electronic reference works, and I'd hate to lose them. Available through the Internet, we have Colorado Newspapers, Reference USA, Standard and Poor's Stock Reports, Searchbank (which includes business, medical, and general periodical information), SIRS Researcher Online, and "What Do I Read Next?" which is a sort of electronic reader's advisor.

When I say these resources are available "through the Internet," that doesn't mean just anybody can get to them. The Douglas Public Library District pays for subscriptions to these databases on behalf of our patrons.

The significance of this is threefold. First, much of the information floating around the Internet isn't very reliable. The sources we pay for generally are. We apply the same standards to these purchases as we do for the reference books we add to our shelves: they have to be authoritative and useful.

Second, electronic resources tend to be far more current (no pun intended) than print versions. Some of these databases are updated daily, even hourly. This lets our patrons get today's information today, not a week from now.

Third, Internet subscriptions enable us to offer all of the above at every one of our full service library locations. In most cases, that's much cheaper than buying multiple paper copies for the branches. It also helps us establish a set of core resources that our library users can expect to find no matter where they go.

Not all of our electronic resources are provided through the Internet, though. Some are available on CD-ROM.

The advantage of CD-ROM is usually a combination of factors: it's faster than print versions (because both indexes and content are interfiled) and it has more multimedia -- pictures, sound, and filmclips.

Many of our CD-ROM titles are related to nature: Amazing Animals, Discovering Science, My Amazing Human Body, My First Amazing World Explorer, National Geographic/DVD 1888-1997, Topo Maps USA, and so on.

Others cover business needs, history, biography, quotations, authors, and maps.

We also have a couple of encyclopedias -- Microsoft Encarta, and World Book, for instance. And here's an interesting thing. The print and electronic versions of things are different, and not always to the detriment of paper.

For instance, while print encyclopedias will not, obviously, have sound and animation, they do tend to have longer, more comprehensive articles. This can make research a little more complicated, so when in doubt, don't hesitate to talk to a librarian.

I should note that our CD-ROM products are not consistent around the district. I've encouraged our branches to experiment, to test the market and see what gets used. Many students, particularly young ones, seem to prefer the CD-ROM products.

Wednesday, September 8, 1999

September 8, 1999 - Why Did You Leave Us?

When I was an undergrad, I did a lot of poetry readings. Of all my poems, the one that got the most rueful response from the men in the audience went like this:

And again a woman says
"You're such a wonderful man
I can't imagine why
I left you"

On more than one occasion, I couldn't imagine why, either.

Well, everything returns. But instead of having solely a personal interest in the subject, I now have a professional interest as well. As part of our routine statistical analyses, we've noticed what seems an odd anomaly: a fair number of the patrons, all over the age of 21, got their library cards between June, 1998 and January, 1999, then never used them again -- or at least, haven't checked anything out from us after that.

I have to wonder -- was it something I said?

The question (not "what I said," but why people might sign up for a library card then never use it again) is significant. Libraries are much like businesses in that we depend upon the continuing support of our customers. Am I losing customers? Or are they still using us, but in ways that don't show up in our circulation statistics?

Of course, there are many reasons for such a drop-off. A whole family might sign up as soon as it settles in Douglas County. But after that, most materials get checked out just by one person in the family.

Or it could be that people signed up for a Douglas Public Library District, but work downtown Denver, and use a non-DPLD library somewhere closer to work.

Or it could be that people get their cards for purposes of identification, but mostly fetch what they need from the Internet, either at work or at home.

Or it could be that the library really disappointed them in some respect -- that there is some profound defect in our services, collection, staff, or parking.

Or it could be something else entirely.
But the answer matters to me. Am I looking at a trend in new kinds of library use? If so, that may have budget and planning implications. Or have we got a problem that needs a closer look?

Instead of just idly speculating, I've decided to do some market research. A good sample of these people should be receiving a short survey from the library this week, mailed direct from us. We've also enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope. The survey takes just a couple of minutes to fill out. We've tried to list all of the explanations we can think of -- and also provided some space for you to tell us something we haven't yet suspected.

I emphasize that the library is not watching WHAT you're checking out. Library records are still confidential -- just between the two of us. But your honesty will help us better understand the library needs of the people we serve, and help keep US honest about the quality of our services.

I need at least 300 responses to get some statistically significant data. So please, if you get such a survey, take a few minutes to fill it out, and get it back by September 30. You'll recognize the survey by its heart-rending title: "Why did you leave us?"

But please, whatever you write, do NOT let it be: "I'm not interested in seeing you anymore. Can't we just be friends?"

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

September 1, 1999 - Home Schooling Revisted

My daughter, Maddy, is just about to turn 12 years old. We taught her at home through first grade. From second through fifth grades, she attended a charter school based on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Curriculum. But at the end of last school year, she asked if she could be home schooled again.

Naturally enough, we asked her why. Her reply was illuminating. "Learning," she said, "isn't fun anymore."

I have strong feelings about all this, and don't want people to misunderstand me. I think it is absolutely essential to have a strong public education system. I also support the charter school movement. Any institution has its failings, and sometimes they're not failings at all. Sometimes, a child just needs another choice.

Home schooling, for our family, is a choice based on two simple facts. First, for us, home schooling IS fun. My wife is a librarian too. When anyone in our family shows the slightest interest in a subject, he or she is bombarded by books, videos, audiotapes, magazine articles, and web page printouts. My wife is also a wanderer and an explorer. Give her a topic -- butterflies, for instance -- and she's planning multiple trips to Westminster's Butterfly Pavilion, and the Denver Natural History Museum.

I submit that most kids, with a mother like that, do indeed find education marvelously entertaining, engaging, and challenging.

But there's another factor. Most people now know that home school kids tend to outperform their public school peers by several grade levels. That's not surprising: one teacher to one student is an ideal ratio, and it's a luxury we clearly can't afford in public schools.

But people tend to forget one of the more troubling aspects of public education: segregation. For all that Maddy, these past few years, had good teachers and a demanding curriculum, she spent most of her day cooped up in a building with people who were mostly her own age. Home schooling got her out more, got her interacting with a more diverse range of ages and backgrounds. She liked that.

So we've decided to give it another whirl. And in addition to the usual stuff (still mostly following the outline of the Core Knowledge Curriculum), not to mention Maddy's violin lessons, I've come up with four assignments for Maddy.

The first one is to volunteer some time with the Castle Rock Players community theater group. She's interested in just about everything to do with theater: set design, costuming, script-writing, and acting. This will give her the opportunity to get some real-life experience, and meet some fascinating people. If that means some weird hours, that's OK.

The second is to figure out what to do with our back yard. We have inherited all kinds of plants back there. Some of them require special care that, frankly, I have not bestowed on them. We have huge areas that cry out for something that is appropriate to Colorado (as opposed to sparse bluegrass and dandelions).

Maddy needs to learn about Colorado flora, and probably spend some time with the good folks at CSU Extension. Then she needs to spend some time putting what she's learned into practice. Again, here's a wonderful "hands-on" experience.

The third is to put together a chart describing the history of the Christian religion, and in particular, how the various sects and denominations in America are connected historically.

The fourth is to write a paper about the evidence for evolution. As part of this, Maddy has to spell out what the "Scientific Method" is. Does "theory" just mean "somebody's opinion?"

Hint: no. But the average lay person -- or Kansas State Board member -- certainly seems to think so. In my opinion, even a 12 year old should know better.

Ironic, though, isn't it? It soon may be that the only way you can study both religion and evolution is if you DON'T go to school.

To accomplish all the above, Maddy will also be spending more time at the library. I am confident that she will quickly discover that once you start reading about anything at all, sooner or later, it connects to everything else.

As I've written before, education isn't something that's done to you; it's something you do for yourself. Maddy is going to have a swell time -- and I'm going to have a swell time watching her.