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, November 24, 1999

November 24, 1999 - Thanksgiving

Unlike most of America's holidays, which are driven by Hallmark cards and commercialism, Thanksgiving hits me where I live: give me a great dinner, the warmth of family and friends, and I'm a happy man.

Not only that, I like the IDEA of Thanksgiving. Many, perhaps most of us spend huge portions of our day whining. For instance (circle all that apply): Can you believe how that guy cut me off on the highway? My boss doesn't appreciate me. My children don't talk to me. Women: "after the age of 35, everything just DROPS." Men: "at least I have some hair and many of my teeth left."

After the death of my father a couple of years ago, I was particularly sensitive to what seemed to me deliberately negative energy. I have strong armor when I need it, but what got to me, what sapped my own strength, was pettiness, the unnecessary dig. I thought, "We all have troubles. Buck up! Be positive!"

But that period of my life has passed. And now I give about as much time to casual complaints as most of the folks I know. Whining is a kind of bitter humor, a way to keep ourselves entertained as the clock winds down.

Thanksgiving, though, gives us the opportunity to look around and realize just how good we've got it.

My family has shelter and clothing. And food.

My wife is a true companion -- our schedules permitting. Our children are healthy, happy, funny, and smart. I have at least some of my hair and teeth.

I have gathered up in my 45 years some deep, dear friendships that enrich my days and illuminate my insights.

I have the great fortune of working in a profession I care about passionately, whose premises -- of abiding respect for the dignity of individual inquiry, of confidentiality -- genuinely matter to me. Working in libraries has brought another great boon: the time to get to know at least some of the thoughtful, dedicated, and principled people who work with me. For instance, there's Cindy Murphy, who just left us last week, but is possibly the best schmoozer who ever lived.

I am thankful to have been involved these past six years or so with the local Rotary club, a group of service-minded men and women characterized by an utter lack of reverence for their leadership. I'd always heard that Rotary tended to be kind of stuffy. Not in Castle Rock. What impresses me most, though, is their continuing faith in our young people, both those brave souls we send out to act as our nation's ambassadors overseas, and those equally brave young "inbound" students we open our homes to FROM overseas. Rotary reinforces what remains for me a fundamental belief in humanity, that most of us are decent people with a ready handshake and smile.

I am thankful for books. I have been surrounded by them most of my life. Thanks to them, I have traveled to other places -- other worlds! -- and other times. I have conversed with some of the greatest minds of all human history. I have laughed at our foibles, wept over our tragedies, and tried, in the company of these beloved books, to glean a little wisdom.

The greatest wisdom of all just might be ... gratitude.

From all of us at the Douglas Public Library District, Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 17, 1999

November 17, 1999 - Too Busy to Read?

By Laurie Van Court

(Douglas Public Library District Director, Jamie LaRue, is on hiatus this week. DPLD trustee, Laurie Van Court, is delighted to take over his column today.)

As a life-long avid reader, I'm often asked, "how do you find the time to read so much?" I'm sometimes perplexed by this question, because it seems to me that the time usually finds me.

Books and magazines have rescued me during those life experiences when time seems endless. I remember quite clearly the book that got me through the night after major surgery when my anesthesia didn't last quite long enough (Insomnia, by Stephen King, since you ask). When my husband, Don, went through the agonies of cancer treatment, many books guided us: In the Country of Illness, by Robert Lipsyte, and Mainstay, by Maggie Strong, were literally life-changing for me. A miraculous book (Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck) comforted me through the long hours when Don was in hospice. Other wonderful books, including Living Through Personal Crisis, by Ann Kaiser Stearns, Widow and Lifelines, by Lynn Caine, and Widowed, by Dr. Joyce Brothers, carried me over those awful first hours and days of widowhood.

Of course, most of my reading occurs in far more mundane circumstances: during yawningly long airport delays, at the beauty salon, while waiting my turn at the Department of Motor Vehicles. And many books have been around for joyous occasions: Fodor's Guide to Hawaii, The Complete Book of Foaling, Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. How could I get along without the cartoons in New Yorker Magazine, the movie reviews in Time Magazine, everything by Baxter Black?

No, I don't think the problem is finding the time to read. I believe the problem is finding the time to get your hands on all those wonderful things to read. So, here, from a devoted reader with far too little time herself, are a few tips.

First, let the library staff do the retrieving for you. If there's something you'd like read, log on to the Douglas Public Library's Web Site (http://douglas.lib.co.us) and click on the public access catalog. Look up whatever catches your fancy, place it on hold and let the library call to tell you when it's in. Really, this is just as quick and easy as going to Amazon.com, and a whole lot cheaper, too. You can ask to have your books held at whichever branch is most convenient - that is to say, if you live in Franktown, but drive by Park Meadows every day, specify that your requests be held for you at the Lone Tree Library. There's no need to go to Parker or Castle Rock, if they're not part of your usual route.

Second, if you worry about the hassle of returning those books, return them to any public library in the Denver metro area. Or, for that matter, check them out somewhere else and return them to us. Through remarkable efforts on the part of Colorado's State Library, most public libraries in our state cooperate with one another. You can even check out books in Vail with your Douglas County library card!

Finally, if you spend the time you'd like to be reading behind the wheel of your car, check out some recorded books. The Douglas Public Library District has a tremendous collection of books on tape (and as many on CD as are now available) because we know many of our patrons do a lot of driving. I think some recorded books are even better than the print versions. Try, for example, Charlotte's Web and My American Journey, read by their authors, E.B. White and Colin Powell. There'd probably be a whole lot less road rage out there if more drivers were utterly captivated by words coming out of their car stereos.

All of us in Douglas County pay for library service, whether or not we use it. Except for buying lottery tickets, I doubt that any of us likes throwing money away, even if it's tax money we may not remember spending. Besides, we all deserve as much pleasure as we can get - even if it comes while waiting to buy our license plates.

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

November 10, 1999 - "Why Did You Leave Us?" Survey Results

I have certain beliefs about our library district. I have tried to build a public institution that lives up to two commitments: first, to responsive, thoughtful, and cost-effective service; and second, to the promotion of individual staff growth.

I THINK we've succeeded in growing a mostly intrigue free environment that encourages employees to make good decisions for our patrons.

But this is the sort of thing that it can be easy to fool yourself about. That's why, about a month ago, the library sent off our "Why Did You Leave Us?" survey. Was there some horrible, previously undetected problem with our services that was driving patrons away?

Well, we got over 500 responses out of a mailing of 2500. And the answer, I'm relieved to say, is "No."

That's not to say that we didn't get any complaints. But even the complaints tell a story. The LEAST amount of complaints concerned our staff. For instance, fewer than half of one percent of the survey respondents stated that our staff were "not knowledgeable." That's a credit both to our employees, and to our training effort.

The next big thing I noticed was that over 20% of the people we surveyed DIDN'T leave us. They may not have checked out any books from us these past six months, but they still made use of library services.

The primary use of the library by people who didn't check anything out was .... to pick up federal and state tax forms. This service, which can be nightmarish from our end, is clearly, for some people, the only contact they have with the library in a whole year. That's good information for me. We will keep this service.

The second way people used the library was for reference services (19%): using print based reference tools, the photocopy machine, our reference staff, and browsing the magazines and newspapers. Only then do we get to Internet access (5.7%), use of public meeting rooms (4.2%), or bringing children to a program (3.5%).

So why, then, haven't these people been checking out anything from us? Here, in David Letterman format, are the top ten reasons (and recognize that survey respondents can check more than one -- the percentage figure just tallies how many people checked this choice out of the total responses).

10. I want a longer lending period (6.7%). Most of our items go out for three weeks. Is a month checkout too long?

9. Someone else checks out my library materials for me (7.7%). For instance, the wife picks up books for the husband. If it's OK with the husband, it's OK with me.

8. I buy books online (8.4%). It may be that amazon.com is a good answer for people who have disposable income and don't want to wait for their holds to come up on the bestseller lists.

7. My children use school libraries (9.1%). Many parents see a public library card as a support for formal education. Clearly, for some parents, the school library works fine.

6. The DPLD collection is insufficient for my needs (9.1%). We probed this question further in another part of the survey, and indeed, in yet another survey we also conducted last month. About 85% of the patrons who DO come to the library say they find what they're looking for. The ones that don't are mostly looking for graduate level research materials. While DPLD is not an academic research institution, this may well indicate an unmet patron need we should address.

5. I buy my books at a bookstore (12.8%). Take THAT, amazon.com!

4. "Other" (18%). This is the perennial question on surveys, and as usual, turned up a grab bag of responses. Nine people said they hadn't come in because of the smoke damage at Highlands (OK, but we were only closed for one month, REopened months ago, and the survey was about people who hadn't checked out a book in SIX months.) Some said they'd left for college. My favorite responses were: "I'm stupid!" and "My wife says you can't fight inertia."

3. I just don't read as much as I used to (19%). This is the health club syndrome. You join up because you MEAN to be improve yourself, but somehow...

2. I have Internet access at home or work (28.9%). We know that many more people than this have Internet access in Douglas County, so these people are saying they get their library needs met through the Internet. This is significant.

And finally, the number one reason people have not checked out books in the past six months: "I am just too busy" (45.9%). It's hard to know what to do about that one. Time management classes at the library?

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

November 3, 1999 - Reading Tips for Parents

The Colorado State Library's Reading Readiness Project, using Federal funds from the Library Services and Technology Act, has recently published a brochure that should be required reading for anybody who has children. It's called, "Reading Tips for Parents."

The tips are divided into various observations about, and reading techniques for, children who are under two years old, between 2 and 3, between 3 and 4, and between 5 and 6. As is often the case, I find that the expectations for children often seem pretty minimal. For instance, surely a child doesn't have to be 5 or 6 to "begin to understand that print carries a message" or to "like being read to" and "have favorite books and stories."

At the low end, I think the developmental observation that a 12 month old "understands simple words," "understands and reacts to hand movements, faces, and changing tone of voice" doesn't ask very much of what is, after all, a human mind.

Nonetheless, there are some general reading tips that work for any age, and are worth repeating here.

* Choose a quiet spot for you and your child.

* Read aloud at least 15 minutes a day to your child.

* Establish a routine time and place to read to your child (not just at bedtime).

* Talk with your child when you play and do daily activities together.

* Visit the library/bookstore with your child to attend story times, choose books to read at home, etc.

* Obtain library cards for yourself and your children.

* Make a special place in your home where your child can read and write.

* Keep books and other reading materials where your child can reach them.

* Keep washable, nontoxic crayons and markers and paper where your child can reach them.

* Take books and writing supplies whenever you leave home, so that your child can read and write wherever you go.

* Show your child how you read every day for fun and work.

* Point out to your children the printed words in your home and in the community.

* Talk with your children about their experiences.

* Encourage your child to read independently in his or her own way ("reading" words that aren't really in print to tell a story).

* Verbally "label" familiar objects as you talk with your child.

* Talk to your child as if he or she is a reader now (in process).

* Listen to your child.

* Talk about how you use reading every day.

* Talk about every day happenings. Explain what you are doing and how things work.

* Make your reading fun by using different voices for different parts of the story.

* Talk about the books that you are reading with your child. Help him or her to make connections.

Now all of this won't necessarily turn your son or daughter into an avid reader. But it certainly improves the odds. Not only that, the simple practice of talking and listening to your child makes for an interesting connection in its own right.