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, December 29, 1999

December 29, 1999 - Libraries and The Millennium

Welcome to my last library column of the millennium. (I know, some people think that won't happen until the last day of December, 2000. Spoilsports.)

It happens that the idea of libraries stretches back quite a ways. The printed word has been around for about 5,500 years. The oldest library was probably that of the ancient city of Nippur, where the Sumerians stored over 30,000 clay tablets.

Although papyrus libraries were extant before 1,000 B.C., probably the most famous ancient library was that of Alexandria, Egypt (around 330 B.C.). It was believed to have a copy of every existing papyrus scroll then "in print" -- about 400,000. Nobody knows what happened to it.

The Romans established a number of libraries. In A.D. 337, a survey of important Roman buildings identified 28 libraries. Most of them are gone, too. The exception is the collection of a Roman nobleman named Piso, who lived at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. There, his library lay buried in volcanic ash from about A.D. 79 to the 1750ís, when its 1,800 ancient scrolls were uncovered.

Then next big writing format was leather. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, were written on animal skins, somewhere between 150 B.C. to A.D. 68.

But now let's skip from the beginning of the millennium, to the end.

As of the end of this century, there are over 33,000 libraries in the United States. About 15,000 of those are public libraries (the rest are school, academic, and corporate libraries). If you live in Douglas County, you have access to over 340,000 library materials -- which doesn't compare too badly with Alexandria. Moreover, through our many arrangements with other libraries -- Interlibrary Loan agreements, and the Colorado Library Card, for instance -- you can lay your hands on many millions more.

Print in new formats continues. While we no longer collect print on clay tablets, papyrus, or animal skins (or, for that matter, 75 rpm records, 8 mm movies or 8 track tapes), we do have books on tape, books on CD, and print in the breakthrough technology of the World Wide Web. Print in the traditional form of paper, however, remains by far our largest inventory, and accounts for the greatest percentage of our use.

We also have a dedicated readership. I recently conducted a survey of Colorado libraries to see how their "business" of checking out materials compares with last year. Here's the chart, listing the library, then the percent change from last year:

Arapahoe, 9%
Buena Vista, -3%
Cortez, -14%
Fort Collins, 8.4%
Garfield, 4%
Lafayette, 5.9%
Longmont, 6%
Mesa County, 1%
Montrose, 8.2%
Pueblo, 6.4%
Westminster, 14%

The average change was 5.1%. Circulation use at the Douglas Public Library District jumped by 19.2% -- making us far and away the leader statewide.

But there's more to libraries than checking out books. In every area of modern day librarianship -- the offering of reference services, the provision of high quality children's programs, the instruction of the public in electronic resources, to name just a few -- we have seen extraordinary leaps in demand and use.

I believe that the key skill in the next millennium will be the ability to search, organize, and form critical judgments about information. These are precisely the skills of librarianship.

We'll see you in another thousand years.

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

December 22,1999 - Christmas Column

[Some years back, I wrote a Christmas column that I still think says what I want to say. So here it is again.]

What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else? -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three of four books. Wrap the card and the books and set them under the tree. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books.

After your children have gotten bored with all their expensive toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week after the main event. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

A few years back, former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It was good advice then; it's good advice now.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue?If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best Christmas card you'll ever send.

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

December 15, 1999 - Harry Potter Donations

Back in March, 1999, I wrote a column on a book my family was crazy about. It was the first installment of the Harry Potter series -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in England. Since then, my household has purchased the entire boxed set, including Ms. J.K. Rowling's two other books: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I've read and loved them all. My 12 year old daughter has read them all twice. My wife is working on the third one right now.

For all my appreciation, however, I did not predict that Harry Potter would zoom to the top of the national bestseller lists -- all three of the titles are, after all, children's books.

I did think there would be local interest. But I underestimated that, too. Together, the library's Harry Potter books have checked out over 500 times. As of this moment (December 10, 1999), we have a total of 353 people waiting for them.

It is the policy of the library district to purchase 1 copy for every four holds -- the idea being that we don't want people to have to wait longer than 3 months to read something that's popular. And thanks to some recent donations, we do indeed have a ratio of 3.27 holds per title.

About those donations: I'm grateful to report that Castle Rock bookstore Hooked On Books, under the new management of Kathy Church, has graciously contributed two complete sets of the series to the Douglas Public Library District (see accompanying photo). This means we now have (counting those copies currently on order) 38 copies of Sorcerer's Stone, 36 copies of Chamber of Secrets, and 34 copies of Prisoner of Azkaban. Not that you'll find them on the shelf!

In part, this donation was in response to a recent Denver Post article by columnist and former Douglas County School District Board President Gail Schoettler. She encouraged people to help out their local libraries by donating books she felt were being suppressed within Douglas County schools.

But as a bookseller, Kathy Church has her own reasons for the gift. She notes that "The amazing phenomenon that is Harry Potter is unlike any other worldwide literary phenomena to date. "

Kathy told me how remarkable she finds it that "in this high-tech age of escape into video games; computers and alas, television ... this beautifully written and brilliantly imagined fantasy (and it is FANTASY), has created a positive tidal wave of incredible magnitude. ... For this, I stand and applaud what the Harry Potter books have stimulated and can only fervently hope ... this is just the beginning."

Certainly, fantasy is nothing new in literature and entertainment. Fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia Chronicles, Tolkien's Trilogy of the Rings, the recent video Prince of Egypt (based on the Biblical story of Moses), and even the surprisingly popular Shakespeare (see various current movies) all attest to the persistence of magic in our minds and imaginations.

Yes, some people have found Harry Potter controversial. But for librarians and booksellers, the news that our children are enthusiastically reading anything is good news.

While not all books are equal, they don't all have to be morality plays, either. Some things are just for fun. On the other hand, it happens that I believe the Harry Potter books have something fairly unusual in today's crop of literary offerings: a solid moral center buttressed by an exciting and deftly handled story.

In my professional opinion, the only way you can get hurt by a Harry Potter book is if somebody picks one up and throws it at you.

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

December 1, 1999 - Libraries Online and Food for Fines

At a recent Library Board retreat (nothing fancy -- just a Saturday meeting in Castle Rock) we talked about two perennial concerns: containing costs, and growing new services.

One of the costs involves keeping in touch with our patrons. Our circulation -- the number of items we check out -- continues to grow by double digits. So we have to let people know when their holds have come in. We have to let them know when their items are overdue.

At present, we only have two ways to do that: mail patrons a notice, or call them on the phone. Multiply this by the million and a half items we check out in a year, and you see the problem.

We had hoped that a new service we introduced about a year ago would help. That's the ability to conduct all kinds of library business online. If you give us an e-mail address, unique to you (not shared by the rest of your family) we can send all of your notices that way. The advantage to us: no printing, folding, or paying for postage; no repeated attempts to catch you at home or find your answering machine.

The advantage to you: timeliness. When the book is checked in, you get notified within 24 hours. (Please note: this ONLY works if you select "mail" as the way to be notified of a hold. Our software has some peculiar twists. Think "mail = e-mail" when placing a hold.) Overdues are automatically sent to the e-mail address as well.

It could be that this hasn't been as well-used as I'd hoped because of my reluctance to put a whole family on a single e-mail address. I have two main concerns.

The first is that items that don't get returned are eventually passed over to a collection agency -- part of our stewardship of public property. E-mail accounts are simply far more transient than addresses. I'd hate to attach library records to somebody's credit history just because they changed an e-mail provider and neglected to tell us. Right now e-mail service is sufficiently new that it's hard for us to catch things like that. This is an acceptable risk for a single individual -- we'd probably catch it when the collection service sent out THEIR first letter, which goes to a physical, not a virtual address. But when you toss spouses and children into the mix, it just makes me uncomfortable.

The second issue is confidentiality. It may be that spouses open each other's mail, or parents open all mail addressed to their children at home. But at least the library sent the letter some place where the child could get it. E-mail probably doesn't work like that. The parent again has access to the correspondence between library and child -- but does the child?

I know that most of the time, there's nothing so awful that the parent couldn't know about it. But I also think libraries shouldn't be too eager to erode anybody's online privacy -- that's happening fast enough. On the other hand, perhaps I'm being too cautious, and will have to reconsider.

At any rate, As time goes on, more and more people WILL have e-mail, and the prospect of that does open up an avenue for new services. For instance, suppose you got a monthly e-mail library newsletter that offered the library's program schedule, or highlighted new reference materials, available to you from home -- all just a click away?

Just as many online companies offer a "My Netscape" or "My Yahoo," customized to show just the things you're interested in, the library might offer a "My Library," configured to keep you automatically updated about new book clubs, author appearances, or new bestsellers in the realm of science fiction.

At the dawn of the new millennium, there will be many such new services.

December 8, 1999 - Catalog Research Tips

Some time back, I mentioned that I assigned my daughter a homeschooling project to trace the historical development of Christianity. The subject interested me, too.

Our first stop was the encyclopedia. I tossed off a list of possible entries (Jesus, Apostles, Pope, Luther, etc.). Then Maddy read aloud to me as I made dinner one night. Enyclopedias don't tell the whole story, but they give a good overview. Maddy made notes of other topics to follow up on.

(By-the-bye, this is one big advantage of having a PRINT encyclopedia at home. Kids can fetch a volume and drag it into the kitchen. Try that with your CD-ROM drive.)

Our next step was to go to the library. Here I taught Maddy how to quickly build a list of more precisely focused resources. Here's the abbreviated outline:

1. Do a title keyword search on whatever subject interests you (for example, "Christianity" or "Pope"). Using a question mark at the end of the term is often useful. For instance, "christ?" brings up "Christ," "Christian," and "Christianity."

2. When the list of matches comes up, choose the titles that look most like what you're after.

3. If the titles DO match what you want, type "RW" (without the quotes) to pull up a list of Related Works. Then choose the subject heading that best seems to describe what you want.

4. You now have a list -- a bibliography -- of all the items we own on that topic. Typing "SL" allows you to Sort the List by author, title, or publication date. Sorting by publication date puts the most current materials first. The bibliography can be further "limited" by entering the letter "L." Then just select from the menu to choose, for example, only those titles owned by the library you happen to be in, or just kid's books, or just videos. Alternatively, you might want everything we've got. It's not hard to put a hold on a title that belongs at another location.

5. Save the titles under "SB" (Saved Bibliography). Write down the unique combination of letters and numbers the computer gives you to identify your list. Then back up to the main menu with "SO" for Start Over.

6. From the main computer menu, choose Print Saved Bibliographies. Then, assuming your terminal is attached to a printer, you can print out the list. The default list includes subject headings and call numbers.

7. Repeat the above steps for any of the other subject headings that came up under the titles you liked. You can add any new titles to your previous bibliography, or build several separate ones.

If you've taken care to include books that have their own bibliographies (usually noted in the computer record), you now have a solid beginning for your research. Then, you just have to carve out the time to start reading.

The next part of Maddy's research involves attending area churches in roughly the order of their denomination's founding. So far we've only gotten around to four churches, but they've all been fascinating.

I particularly like going out for tea afterward, when Maddy and I talk about what we've seen and heard. After all the church visits, Maddy also has to do some follow-up interviews with ministers -- which introduces an entirely new sort of research process.

The older I get, the more things I discover that I do not know. But it's a relief also to discover that almost any area of my ignorance can be overcome by sustained and systematic inquiry. This may be the biggest lesson of our project: Research is fun!