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, January 26, 2000

January 26, 2000 - Taming the Wild Cassettes

[This week's column is written by Aubrey Rudy. Aubrey is a shelver at the Highlands Ranch Library. It is her task not only to put materials back on the shelf, but also, as you'll read here, to make the shelves SAFE for those materials. Frankly, I had no idea that this position was so fraught with drama these days. Thank God we've got shelvers who are up to it. - Jamie LaRue]

I am half horse, half alligator, with a little touch of snapping turtle. I am also part shelver. I am Aubrey Crockett, and there are many legends told of me. The greatest feat I ever accomplished was when I tamed and shifted the Wild Cassettes of Mississippi.

There I was, walkin' through the woods with Old Betsy at my side, just waitin' for trouble to come along and find me, which it surely did. I was wadin' the crik 'tween Hogs Holler and the Widder Oakes farm, when this youngin' come up to me shoutin'.

"Help! Help me!" he was hollerin'. "There's a wild beast loose and it's got my pa!"

"Don't you worry, youngin'." I told him. " I am Aubrey Crockett and I have wrastled wildcats, tamed alligators, and taught rabbits how to dance. There ain't no critter alive that scares me!" So off I went to find the beast.

Now, it warn't long afore I come along this man, a sittin' on a hick'ry stump and just a shakin' like a leaf. There was grass flattened all around, and branches a torn from their trees. Darn me iffen it didn't look like a twister'd tore through the valley.

"It's gonna be alright, Mister." I says to him. "What happened?"

"A bunch of wild critters come through her," he says. "They was a roarin' and snarlin' and they just 'bout ripped me apart. I just barely escaped with m'life!"

"What kind of critters were they?"

"I dunno."

"Was they wildcats?"


"Was they mangy wolves?"

"Didn't look like it."

"Blood-thirsty Injuns?"

"I don't think so."

"What about bars? Did they look like bars?"

"What in heck's a bar?"

"You know--bars. Like the kind I killed when I was only three."

"Uhhh....I don't really know. "

"Well, it don't much matter, 'cause I can track and tame any animal that ever lived!"

"But these was real wild-like! You'd best not go a messin' with em!"

"Hey now! I killed 101 bars in one year, and I rode a sea serpent from Cape Cod to Washington! There ain't NO critter I can't tame."

So I set off, usin' my legendary trackin' skills to find the beasts. And it warn't long afore I did find 'em. I come to the base of this cliff, and there they was, a restin' on these ledges, and there were hundreds of 'em; the wild cassettes of Mississippi.

Now you might think I was a scared, but I ain't a scared of nothin'. So I grabbed Old Betsy, and I climbed up those ledges, and I started firin. Then, they just swarmed all over me.

Now, I seen some tough critters in my time, but these were the toughest. They bit, they scratched, they clawed and growled. But in the end, they weren't a match for me. I just kept firin' and stared right back into their beady little eyes, so they knew I warn't afraid. Soon, the ledges were littered with wild cassette carcasses, and I was the victor once more.

[Translation: I shifted just a little in the cassette area--the H's and K's were kinda tight. I was sure to leave room early in the alphabet, though.


Wednesday, January 19, 2000

January 19, 2000 - Working Circ

My first paid library job was at the Normal Public Library, in Normal, Illinois.

(This doesn't have anything to do with my point, but it's worth telling. About half a block from the library was the local newspaper, the Normalite. It was definitely a small town operation. Not far from Normal was a town called Oblong. My favorite headline of all time has to be: "Normal boy marries Oblong girl." Really.)

I worked at the Normal Public Library for 5 years. It is, of course, no more fashionable now than it was then to admit the awful truth: I liked my job.

My schedule was awful, according to some folks. I worked every Monday through Thursday night, 5 to 9 p.m. I worked every Saturday, 9-5. I worked alternate Sundays, 1-5.

I loved every minute of it. Circ work -- by which I mean "working at the Circulation desk" -- was interesting, in both purpose and process.

In the time before computers, everything was very time intensive. Every book had a card. To check it out, you had to (first) insert the patron card into the Gaylord Circulation Machine, (second) extract the card for the item, (third) slide it into the machine, (fourth) ka-CHUNK, (fifth) toss the item card into the daily bin, and (sixth) slip the date due card into the book pocket.

Then, after the library closed, everything checked out that day had to be filed. Since I lived right next door to the library (between the library and the funeral home -- I had the quietest neighbors in town) I usually stuck around to do it.

Why did I enjoy all this (and I really did)? There were three reasons.

First, I liked the people. I dealt with toddlers, mothers, students, college professors, businessmen. Each was unique. There was no such thing as a routine. It was a parade of fascinating characters.

Second, every day I realized all over again how much I relished handling books. I liked books -- the smell of them, the heft of them, the typography. They made me happy. They still do.

Third, the more I worked in libraries, the more intriguing I found the patterns of use. Every night, as I sorted the book cards by Dewey Decimal number, I would try to extract meaning from the statistics. I started to get a feel for which writers actually went out the door, what the percentages were of fiction versus nonfiction, kid's books versus adult. I got a look at the interests of a whole community. That's a rare perspective.

It happens that about 70% of the staff of the Douglas Public Library District works at the circulation desk. For probably 70% of the public, circ staff is the very definition of "library service." Circ staff are the face of the library.

I know from various surveys we conducted last year that this front line of library services is doing a fantastic job. It's a high volume business. But our circ staff pays more attention to the people than the product. That's just the way it should be.

True, our staff may not have to file cards every night. The computer does that. But all of our staff members are big readers. They're smart, funny, fast, and competent. I respect their contribution -- and their judgment -- more than I can say.

There's not a lot of money in library work. There never has been. When I started circ work, back in 1973, I made a whopping ninety cents an hour. Circ wages are much better now. But circ clerks have always worked for something more than pay.

The next time you check out a book, I suggest you take a moment to look your circ clerk in the eye and say, "Thank you!" Together, our circulation staff moved over 1.6 million items last year. Moreover, they did it with an attitude that was upbeat, cordial and extraordinarily efficient. I'm very proud of them.

There are lots of jobs in the modern 21st century library. But none of them is more important than that of the circ clerk.

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

January 12, 2000 - Measuring the Library

Library use is changing.

The traditional measure of library activity is circulation -- how many books, magazines, audiotapes and videos got checked out in a year. By that measure, the Douglas Public Library District is doing exceptionally well. Final figures for last year showed that our circulation increased more than 24% from 1998 to 1999 -- over twice that of our closest Colorado competitor.

Another common measure is reference questions. In this area, at least at some of our branches, DPLD lags behind other metro libraries. While our demand for this service also is up sharply over last year (34.4%), I think many of our patrons still haven't latched on the astonishing truth: you can call up your local library and ask them ANYTHING. Who was in what movie? What's the proper way to display a flag? Who was the second man on the moon? How do you make borscht?

I urge you to call us with these and other pressing questions. Our crackerjack reference staff will astonish and delight you. It will also make their day. Few people have a better grasp of the phrase: "the thrill of the chase."

Another measure concerns library programming. Here again, we are far and away the champions of metro area libraries. All of our full service libraries (Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Parker, and Philip S. Miller) offer at least one story time every weekday. Some of them are up to THREE a day.

We also offer programs for adults, for teens, and for seniors. A friendlier place for the family cannot be found.

What we don't provide ourselves can be found in the thousands of public meetings held at the library -- everything from home association meetings to quilting societies, from chess clubs to estate planning seminars. Library meeting rooms, incidentally, are free.

In 1999, the library conducted a "Materials Availability" study. We learned that about 85% of the time library patrons found just what they were looking for. This reflects our rapidly growing collection.

But about 38% of the people coming into the library weren't there to check out books at all. They came to the library for a host of other reasons. About 15% of these folks came to use the Internet. Most of the rest of them, whether or not they spoke to one of our librarians, came to use various reference materials.

It happens that electronic reference is one of the big areas of debate in libraries. We can count a check out. We can count a reference question. But how, exactly, do we count an Internet session?

WHAT do we count? The number of people who sign up for our terminals? The number of clicks on a particular web page? The number of searches conducted in various library search engines? The number of pages retrieved that have something other than general content, for instance, the extraordinarily popular News-Press Community Guide, or the electronic highlights of the weekly paper? The number of pages printed out at our networked printers?

This isn't just an attempt to find ways to look busy. The long term success of the library depends upon our ability to track patterns of use. That matters to me.

For instance, we routinely calculate, by broad category of library material, how many items go out the door. At this point, about 40% of our business is devoted to young people's materials. That tells us a lot about what to buy, and what kind of staff expertise to hire or develop.

But it's clear that library use is shifting away from just circulation, and toward a more diffuse pattern of in-house study, community connection, and electronic exploration.

In the past year, we've tried to match those needs.
In the year 2000, your local library aims to be not just your gateway to county-wide resources, but a thoughtful introduction to the future of reference services and family literacy: 24 hour a day, 7 day a week access to a convenient, intelligently organized WORLD of data.

That, you can count on.

Wednesday, January 5, 2000

January 5, 2000 - Hardest Working Books in the Library

I'm writing this on December 30, 1999 (I know, it seems like a millennium ago) in the faith that civilization as we know it will survive long enough to publish this column, and for you to read it.

Speaking of survivors, we recently ran a report to find out which specific copies of library books had been checked out the most times. (In the library trade, we call the number of checkouts "circs," which is short for "circulations.") Holly Deni, our associate director for support services, calls this the list of our "hardest working books." Like James Brown, Godfather of Soul, Rap Godfather, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, these books have earned their keep.

It's always interesting to me to see what people actually read, as opposed to what they are supposed to read. You won't find a single "classic" book on the list.

For instance, the hardest working book in our collection is: The Right Dog For You, by Daniel Tortora. It's gone out 200 times.

Incidentally, of the top ten books, five of them are about dogs. The other four titles are, The Complete Dog Book, by the American Kennel Club (190 circs); Choosing the Right Dog, by John Howe (178 circs); Man's Best Friend: The National Geographic Book of Dogs (150 circs); and the Ultimate Dog Book, by David Taylor, et al. (149 circs).

Three of the remaining five also fall into a distinct category: home decorating. They are, Laura Ashley Windows, by Laura Ashley and Elizabeth Wilhide (154 circs); Less Is More: The Practical Guide To Maximizing Space in Your Home, by Elaine Lewis and Judith Davidson (152 circs); and Decorating with Personal Style, by Better Homes and Gardens (150 circs).

The last two of the top ten are mysteries: D is For Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton (188 circs); and While My Pretty One Sleeps, by Mary Higgins Clark (157 circs).

Number 13 on the list, by the way, is a local work: Castle Rock: A Grass Roots History, by Robert Lowenberg (141 circs).

I want to emphasize that these aren't necessarily the titles that have been checked out the most. That honor belongs to the fictional works of John Grisham. The books I mentioned above are single copies of books that have gone out over 150 times, and lived to tell the tale.

It's also kind of charming to realize that only 20% of our customers for these books are interested in sex and violence (not that Clark or Grafton are especially extreme in either).

Incidentally, to satisfy my own curiosity, I asked Holly to run another report. Which patrons, of all the patrons in our database have checked out the most materials? (Our computer doesn't keep track of what they read, just the total number of items.) I wasn't going to publish this, but thought a nice note thanking people for the last century of use would be appropriate.

However, it's worth pointing out that the person who has checked out the most items from the Douglas Public Library District is ... a librarian. In fact, my wife. She's checked out, in the past ten years, almost 24,000 items. (She also gave me permission to mention her in this column.) My daughter hasn't checked out even a third as many, although 7,000+ is certainly respectable.
So just in case anybody is wondering, we LaRues don't just preach the value of reading. We practice it.

And on behalf of Cagney, our greyhound, and Freddy, our border collie, let me just say that we're doggone proud of it, too.