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, February 23, 2000

February 23, 2000 - Town Center Issues at Highlands Ranch

One of the head-scratching realizations of advancing age is that sometimes good people have honest disagreements with each other.

For the past several years now, the Douglas Public Library District has been working with Shea Homes and the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan Districts (HRMD) to jointly create a Town Center. All of the land once belonged to Shea, although the company has deeded parcels, free of charge, to the library and to HRMD.

The library got a 3.5 acre parcel. Our contribution to the Center has been our 42,000 square foot Highlands Ranch Library, which is nearing completion.

The library has worked very hard to make the building fit into our understanding of an urban center. We have, for instance, a strong street presence on Ridgeline, having tucked our parking around the back.

But our strongest orientation has been to the south. Through many meetings, we worked with the Metro Districts to treat the library and the proposed Civic Green (a 5 acre parcel immediately to the south of us) as one relatively seamless piece of property.

The library entrance is also an entrance to the Civic Green. Our second-story balcony overlooks the park. Our children's area and public meeting rooms rest on its edge.

After a very inclusive public process, the Metro Districts staff came up with a plan that incorporated a host of delightful features: a fountain that could double as a performance stage, a stream that gently burbled along half the open green, a playground, and many quiet nooks and reading areas.

In this vision, library space and public park space flowed smoothly into one another. I believe that together we have designed a space far greater than what either of us could have built alone.

Here's what I like and respect about all of this: Shea Homes, largely through the facilitation of Steve Ormiston, brought a well-researched, team-based approach to the Town Center. Yes, the company wants a commercially viable downtown. They are in the business of making money. But I believe they also want a downtown that captures what Highlands Ranch residents genuinely desire: a place that is interesting, walk-able, and populated with more trees than parking lots.

What I like about the HRMD is its recognition that the Civic Green is not a typical suburban park. The Civic Green has required lots of new thinking -- and money. HRMD staff, as I've mentioned in previous columns, have consistently impressed me as dedicated, honest, and insightful public servants. They've done a fantastic job.

In the past four years, I've seen at least three different plans regarding downtown development for Highlands Ranch. Yet plans change when you not only pay attention to the market, but also bring new players into the process. The bottom line: our town center is better conceived than any new downtown in the metropolitan area. It's a place where people would want to spend some time.

Here's my issue. The most recent draft of the downtown plan moves Main Street (the main commercial street) a couple of blocks south. There's some logic to all this: the road would be more visible from C-470; it would also be longer, and research suggests that there is such a thing as a minimum length for a successful business street.

When this plan was first presented, however, both library and HRMD staff noticed we were no longer so easy a destination, no longer just across the street from a commercial center.

There's not much the library can do about this. Our building is nearly done.

But the park has not yet begun construction. Would it make sense for the park to move west, across the street to the west side of Ridgeline? There are some pluses for the idea. The main one is a closer integration with the heart of downtown, through a sort of wandering trail system.

I know the HRMD staff well enough to know they will give thoughtful consideration to the issue. (We have also asked Shea Homes to find another option: a way to strengthen the connection to their new main street and the joint library/civic green.)

But just for the record, I believe the library and civic green should stay together. Shea's plans call for a 10 year development cycle. If at any point, some piece of their plan doesn't work, we run the risk of fragmentation: a library on one block, a park across the street from it, and a main street too far away to have a connection with either of the other two.

Development follows success. Right now, the library and the civic green together will make a dynamic pair, whatever happens to the economic climate. Libraries and parks endure; commercial developments sometimes flop (remember Cinderella City and the River Front project in Littleton). Moreover, a Civic Green is not the same thing as a business park.

Highlands Ranch residents know what commercial development looks like. What they have not seen is civic development -- the creation of public space that is thoughtful, multi-faceted, and inviting.

Right now, the public sector has an opportunity to demonstrate genuine civic leadership in its most important task: the building of community. I don't think we should give that up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2000

February 16, 2000 - Children's Specialists

Back in my college days, I had developed quite a reputation around the dormitory for knowing essential facts, such as exactly which one of the dorm snack machines had oatmeal crème pies. A friend of mine, who was majoring in Anthropology, gave me a T-shirt that read "Optimal Forager." Two great words, but I was not sure what they meant. She explained to me that before man developed farming skills, he had to look (forage) for food. Those who survived were the best (optimum) at searching. Thus, 'Optimal Forager'--I liked it. So starting around 11:00 PM, people would knock on my door to find the answer to their urgent pie questions: "The west wing, between the third and fourth floor, is your best bet this evening," I'd say with cool aplomb. I was developing my information gathering skills and assisting my fellow man along the way.
I'm still in the information searching and gathering business. But now, I get to work with kids and answer THEIR reference questions. How does a student find the resources to complete his homework? Who can you ask to help you find a book just like the one you had before? Ask and you shall receive.

Douglas Public Library District recently added a Children's Specialist to the staff at each of the four main branches. Toddlers through high school seniors, we are here for you! We pay attention to what kids are reading for pleasure and for school so we can purchase library books that are necessary, useful and enjoyable. We can help you gather information for your homework assignments and we can help you find a great book to read.

But what if, "my teacher wants me to do an essay on..." or, "I have to write a book report and need..." No problem. Good communication with the schools will prove a key factor. Together, we can put student success as our primary goal. Of course we cannot do the homework assignment or write the paper, but Children's Specialists can help you learn how to use library resources--which ones are best, age appropriate, reliable and interesting.

Another exciting aspect of this new position is what librarians call 'Readers Advisory.' This is a fancy phrase for helping people find a fun book to read. Surely you've said to yourself, "I'd like to read another book just like..." Children's Specialists are well read in all areas from emergent readers to the college bound, and we are anxious to help you find the newest, most favorite story you have ever read.

The next time you are wondering, "Where should I look to get information on...," stop by the library. You'll find the Children's Specialist in the juvenile/children's section, pertly awaiting the opportunity to serve you, no matter what your age may be.

By the way, I no longer let people know where to find the oatmeal crème pies. But I'm very good at hiding them.

Laurel Iakovakis is the Children's Collection Specialist at the Lone Tree Library.

Wednesday, February 9, 2000

February 9, 2000 - In Defense of Administration

I've worked a lot of jobs. In rough chronological order, I've been a library shelver, a dishwasher, a stock clerk, a house painter, a nursing home orderly, a library clerk, a bartender, a cook, a bouncer, a university teaching assistant, an art class model, a shoe salesman, a truck driver, a counselor for disturbed juvenile delinquents, a telemarketer, a school bus driver, a construction worker, a wandering poet/philosopher, a property caretaker, a ditch digger, a library volunteer, a freelance journalist, a book store clerk, a graduate assistant, a professor, a college reference librarian, a circulation department head at a public library, an Assistant Director, a Library Manager, a speechwriter (both for me and for others), and a Library Director.

In the course of that time, I've learned a few things. The first one is that every job has intrinsic worth. Every job fulfills a useful function, provides a service somebody needs.

I've learned that there are people who are good at what they do, and make you proud to work alongside them. There are people who are very bad at what they do, or worse, utterly indifferent. They can make the job itself unpleasant. And there are a great many people who fall somewhere in the middle: neither great nor horrible, just marking time. But that has to do with people, not the jobs.

I've also learned that there were really only two categories of my jobs that completely engaged me, that woke me up, energized and delighted me. The first one was the wandering poet/philosopher bit -- although the excruciatingly low pay is what finally drove me into honest labor. The second had to do with libraries, at every level.

I've been thinking about all this because the library recently conducted an internal survey. We asked library staff how things were going -- a detailed checklist about everything from service standards to how well our supervisors and managers performed. On the whole, the survey was very affirming.

I got my share of criticisms, of course, some of them well-deserved. One of the comments that popped up several times was my increasing distance from the front line. Some staff members can still recall when I worked the reference desk, the circ desk, told stories to children, and selected titles for purchase. Others think the only way I can understand what goes on, or demonstrate my respect for their labor, is to work beside them.

But the truth is, as our organization has grown my job has morphed into ... other things. Administration: five syllables that set people to mumbling about bureaucrats and corner offices and "suits."

Well, on behalf of administrators both within and without the library, here's what I think I've learned: administrators worry about things so front line staff don't have to. Administrators worry about whether or not sufficient resources exist to fund current uses, what new services might be needed and when, where new sources of revenue can be found to offset new costs, how old buildings can be maintained or where new buildings should go, what old services and processes should be excised or redirected, how job classifications and salary schedules can be tweaked to get necessary work accomplished at defensible wages.

Having worked both sides of this fence, I see differences: front line staff do their work on the front line, in the moment. And when they go home, their work is done. Adminstrative staff do their work behind the scenes, mostly focused on the future. Their work is never done.

Front line staff do their work at the library. Administrative staff do their work in many locations, often (and most importantly) outside the library.

Front line staff usually have just one supervisor; two at most. Library administrators usually work for Boards -- in my case, seven supervisors.

Front line staff serve the customers; administrators make sure the store can open.

Both staff are necessary, both jobs have their own special demands, and both deserve their own brands of sympathy. But once an organization hits a certain size, I'm not sure it's possible for one person to do both jobs anymore. And let's remember: administrators are always outnumbered.

I try to take comfort in this little gag: before you criticize people, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, if they find out about it, you're already a mile away, and you've got their shoes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2000

February 2, 2000 - Family History Programs

It is our oldest social structure. It predates religion. It has survived the concerted attacks of various political experiments. It is the family -- father, mother, and children -- and it endures, at least in part, because it is wired right into our DNA.

In the late 1950s Chinese communists, in the name of good Maoist doctrine, reorganized villages to strengthen the hold of the Party. Fathers and sons went to one barracks. Mothers and daughters went to another. The drop in productivity on these collective farms was so precipitous -- and the subsequent famine so severe -- that party officials allowed families to return to their homes. The experiment was not repeated.

But while the nuclear family is strong enough to resist such heavy-handedness, some would argue that it hasn't fared so well against the seductions of technology. In the pre-industrial age, families worked beside one another. Even in the Victorian era, family members came together in the parlor to read aloud to one another, to play card and board games, to make music, to talk to one another.

To be sure, part of this was sheer necessity. The sun went down, and the horses were stabled for the night. Short of conversation and innocent recreation, there really wasn't much else to do.

But now even when we gather in our "family rooms" we tend to sit in front of the passive entertainment of television. When was the last time you read aloud to your spouse, or had your child read aloud to you?

The odds are good that there's more than one TV in your house. When was the last time you looked up and realized some members of your family were watching TV in one room, some in another? Or perhaps every one in the family was occupied with some other device -- telephone, computer, CD player, etc. But even if your family members were talking to somebody, they probably weren't talking to each other.

I'm not knocking technology. Give me the automobile and the indoor toilet over the horse and outhouse any day, particularly in bad weather.

But while statistics indicate that there's plenty of good news about American families these days (fewer divorces, for one), there's plenty of bad news, too. If you're interested in making your own family stronger, you probably have to put some time and attention into it.

At any rate, I was in a receptive frame of mind when I got a visit from some long time library friends. Linda Brimhall and Laura Beauchamp came to me with a proposal for a couple of programs. They both revolve around collecting and preserving family history. This strikes me as a brilliant response to the increasingly isolated family life of most of us.

The first program -- "From Story to Family History" -- will be held at the Highlands Ranch Library, February 13, from 3 to 5 p.m. There will be light refreshments. Using skits and engaging speakers, the program will focus on how to get older members of the family to start talking about their memories, then how to get the history organized.

A week later, February 20, we'll move to the Parker Library (also from 3-5 in the afternoon). This time the focus will be on family heirlooms. The title for this one is "Grandpa's Mustache Wax." All families pass mysterious objects from one generation to another. Too often stashed in dark corners of basements, garages, and attics, these items can and should be dragged into the light.

The programs are co-sponsored by the library and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But there won't be any proselytizing (and no, I'm not a Mormon). Just as no nation or political party has a monopoly on "family values," neither does any religion. Exploring our family history is a worthwhile task for all of us, the sort of activity that aids in the important process of defining what families, and the people in them, hold most dear.

If you'd like some ideas about how to get started, I hope you'll join us. And bring the family.