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, March 29, 2000

March 29, 2000 - Great Books and the Lone Tree Coffeehouse

It is my pleasure to announce two exciting new literary events in Douglas County.

The first is the "Difficult Gifts" Great Books Seminar, jointly sponsored by the Douglas County Educational Foundation and the Douglas Public Library District. Credit for the idea goes to John Sheehan, a member of the Douglas County School District Board of Education. John recently attended a Great Books Seminar back east. He came back inspired.

It happens that when I was in 7th and 8th grade, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the Junior Great Books program, in part because the Great Books Foundation had begun at the University of Chicago, not fifty miles from my home town.

Frankly, if someone had told me beforehand that we were going to read a series of classics, then sit around and talk about them, I would have thought there was no better description of boredom and torture.

But I learned to my astonishment that there's a reason classics are classics. They contain powerful and challenging writing.

The next part of the program was equally surprising. My class contained the usual number of kids trying to figure out what the adult world was like, and how we were going to fit in. By talking about the readings, we began to develop a vocabulary, a series of approaches, to talk about the deepest issues we faced.

This period became my favorite of the week. I discovered the difference between little questions -- what should I wear today, what should I watch on TV, I wonder if she likes me? -- and big questions -- how shall I live my life, what is the meaning of honor, is it better to be rich than wise?

I also learned that reading, then talking about what you read with others, can be a time of high excitement and drama.

So I was inclined to go along with John's infectious enthusiasm for the "Difficult Gifts" program. But what I especially liked was its focus: first, it was multigenerational -- students AND adults. Second, the theme was "The Disappearance of Childhood." I would argue that this may be one of the most thought-provoking and incisive themes for our time. Third, the readings themselves are superb choices: "The Social Me," by William James; "Barn Burning," by William Faulkner; and excerpts from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

At this point, most of the student participants have been selected. But there's still room for a few more adults. I strongly urge you to sign up. Your obligations would include: reading the provided selections (8 pages, 40 pages, and 71 pages), having dinner on three separate nights (April 3, 5, and 6), then discussing the readings in groups of 16, guided by one of the highly skilled and experienced Great Book facilitators. The sessions will be held at the Chaparral High School.

In the post-Columbine world, many adults have talked ABOUT the next generation. Here's an opportunity to actually talk WITH them. Not only that, I can promise a rendezvous with great literature you will not soon forget. Just call Lori Orzech at 303-814-5271, e-mail her at Lori_Orzech@ceo.cudenver.edu, or visit the school district website at www.dcsd.k12.co.us. But do it soon! Applications must be in by this Friday, March 31.

The second event will occur for just one night at the Lone Tree Library, 8827 Lone Tree Parkway, just south of the Park Meadows Mall. Beginning at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 15, we will host the first Lone Tree Coffeehouse poetry reading. Our main hope is to flush out some young adults with a keen urge to write, and a willingness to share, although all are welcome. Refreshments will be served, then we'll have an open microphone.

I have been strong armed into performing some of my own poetry, and I saw one flier that suggested I would bring a guitar, which just goes to show that you can't believe everything you read. No registration is necessary.

Both of the above programs are free.

Wednesday, March 22, 2000

March 22, 2000 - The Inner Life

My daughter's "first book" -- by which I mean the first book where she was able to identify all the words -- was Goodnight Moon. My son, Perry, who turned six a little over a month ago, now has his first book (although he hasn't quite got all the words). Perry has learned to read from ... a paperback collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Cool, huh?

Perry requested Calvin and Hobbes every night as his bedtime story. And he paid close attention, sometimes having me reread various words that caught his fancy. This has given him a pretty surprising reading vocabulary for a six year old.

I don't push particular books at him, although I do try to slip in my favorites. But any place he starts reading is fine with me. As a librarian, I know that everything connects to everything else eventually.

For instance, my cataloging class final had one question: find the shortest number of subject links between "concrete" and "brassiere." My first thought, and probably yours, was, "No way! There are no links." I was wrong.

Give up? One subject heading embraces them both: "foundations."

But back to Calvin and Hobbes. While Calvin is not, generally speaking, the sort of child you'd pick for your son's role model, he is, as Perry says seriously, "Very imaginative." Calvin's world is populated with dinosaurs, aliens, and monsters, particularly when he's supposed to be doing something else, such as paying attention.

What makes Calvin so interesting to me is this: he has an inner life. The older I get, the more important I think that is.

Like many children of my generation, I grew up in front of the TV. Probably, no joke, I watched five hours a day on Saturday, and probably close to that even on week nights. These days, however, I donít think I've watched a whole TV show in several years (although we do rent videos).

Why? Because I never see anything on the tube that's as interesting as the things going on in my own head. And in my head, there are no commercial interruptions.

If you don't have an inner life -- by which I mean things you ponder, marvel over, connections you explore, insights that shock or dismay you -- then it seems to me that you're liable to get hooked on all kinds of irrelevant stimulus. TV is one of them. Peer pressure is another. And then, God save us, there's all the other chatter of our culture: shopping malls, new cars, opinion polls, radio talk shows, and even (sorry, son) Pokèmon.

So how do you get a rich inner life? Well, I think the short answer is: solitude. I think it's also not a bad idea to read, but then, for many readers, that's the whole purpose of solitude. (I'd also entertain the notion that solitude is the purpose of reading.)

When you get absorbed in a book, you're on a different kind of time altogether. You perceive reality through imagination, according to an interior clock. Moments spent reading can cover years, even centuries, of experience. Contrariwise, a whole book of many hundreds of pages might cover just one day.

I've had the pleasure of hearing Tom Sutherland speak. He's the Coloradan who spent years as a hostage in Iran. Reading gave Tom Sutherland something to do during his long imprisonment -- at least when books were available. But when nothing was available, all the books he'd read before gave him something to think about, characters to remember, situations and ideas to probe in his imagination. As a result, even in his captivity, Sutherland was one of the freest people on the planet.

All of us will go through periods of stress in our lives, although it probably it won't be anything like what the Sutherlands suffered. Our ability to survive these periods depends, most of all, on our cultivation of a rich inner life, not tied to the vicissitudes of the moment.

Or as my cataloging instructor might have put it, reading your way to an inner life provides what might be an important ... foundation.

Wednesday, March 15, 2000

March 15, 2000 - Minute Books

Recently I realized that I just didn't have much time for reading. A librarian who doesn't read is like a guitarist without strings, a cobbler with no shoes, a balloonist bereft of hot air. So I decided to do something about it.

I read over 20 books. Not trash, either -- some were classics. I read Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina," Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment," and Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." I also read some science fiction: "Stranger in a Strange Land," by Robert Heinlein, "The Time Machine," by H.G. Wells, "2001: A Space Odyssey," by Arthur C. Clarke. I even read some children's books: Eric Carle's "the Very Hungry Caterpillar," "The Cat in the Hat," and "Green Eggs and Ham," by Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein's "the Giving Tree."

Not bad, eh? That's not even the whole list. And what's more, I read all of these books in a single day!

You're wondering, "How did he do it? Speed-reading? Cranked up books on tape, absorbed as he slept? Or is it some special, even supernatural skill, transmitted via obscure rituals at library schools?"

No. I stumbled across what may be serious competition to Cliff's Notes (book digests long used by students who never got around to reading a book, but had a test the next day). I found a web site called, "Minute Books." Their motto: "We read them for you."

Each section -- divided into Classics, Science Fiction, and Children's (so far) -- includes a summary that you can read in a minute or less. And the summaries are funny.

Take their version of "Green Eggs and Ham."

I will not eat green eggs and ham, anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances.

Try it!


Or how about "A Christmas Carol?"

Bah, humbug. You'll work thirty-eight hours on Christmas Day, keep the heat at five degrees, and like it.

Ebeneezer Scrooge, three ghosts of Christmas will and tell you you're mean.

You're mean.

At last, I have seen the light. Let's dance in the streets. Have some money.


In short, these descriptions are not only, well, short, they do a good job of capturing the gist of things. The range of titles chosen is impressive: from Beowulf to "Ethan Frome" (which gets a great two sentence summary: "I met a man named Ethan Frome. His life sucked.") You see books by Joseph Conrad, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Homer, Hawthorne, poems by Coleridge, Poe, and Milton. You see titles that range from contemporary "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," to summaries of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Series.

But the really sly thing about these summaries is that to get the maximum impact, the truest appreciation of how well they've been executed, you ... have to read the book. The whole book. The long version.

Take this version of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree." "Reader: I can't believe you chopped down the tree, you jerk!" That's exactly the way I felt when I read this. But if you haven't read the book, you don't get it.

So finally, Minute Books remind you of all the great books you never got around to, or you'd like to go back and revisit. They don't save you any time at all. Fiendish.

The URL for the site is http://www.the-forest.com/minutebooks/. Got a minute?

Wednesday, March 8, 2000

March 8, 2000 - Library Measurement

Librarianship is like any other business. You have to watch the numbers. But -- like any other business -- the question is, "which numbers?"

The traditional measure of library services is "circulation." In some respects, this is like sales. Circulation is what people check out the door. (Let's just ignore for the moment that most of our sales are also, technically, "returns." In business, that's bad. In librarianship, that's good.)

If we just count "checkouts", the Douglas Public Library District is doing very well. Our increase of use far outstrips population growth. And why not? Our adult demographic profile almost defines the ideal library user: well-educated, white collar, upwardly mobile, lots of kids.

But -- like any other business -- our environment is changing. New uses are emerging, new expectations, new demographics.

I believe there are three areas of significant growth in the demand for library services, particularly in Douglas County.

The first is reference. What do reference librarians do, exactly? Well, the public piece of their job is pretty simple. They answer questions. This varies from the elementary school student's last minute research assignment ("What's the chief export of Bolivia?") to the idle telephone inquiry ("What does ëhumongousí mean?") to thorny investigations into abstruse market conditions for potential products ("how many Douglas County households have replaced their roof shingles in the past five years?").

There's the problem with reference. An easy question equals a count of ... one. A hard question equals ... one. In sales, items involving different costs have different values. In libraries, the distinction is not so clear.

But here's what I do know. We get many more -- and much harder -- questions than we used to.

The second area of growth is children's services.

Ask the following question to the next three adults you meet: "When you were a child, what book changed your life?" Chances are, there is one.

Then ask the next question: "Who told you about it?" Where there's good library service, the answer is, "The librarian in the children's department." Just how, exactly, am I supposed to measure that?

I don't know. But I do know that we're working hard to add, and to educate, library staff around library services to children. If you haven't seen our new service stations in the children's area already, you'll see them soon. I can't think of anything else we could do that has such power to transform our communities.

From the business perspective, why are we doing this? Because a smart counselor in the world of bibliography builds our customer base. In other words, a good children's librarian has the power to hook you into a lifelong pursuit of reading.

Like any good sales professional, a children's librarian knows the product, knows the customer, makes the sale, and keeps you coming back for more.

The third area of library measure is electronic services. And here, I must confess, the whole profession is in utter disarray.

Think about it. The library has a web page. What, exactly, does a "click" mean? I can sure count that. But is it equal to a checkout? A reference question? A suggested book?

There are lots of ways to look at this. A positive spin is that when librarians add a new reference link to a web site, lots of our patrons will click along for the ride. They're curious to see what it has to offer. That never happened with our reference books. So web sites encourage our patrons to explore more of our collection, to serve themselves.

But it's very hard for us to know whether or not we've made the sale. In the old days, librarians made sense of hard books. But some web patrons don't ask us for help with a balky database.

Should we count the click? The number of database retrievals? The number of pages printed?

Again, I don't know.

I've decided that library statistics fall into one of four types.

The first is Availability. For instance, we count the number of library branches, or library hours, or staff, or magazine subscriptions, or databases subscribed to, or Internet terminals.

The second is Incidence. It's the number of transactions: checkouts, reference questions answered, programs held, people who walked in the door, photocopies made, links that somebody clicked on.

The third is Relevance. Here, the difference is between a book somebody pulled off the shelf but left on a desk, and the book checked out. "Relevance," in this context, just means, "looked promising."" And at present, none of our statistics really measure this, with the possible exception of our occasional survey that asks people if they actually found what they came in for.

The fourth library measurement is Quality. In this area, we join the ranks again of merchants and professionals. You may check out and read a bestseller. Was it any good? Hard to know.

In a business and librarianship, it's good news if you come back to buy something else. In medicine or law, it's bad news if the first visit didn't fix things.

In libraries, the things we measure do little more than point towards kinds of activity, and our measurements often don't capture useful meanings. Science is about numbers, hard facts, clear relations. Library Science, I've decided, is about much fuzzier relationships. It is, in sum, not science at all.

It is art.

Wednesday, March 1, 2000

March 1, 2000 - Meetings and programs

Readers of this paper have probably noted the weekly listing of library events elsewhere. But I thought I'd call out some of the notable events coming up this month.
In addition to our weekly story times, we have a number of reading groups. Here's a gander at March literary gatherings:

March 1 - the Mother-Daughter Book Club at Highlands Ranch will be reviewing "Julie of the Wolves" at 7 p.m.

March 2 - at 9 a.m. the reading club at Lone Tree will be discussing Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." The Highlands Ranch Chapter Book club meets from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. each week.

March 9 - Louviers will hold its Chapter Book Club from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

March 13 - at 1 p.m., the Senior Book Discussion group in Castle Rock will talk about "Three Men in a Boat," by Jerome K. Jerome; later (at 7 p.m.), the Highlands Ranch Book Club will discuss "Their Eyes are Watching God," by Laura Huston

March 14 - Philip S. Miller Library's Night Readers will review Barbara Kingsolver's "High Tide in Tucson" at 7 p.m.

March 16 - Highlands Ranch Chapter Book group meets from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

March 27 - Lone Tree hosts its Juvenile Chapter Book Club at 4 p.m., which will focus on historical fiction.

In addition to the reading groups, we've got some programs worth putting on your calendar:

March 5 - Celeste Hodges Art Reception at Parker Library, 1-5 p.m.

March 7 - How to Use Interlibrary Loan for Genealogy at Highlands Ranch Library, 7 p.m.

March 9 - also at Highlands Ranch, 7 p.m., is our Advanced Internet Class.

March 12 - our Local History Collection will sponsor the "Tales from the Public Records," at the county's Philip S. Miller Administration Building in Castle Rock

March 14 - the Parker Library will host one of its introductory classes on the Internet at 7 p.m.

March 15 - our Spring Reading program, "Climb to New Heights with Books!" begins at all our libraries

March 18 - Mountain Adventures with Julie Davis at the Highlands Ranch Library, 2 p.m. (repeats at Lone Tree the same time on March 25, at Philip S. Miller at 4:15 p.m. on March 27, and at Parker on 4:15 p.m. March 30)

March 21 - the Philip S. Miller Library's Lunch and Learn program (12:10 to 12:50 p.m.) is the intriguingly titled "UFO's in Douglas County."

March 25 - Parker Library will host the Parents and Kids Internet Class at 10 a.m.; Highlands Ranch Library will sponsor "Bonsai for Beginners" from 1 to 3 p.m.

The above is, by no means, the total of program offerings during the month. (We're up to about 50 a week these days.) But it does underscore some of the rich activities going on in libraries aside from the checking in and out of books.

Our meeting rooms, which are free and open to the public, themselves constitute an important library service. For far too many of us, our lives rush from event to event. What's even worse is that we often drive miles and miles to get to these events, and shell out far too much money.

Here's hoping that you'll find something right down the road at your neighborhood library that can delight or divert you, and won't compromise your children's college education (or your own retirement) fund.