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, April 26, 2000

April 26, 2000 - Dennis and Telecirc

The library has a new employee. His name is Dennis. We paid about $30,000 for him, which isn't cheap. But we only have to pay him the first year. After that, he works for free.

And work he does. Dennis is on the phone for the library from 9 in the morning to 8 at night, Monday through Fridays. On Saturdays and Sundays, he works from 9 to 6.

One of our patrons, viewing his Caller ID, called the library and demanded to know just who this Dennis is, and why he kept calling our patron's wife.

Well, Dennis is nobody to worry about. He's no body at all. He's actually part of a software package that happens to be connected to a computer server and a couple of phone lines.

Dennis' job is to free up the $90,000 a year we were spending in a combination of staff time and postage just to let people know that the items they'd placed on hold had come in.

Dennis not only handles all that, he also calls people to let them know all kinds of other things. For instance, he tells them the first time one of their items is overdue (if he can't reach someone, THEN we mail the notice).

The good news is, Dennis has freed up a lot of staff time to do more useful things -- such as actually helping people find items at the library. So I forgive him his occasionally very mechanical speech. Speech technology is getting better all the time, but Dennis still mangles names and words from book titles sometimes. In about a year, he's supposed to get a little better. I guess he's taking the electronic equivalent of speech lessons.

Dennis is part of a program called Telecirc. And there's more to it than phone calls from a virtual nobody. If you call 303-663-4683 -- and that's 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- you can do all kinds of things. They are (and they're listed in just this order):

1. You can renew your items (unless somebody else is waiting for them).
2. You can get a list of everything you currently have checked out.
3. You can list or cancel any holds you might have placed. 4. You can find out how much you currently owe the library for fines.
5. You can find out what overdue items you might have checked out.
6. Finally, if you don't like the way Dennis says your name on the phone, you can record your name in your own voice. Or you could replace your name with a name you prefer. How about, "Hiya Handsome?"

I should point out that not just anybody can do this. When you call Telecirc, you have to have your patron barcode number, and know your phone number. So have those items handy yourself.

Incidentally, we have noticed that a few people -- those with such services as "no solicitation" blocking -- sometimes confuse poor Dennis. If you're getting incomplete messages from him, call Telecirc to see what Dennis might have been trying to tell you. Then consider adding the library's phone number to your "accepted call" list.

After all, just because he's virtual doesn't mean he doesn't want to talk to you. He LIVES for conversation.

It's all he has.

P.S. I apologize for the short notice, but our renovation of the Philip S. Miller Library is about to commence. In a tight labor market, you have to act when everybody and everything shows up, and we have been blessed with an immediate opportunity to schedule the work. For the next several weeks, we'll be recarpeting, expanding our Local History area, and adding a new children's story room. At this point, we think we've figured out a way to keep the library open. Come to our meeting room for a sort of mini-library. You'll be able to pick up your holds, return books, and ask us to fetch new ones for you. I understand that there will even be cookies. Again, my apologies for the inconvenience, but we do think you'll like the results.

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

April 19, 2000 - Poetry in America

I didn't get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
- "Underwear" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

My first car, a VW bug, cost me $350. Its most holy mission was the time I was sent to the Peoria airport to fetch an important American poet. That poet was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, author of the wonderful poem quoted in part above.

You must understand that I was just 19 years old. I had read some Ferlinghetti, but I'd never seen a picture of him. I once met Allen Ginsberg, another beat poet. I was a member of a writing workshop under the direction of Jim Scrimgeour, a confessional imagist poet at Illinois State University. So when Jim called me to say that he needed someone with impeccable poetic credentials (by which he meant "actually owning a car") to pick up Ferlinghetti for his university performance that night, I cheerfully acquiesced.

Jim asked me, "Do you know what he looks like?"

"No," I replied. "But how hard can it be to pick out a poet at the Peoria airport?"

And in fact, it wasn't hard at all. I admit that I did ask somebody else first, but quickly realized my mistake. The second person I asked was a close-cropped balding man with a beard. He was wearing a leather leisure suit, traveling with nothing more than an airline bag, a sort of big vinyl purse. He was sitting, cat-like, on one of the airport seats, calm and patient. (I was late.) "Are you a poet?" I asked. And he stood up.

I realize now that I was woefully unprepared. I did not give great conversation on the way back to the university and the reception awaiting him. I was a little cowed by his fame. Worse, I hadn't read much poetry at the time, believing it was good enough just to write my own. In short, I was young, awkward, arrogant, and ignorant. That's life.

On the other hand, he seemed to really enjoy riding in a bug. He talked about a VW bus he'd once owned, and had driven up the California coast, before he finally settled in San Francisco.

These days, Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco's famous City Lights Bookstore, even has a street named after him, which strikes me as a worthwhile thing to note in April, National Poetry Month. After all, how many living poets have streets named after them anywhere in Douglas County? Let's broaden that to include the entire Front Range. Heck, how many DEAD poets? Answer: none that I know of.

I mention all this not just to toss around the names of poetic celebrities I have known, but to sound a grateful note for the recent poetry café at the Lone Tree Library. I was pleased to discover that poetry is alive and well in the generation now in high school. I was overjoyed when one of the 22 people to attend pulled out a well-worn copy of Ginsberg's "Howl" -- a poem that defined the consciousness of another generation, and by now must be considered classic by the only definition that counts: endurance.

I am also pleased to report that Rod McKuen seems to have withered away without a trace. Good riddance.

But even more, I was gratified to hear some real poetic talent. Chelsea (Happy Birthday!) was one of them. So was a young man with a sensibility much like that of Edgar Allan Poe -- a fine sense of language. There were several young adults with astonishingly well-developed performance skills.

One of the things librarians do is to collect the works of those fortunate few who are published. But I think it might be equally important to provide a place where poets have the opportunity to read their works. Poetry is undervalued in our society. So are poets.

The good news is that not only does the Douglas Public Library District have the works of many fine, contemporary poets, but the next team is shaping up nicely.

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

April 12, 2000 - Controversial Materials

Last week I attended a Douglas County School Board meeting. It was, at times, a tense night.

First up was the fate of the Colorado Visionary Academy charter school. It had been given some 30 days to solve a staggering set of problems. After presentations by various folks, some probing questions from the Board, and a recess to allow the two sides to huddle, it was decided to give the school district another week to digest all of the data presented that day. Then some 80 people or so got up and left.

Next up was the controversial materials policy. The previous policy went something like this: if teachers wanted to make classroom use of supplementary readings or materials that might be considered controversial, they first had to present the materials, and the purpose for which they were intended, to the principal. The principal might say no. If the answer was yes, then the teacher sent home a description and a permission slip to the parents. If the child did not return with the slip, the child could not participate. This is referred to as an "Opt In" approach -- that is, without parental permission, the child was excused, in which case the teacher had to come up with some other activity for that child.

The new, proposed policy differed in this final respect: parents had to say that they did NOT want their children to be exposed to the material. This is the Opt Out approach -- unless the parent objects, the child participates.

Why the proposed change? According to school district officials, there were several aims. The first was simply to preserve instructional time. The Opt In approach generates a lot of paperwork and accounting, time that by definition is not spent preparing for class or teaching.

The second goal was to encourage critical thinking: teachers sometimes run across current materials that present another side of an issue, challenging the sometimes very bland presentations of textbooks and more effectively engaging the student.

The third aim was to protect the child -- from what, I'm not exactly sure. Controversy, I suppose. To state the matter more diplomatically, the school district did not wish to offend parents by presenting information that might contradict values strongly held at home, or at least not without some notification.

Then the school board listened, most politely and attentively, to some 15 people who were actively opposed to the policy change, and mentioned a petition with 89 names of people who agreed with them.

Then a teacher spoke in favor of the new policy. Then I spoke in favor of it. By this time, it was about 10:30 p.m. (Board meetings typically begin at 7 p.m.)

Then the Board discussed it, carefully considering the viewpoints expressed, and expressing their own. Finally, they voted. The new policy passed, although narrowly: 4 to 3. Voting against it were Bill Noyce, Vicky Starkey, and Jim McCormick.

After the vote, another 25 people got up and left. But the Board stayed, with plenty of important business still to be tackled.

The Board stayed. They had sat through two (potentially) very contentious sessions, with some occasionally very agitated people. Throughout the long night, the Board kept its cool, listened carefully and respectfully to all, then made thoughtful decisions.

Like many other people who believe, heart and mind, in the importance of public education, I too have come before the Board in an agitated state. I don't always agree with their decisions. Even when I do, it is often not for the same reasons.

But even when I disagree, I always remember this: I genuinely respect the Board, every single member. Their time commitment alone is impressive. It is perfectly apparent that every individual on the Board is there, not for the glory or the pay (there's none, or not much, of either), but because they genuinely care about the quality of education in Douglas County. They prove this, not by the occasional 3 minute appearance when there's a hot issue (which is what I do), but through meeting after meeting, sometimes dealing with the extremely mundane.

My point? I'm grateful to them. I offer not only to the members of the school board, but also to the people who serve on a host of public boards -- the library, the town, the county, and much more -- my sincere gratitude. Thanks for showing up. Thanks for staying even when everybody else gets up and leaves.

To my mind, the whole purpose of the public library is to allow the average citizen to ask questions, to explore, to consider, and finally to draw his or her own conclusions. The public library is a democracy of ideas, each struggling to prevail. But the rules of engagement are simple: we must be civil. We must treat each other with respect. We must be mindful both of the individual, and of society.

It's a lot like a school board meeting.

Wednesday, April 5, 2000

April 5, 2000 - Family Values and Misfits

Here's something that troubles me. Some of the greatest people in history -- the leaders of nations, great musicians, artists, and the writers who give the library its most enduring worth -- often have very poor family values.

It's also troubling how frequently they come from hugely dysfunctional families. Their father beat them. Their mother was an addict. They were betrayed, seduced into crime or worse.

You have to wonder, does anybody just grow from a nice, normal background into a life of stunning accomplishment?

Of course, it it could be that such early and awful experience helped forge them -- made them determined to succeed, to find control of something in their lives. Such treatment might goad them into healthy suspicion, make them cunning or tenacious or some other not-entirely nice response to trouble. Plain, decent, hardworking people -- like Jimmy Carter, say -- just don't seem to have enough imagination or drive to be truly extraordinary leaders.

But there's a trade-off. So many great men litter their lives with the debris of the human beings who depend on them. There was Tolstoy, who abandoned his horde of children and much abused wife to go off and find God -- then caught cold and died almost immediately (so I suppose he succeeded). James Joyce, who seemed not to notice when his children were starving. Frank Lloyd Wright, who seemed a little absent-minded about his wives. Don't even get me started on Hemingway.

There are lots of stories like these. Mozart. FDR. Picasso. Biographers of the great never seem to use the hackneyed plot line of a happy marriage, kids who were cherished and well cared for, and a moderate, healthy, well-rounded lifestyle.

This, of course, is one of the reasons I decided not be great myself. (The other one being an absence of great ability. And I do not believe I have exhausted the list of possible explanations.)

But all of this does make me realize that much human accomplishment belongs in the hands of our most troubled citizens. Mostly, society pressures us to fit in. Yet our most enduring gifts -- the artifacts, outcomes, insights and cultural monuments seem to come from the misfit, the outcast, the stranger, the foreigner, the shaman, the maid who hears voices or the boy who sees visions.

Isn't that odd?

I have a good friend, something of a misfit himself, who considers himself a libertarian. He measures a society not by the number of people who agree with each other, but by what happens to the ones who don't. True civility does not mean total agreement or uniformity. It means the ability to treat the outsider, the one who differs, with respect. The alternative, of course, is the lynch mob, the Inquisition, or prison.

Besides, as we prove every day in the library -- if not on the bestseller lists, than at least in the stacks -- sometimes those outsiders wind up redefining the way we look at the world, what we understand and remember about our own hearts and times.

Bottom line: take a misfit to lunch. Or a good book. And take the kids.