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, May 31, 2000

May 31, 2000 - Governor Signs Historic Library Legislation

On Friday, May 26, 2000, I had the privilege to be present at the signing of historic library legislation. On that day, at the White Branch of the Pueblo City-County Library District in West Pueblo, Governor Bill Owens signed Senate Bill 85 into law.

This bill, State Grants for Libraries, provides for per capita grants from the State of Colorado to three kinds of publicly supported libraries: public schools, public libraries, and public universities and colleges. The money has a clear purpose: it is dedicated to the purchase of intellectual content, educational resources.

Mostly, that means books. The annual $2 million appropriation, librarians estimate, will put some 100,000 new books each year into the eager hands of Colorado readers.

For all these libraries, the roughly twenty-five cents per capita (or per full time student) will be welcome. But the big winners will be rural libraries.

There are libraries in this state that have just $50 per year to spend on new materials. Under Senate Bill 85, the minimum grant is $3,000. That's sixty times as much purchasing power. The direct beneficiary will be Colorado children.

Until last Friday, Colorado was one of only five states in the Union that provided no direct state aid to libraries at all. Now it has moved to the very forefront of library awareness.

Other states provide such aid to public libraries alone. SB85 recognizes several remarkable facts. First, in many ways, all of Colorado's libraries work very closely together, providing something like a seamless web, a statewide "virtual library."

For instance, we have long used our Interlibrary Loan program to borrow books from one library for the patron of another. More recently, we added the Colorado Library Card, cutting out the middle man. This program bridges library types: public library patrons check out materials from nearby state universities; elementary school students borrow from public libraries across the county line. It's all free.

Finally, there's our Access Colorado Library and Information Network. ACLIN -- the nation's first state wide library network -- let patrons from even the most remote and rural areas of the state "go to the library" electronically. That's free, too.

Second, recent research has confirmed that one of the best predictors of school academic achievement is the presence of a resource-rich library. In many cases, this key community asset is more important than such things as class size, or even the income or educational attainment of the parents.

Third, library use of all types is on the rise in Colorado, far eclipsing even such popular activities as sporting event attendance. Colorado NEEDS more books.

The bill's deft and persistent Senate sponsor, Pueblo's Gigi Dennis, was all smiles at the May 26 reception. She thanked Governor Owens for his support of the bill that she believed would do so much real good for the state. She also thanked the articulate House sponsor of the bill, Colorado Springs's Doug Dean.

Governor Owens praised the bill as well, and the hard work of the Colorado Library Association in crafting language acceptable to so many constituents.

Then he addressed himself to the 60-odd children who had gathered to see a new law come into being. "Even when school is out for the summer," he said, "remember the importance of literacy. Keep reading!"

Thanks to his signature, they'll have a lot more to choose from.

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

May 24, 2000 - Library Gift Catalog Online

What makes a great building?

There are many factors. The first is community support. The Douglas Public Library District got that support in 1996, when the citizens of Douglas County voted to support a mill levy increase. Since then, that increase has funded library building projects all over the county, and there are more to follow.

Now, in the year 2000, we are almost ready to open the first public building in the heart of a new downtown, the 42,000 square foot Highlands Ranch library.

Mark it on your calendars today: the Grand Opening is July 15, 2000.

A great building also needs great architects. We found them -- Humphries Poli.

A great building needs great builders. We are very proud of the extraordinary craftsmanship that has gone into our library. Our contractor has been Saunders, and their altogether impressive project superintendent has been Ed Diefendorf.

Finally, a great building needs ... community support. Our new library will open with just exactly what we could afford -- all the necessities. But with private donations, we can offer far more than that. We can offer a building that has the fingerprints of its community all over it, a civic structure that truly belongs to its place and its people, that has touches of art and ambiance the library budget couldn't cover by itself.

Just last week, our Douglas Public Library Foundation mailed out over 700 Highlands Ranch gift catalogs to area businesses.

We have also placed this catalog on line. You'll find it at douglas.lib.co.us/giftcatalog/giftcatalog.html -- it's also a link from the library's main page. The catalog lists a range of library amenities, from the very expensive to the truly affordable.

For instance, just $500,000 will give you the opportunity to name the library. At the other end, $150 will buy you, your family, or your business, a special book spine that will be part of a permanent donor wall. In between are a number of other items: a $12,000 fireplace, donated by the Friends of the Highlands Ranch Library; a small group study room, which has sparked the interest of several area businesses; an outdoor flag and flagpole, currently being considered by a local civic group.

Carefully consider the items in this catalogue (the catalogue design itself is a donation from David Starck, a talented artist who happens to live in Highlands Ranch) and decide which would most matter to you in the signature building of the new downtown. Then, if you are able, make a tax deductible donation to our 501(c)3 Douglas Public Library Foundation.

Why? Because we're not just building a library. We're building a community. Shouldn't you be a part of it?

Note: Depending on the size of contribution, all donors will be recognized with naming rights and/or donation plaques on or near the item. Donors may also be listed in our Donor Book and on the Donor Wall at the library, on the Douglas Public Library District web site (http://douglas.lib.co.us), and in our Highlands Ranch Library Newsletter. All donors will be invited to a special gala "sneak preview" of the new Highlands Ranch Library.

All donations made to the Douglas Public Library Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, are tax deductible.

More information can be found at our website, or by calling Laurie Anderson, of Anderson and Associates, at 303-758-1118.

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

May 17, 2000 - Library Adds New Sunday Hours

The Douglas Public Library District was created by voters in November, 1990. Before then, we were a department of the county.

In 1991, we made the biggest change in our services. Our three full service libraries -- one in Castle Rock, one in Parker, one in the area now known as Lone Tree -- adopted a regular 7 day a week schedule. Before then, some of our libraries were open only 3 or 4 days a week, and all of them were closed on Fridays and Sundays. Not only that, our branches had different schedules depending upon the time of the year.

In August of 1991, we added our Highlands Ranch Library to our roster, and it too was open every day of the week.

Since that time, we have launched many new services. Most obvious is the sheer number of materials. In 1990, we had some 65,000 items. Now we're closing in on 400,000.

We have added an astonishing number of story times. Many area libraries, when faced with a surge in demand for story times, tend to adopt a strategy of pre-registration. In effect, this limits the service. Our philosophy has been to add new story times. I believe we now offer more of them in a week than any library in the metro area.

More recently, we have beefed up our reference staff, and added children's librarians, bringing a much higher level of knowledge and expertise to our service desks.

DPLD was one of the first libraries in the state to connect to the Internet, and our web site (http://www.dpld.org) still has some of the richest content you'll find anywhere, both in the area of databases and local information.

All of these historical notes serve to explain, perhaps, why our library saw an increase of use over 20% from 1998 to 1999 -- roughly three times the average circulation increase for the Denver metropolitan area.

But -- and I know you're wondering -- what have we done for you lately?

Well, I'm pleased to announce several new services. Foremost among them is the first change in our hours of service in 9 years. One of our library Board of Trustees happened to stop by one of libraries at noon one Sunday, and was astonished to see the line already forming. This scene is repeated at most of our libraries. Clearly, she told the Board, there's a demand for more Sunday hours.

After some discussion, the Board made a decision: effective May 6, 2000, the Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Parker, and Philip S. Miller Libraries will all be open from 12-5 every Sunday. This brings DPLD hours of service up to 69 a week. Next year, based on the reaction to this increase, we may again adjust our hours upward.

I have also been fiddling with another new service idea: online reference librarians. Recently I stumbled across an interesting web site, www.formsite.com. In brief, this service allows even non-experts to build their own electronic forms.

We already know that many people dial into the library's catalog at night. They place holds for items they want, which they pick up later at their convenience. They also take advantage of our various computer reference tools.

But that's all self-help. Sometimes -- particularly after a frustrating search on the Internet -- people need the advise of an expert. Using formsite, we can set up brief questionnaires that would let our patrons ask a question of a reference librarian, then get the answer back via e-mail, ideally within 24 hours.

I'm not saying that I'll have librarians on call 24 hours a day. I won't! But this service would allow people to at least post a question when it is convenient for them, and not have to worry about drive times or phone queues. I hope to have this up and running within a month or so.

Sometimes I worry about the disappearance of down time in our culture. Administrators have to balance the provision of service with the demands on staff time. But the public sector takes some of its cues from the private sector, and our economy seems bent on 7 day a week, 24 hour a day service.

The library is one of the institutions that should be there when you need it.

Wednesday, May 10, 2000

May 10, 2000 - Boy Scouts and the Public Sector

I was, briefly, a Cub Scout. I quit after about a year, mostly because we never got around to doing all the things I though Scouts were supposed to do -- go camping, for instance.

Instead, we made necklaces out of pennies, and spent hours practicing military drills in the basement of the Methodist church. I even won a neckerchief clasp for winning a "drill off " -- correctly doing right, left, and about faces longer than anyone else in the den. I'm still not sure just why we were doing that.

Over the years, I've met a number of Eagle Scouts -- the ones who have made it all the way through the badges. I respect them. I hire them whenever I can, because I know that what they start, they finish.

I've been thinking about these things after hearing a presentation about the Scouts at a recent Rotary meeting. Scoutmaster Mike Kruger passed around several scout manuals.

The oldest, featuring a striking cover of a transparent Indian chief rising from a campfire, was the fifth printing of the Handbook, published in 1948. I turned to the section on citizenship, and found this:

"What Others Have Done for You

"Your heritage has not been won in battles alone. The electric light, the telephone, the many advantages you enjoy are possible because of someone's hard work and sacrifice -- for you.

"The school you attend was built and is maintained so that you may have a better chance....

"Libraries, museums, and other institutions are maintained for your benefit. Scouting experiences are available to you because of the unselfish service of many people eager to help boys."

By the 11th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook, published in 1998, a somewhat different message was in evidence:

"Every time you run across a playground, visit a museum or a zoo, or read a book in a library, you are using community resources... Of course, a library without readers has no purpose. A zoo without visitors won't stay open long. A concert hall lacking an audience is doomed to close. You can help keep community resources full of life by using them."

Between these two passages I see profound shift in the value of the public sector. In the first, post-World War II version, the idea is that adults care so much about the opportunities afforded their young, that they were willing to sacrifice to build important institutions.

By just before the year 2000, the message about the public sector is this: Use it, or lose it.

I detect other differences as well. Earlier versions of the Boy Scout Handbook focus on responsibilities: your obligations as a citizen, an emphasis on honor, a respect for the labor of your elders. Later versions focus instead on your rights and freedoms.

To put the matter financially, it's the difference between advising people to work hard to build up a solid savings account, or urging them to go on a shopping spree.

This is not to say that those were the good old days, and these are the bad. The post-War years were also a time of political machines, McCarthyism, and worse.

Nor is it my intent to denigrate the private sector. The American standard of living is unparalleled on the planet -- the innovations and productivity of the private sector is the primary reason.

But I think our society is heading for trouble in the rising sentiment that all public institutions are inherently flawed, coercive, dirty, doomed, or irrelevant. Public service, like private industry, depends upon a pool of talent. As I listen to people chatting in restaurants and coffee shops, it's surprising how often I hear people speak ill of government. All government.

If we parents consistently send this message to our children, we not only unravel some important elements of community, we also turn away the best and brightest of the next generation from a possible career in the public sector.

If we succeed, I can guarantee that the next folks who pick up the reins of power will not be good scouts.

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

May 3, 2000 - Difficult Gifts/Great Books

[This week's column is written by John Sheehan, a Board member of the Douglas County School District. John was responsible for the recent "Difficult Gifts" Great Books Seminar. I asked him to report on this highly successful program.]

In 1952, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago, asked us to imagine a time in which the younger generation and the adult community drew common inspiration and understanding from a shared set of great literature. "We could," Dr. Hutchins wrote, "talk to one another then."

As a member of the Board of Education in Douglas County, I have often felt that this vision is merely a chimera to be chased in vain, itself too often chased off by the realities and pressures of a society too impatient to see its value. But, just a few weeks ago, that vision took on very real dimensions. Two dozen adults and two dozen high school students met for three evenings to talk to one another about an important moral issue - childhood.

We did not use some new-fangled technique for facilitating "consensus" on this difficult issue. Instead, each of us agreed to a few simple rules that have stood the test of time:

1. We came prepared to discuss our ideas on an equal playing field by reading from a common set of texts taken from great literature.
2. We were committed to expressing and supporting our ideas through evidence we could all relate to in our shared readings.
3. We were committed to open and honest dialogue.
4. We sought enlightenment from each other's ideas and perspectives.

The roughly 50 participants were split into three groups to participate in what have come to be known as "Great Books seminars". With the help of seminar leaders from Hutchins' very own Great Books Foundation in Chicago, adults and students talked to each other about childhood, guided each evening by a particular reading. William James, William Faulkner and Mary Shelley acted as our teachers.
In a sense, what we did was a very literal realization of Dr. Hutchins' vision. We came together to prove a point - that, starting from common sources of wisdom, both young and old COULD indeed talk more truly to one another. The result was astounding. We created, if only for three nights, a genuine community built across the generational divide on a foundation of shared enquiry and learning. It was pretty powerful stuff.

But, don't take my word on the results. Surveys given throughout the week and at the end of the project hint at the impact that these seminars had on both the adults and the students. If you need to see numbers, consider these simple stats:

1. Every participant indicated that they wanted to see more opportunities for adult-student great books seminars;
2. All but one participant told us that they planned to participate in future seminars, if offered;
3. Asked to rate the Great Books seminar as a tool for learning on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the best possible response), adult responses averaged 4.79. Student responses averaged 4.84. I've been involved in a lot of school-sponsored activities, and I have never seen such universally high endorsements.

The numbers only tell half the story. One particularly poised student told us there are many more students in her school who want the kind of opportunities for intellectual engagement that these seminars offer. In many ways, she finds her classroom environments are, in contrast to what happened in these seminars, often dull, uninviting and unchallenging.

Why is that? Rarely do we give our high school students the respect and credit that they deserve when it comes to asking for their views on important questions affecting their lives and ours. "Even in my English class," wrote one student, "we have a discussion such as this. Here, however, [we are allowed] to make judgments and debate values concerning topics much more important and interesting dealing in the society today." These students are hungry for a chance to talk to adults about moral issues. Great Books seminars offer them this chance to raise difficult and genuinely unanswerable questions - questions that they will ponder for the rest of their lives.

The adults responded with equal alacrity. In a world of work filled with constant deadlines and a world of leisure mostly filled with vacuous entertainment, we too are starved for intellectual engagement. One participant's comment simply read "Please - more discussions!"

This pilot project was a success by any measure you choose to consider. So what's next? Therein lies the ultimate measure of success. The worse thing we could do now is to allow the spark we have ignited here to die out. I, for one, feel morally compelled to take steps to encourage our community and our schools to adopt Great Books seminars. We do offer Junior Great Books programs for students in the classroom, but not nearly enough. The adult-student format is unique. Now that we know how powerful it can be, lets begin offering it through our schools, libraries, churches, and businesses. The Douglas County Educational Foundation and the Douglas Public Library Districtóthe two community organizations who made this project possible - will be looking for ways to continue and expand these seminars. Want to get involved? Feel free to contact me at (303) 932-2628.