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, August 30, 2000

August 30, 2000 - Community Partnerships

On a daily basis, Perry, my six year old son, cruises the neighborhood looking for somebody to play with. He'll talk to anybody. When he connects, which is more times than not, he's suddenly full of new enthusiasms.

So he'll walk in the door abruptly agog over Japanese action figures. Or he begins leaping around the house doing spin kicks.

Some of these enthusiasms vanish as quickly as they arrive. Most often, this coincides with a story about somebody who decides that he's too old to play with little kids. Or somebody is "mean."

But Perry doesn't mope around about it. He just finds somebody else to play with.

The same thing happens with organizations. Libraries have a good record for forming partnerships -- and what are partnerships except organizations playing with each other?

One of our longest standing partnerships is with publishers. Long before a book is published -- sometimes years before -- we've gotten the advance catalog and placed our orders. These days, add in the catalogs and previews for books on tape, videos, CDs, and more. As with all partnerships, we've worked out some procedures that make it easier for us to play together: discounts, automated order systems, favorable shipping costs, and so on.

Another long standing partner is the educational community. Yes, our local schools have their own libraries. But they usually aren't open at night, or over the weekend. So people come to us to help them do their homework.

More recently, we've expanded this support in two directions. We provide library resources for charter school students, who often don't have a school library at all. We are also a lifeline for Douglas County's many homeschoolers, who are some of our most dedicated and savviest library consumers.

Yet another partner is the local newspaper. What could be more natural? Both of us depend upon a key constituency: people who both read and are curious about the world around them. In Douglas County, that partnership includes such things as running library columns, the joint development of web-based local resources (the online version of the Douglas County Guide, for instance), and a host of services that publicize library events, promote literacy generally, and encourage the exercise of informed citizenship.

We've teamed up with Chambers of Commerce. One example is our keen interest and participation in Leadership Douglas County. Another is the series of workshops we've provided on searching the Internet. Yet another is our purchase of various electronic databases to support local small office/home office businesses.

We've formed alliances with governmental agencies, providing space for elections, meeting rooms for hot issues and subcommittees, and occasionally helping to launch a joint project, as in the Building a Generation initiative. Library staff have even moderated public debates, trading on our reputation for neutrality and balanced information.

We've partnered with developers, obtaining choice property in exchange for the guarantee of a steady flow of traffic. Public libraries make ideal anchor tenants.

We've teamed up with senior centers and daycares -- providing direct service to some of our most insightful constituents in exchange for a connection that enriches all of us.

We've partnered with hundreds of community volunteers, sometimes allowing them to do projects that fulfill their own aims (Boy Scouts earning badges), to helping our patrons discharge their debts to society (community service workers who help us keep the library surroundings tidy).

Community partnerships: just another way of getting to know your neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

August 23, 2000 - Presidential Portraits at Highlands Ranch

Our new Highlands Ranch Library is intended to be the first public building in the new downtown of a city. But what does it mean to be a "public building?"

The most obvious definition is that it was funded by, and opens it doors to, everybody. In the case of a library, that means it also provides access to a collection of materials, purchased cooperatively, and accessible to all.

But there's more than that. A public building serves a public purpose -- a goal that to a previous generation fell under the heading of "civic."

One of the overt signs of this civic connection is the flagpole, proudly flying the American flag.

Another way that the public library celebrates its civic roots is to host programs and exhibits that explore our local, historic, political, or artistic heritage.

So I am pleased to announce that from August 24 to September 3, the Highlands Ranch Library will be housing an exhibit called "American Presidents: Life Portraits." This exhibit, sponsored by C-SPAN and ATT&T Broadband (which is handling all local arrangements), features 41 oil paintings of our Presidents. The artist, Chas Fagan, will be on hand during our kickoff of the exhibit (August 24, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) to answer questions. A media reception is planned -- as well as some corresponding activities for our younger citizens, fresh out of story time (9:30 a.m.).

These paintings were commissioned by C-SPAN to complement their recent television series (concluding in December of last year) of the same name. The exhibit has since showed up at both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions. During the Presidential campaign, the exhibit will continue to travel around the country, although Colorado and California are the only two western states that will be visited this year.

The Douglas Public Library District is pleased to be one of the hosts for this fascinating and highly accomplished retrospective on American leadership, and is grateful to AT&T Broadband for bringing this exhibit to our patrons.

More information about American presidents can be found at C-SPAN's website at www.americanpresidents.org -- and, of course, your local library.


A second district event occurs the day after the Presidential Portraits kickoff. On August 25, all Douglas Public Library District branches will be closed while we have our annual Staff Day. On this day, we gather in our 200 employees for a day of continuing education workshops.

The format of these days varies some from year to year. What doesn't change is the need to touch base with one another, to put faces to the voices we talk to on the phone each day.

This year we will be talking to some of the "competition" -- leaders from other Colorado libraries. We'll ask what we can learn from their experiences.

We'll also do something I think is crucial: asking our own staff what issues most need to be addressed in the coming year. I have my own ideas, but I know that sometimes the folks at the front line of library services have knowledge and insights that I don't. This is one of my best opportunities to gather those insights.

The other side of being a public institution is what happens behind the scenes. In libraries, that means a continuous commitment to service. In turn, that sometimes calls for a series of adjustments to better reflect the times we live in.

As it is with the American electorate, so it is for library staff: this is the beginning of the season for decisions about our future.

Wednesday, August 16, 2000

August 16, 2000 - Videos and Fines

Videos came into library collections about 15 years ago. Right off the bat, they were very popular. They were so popular, in fact, that we applied some internal controls to ensure that people would get them back quickly so other people could check them out.

Most library materials go out these days for two weeks. But when we first offered videos, they went out for just 3 days.

Most library materials have a fine of a nickel a day -- more of a gentle reminder than a threat. But with videos, we charged fifty cents a day. We REALLY wanted them back.

But our collection of videos has grown over the years. We have over 15,000 of them -- about 4% of all of our holdings. Videos continue to be popular -- accounting for over 13% of our total checkouts in 1999. The most popular videos, incidentally, are children's.

Over the past year, we've been trying to simplify library procedures. Consistent rules are not only easier for the public to remember, but for staff to interpret.

At a recent staff meeting, we realized that we spend a lot of time explaining videos fines. It isn't always a happy discourse. Too, we've noticed that the people who get stuck with the biggest fines tend to be parents of small children.

So we asked two questions, "Has our fine structure outlived its usefulness?" and "Are we punishing some of our best customers?" After some discussion, our managers concluded that the answer to both of these questions was, "Yes."

So effective immediately, I'm lowering our fines for videos from fifty cents a day to a nickel a day, the same as (almost) everything else.

We also talked about bumping up the loan period for videos. But we had already moved the loan period from 3 days to a 1 week checkout some time ago. Most of our staff felt that that was still about right. People tend to keep out our materials almost exactly as long as we check them out.

If my experience is any guide, videos tend to stick around until the day before I have to take them back. Then I watch them. A week is generous -- two weeks means we'll just have a lot of videos sitting unused in people's houses. So the one week loan period for videos will remain.

At this point, we have just two other exceptions now to our general rule of a 2 week loan period and a nickel a day fine. Interlibrary Loan materials -- that is, items that we borrow from other libraries -- may be checked out for something other than 2 weeks if that's the restriction placed on us as a condition of borrowing. These materials will continue to have fines of fifty cents a day because the items do not belong to us, and we need to encourage people to bring them back promptly.

The other exception is Educational Materials. This category doesn't have a great many members, but includes such things as the Hooked on Phonics tapes. Items in this category have three characteristics:

(1) They tend to be designed for a longer period of use -- typically, a month. Hence, the loan period for these materials is one month, without renewal.

(2) They tend to have long waiting lists. This means, again, that we want them to keep moving. Hence, we have a higher fine: $1 a day past the due date.

(3) They are expensive, running hundreds of dollars instead of $15 or $20 (closer to our average cost for library materials. This too speaks to the higher fine rate.

Nonetheless, by changing the video fines, we have taken a step toward regularizing procedures for the vast majority of all library materials. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 9, 2000

August 9, 2000 - Sturgeon's Law

I've been picking up a lot of old science fiction lately from library book sales. One of the greats is Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote many haunting stories. "More than Human" is probably the best known, about the emergence of a gestalt human being with mutant abilities. But Sturgeon is also the father of something called "Sturgeon's Law," which reads as follows: "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

That may sound cynical. But Sturgeon was not a cynical man. He was stating a statistical observation about the endurance of quality. Pick up a TV Guide sometime and apply your standards to the listings for any particular night, and you'll see what I mean.

I quoted Sturgeon's law the other day to a retired librarian, and said I thought it clearly applied to the World Wide Web. In the early days of the Internet, most of the content was supplied by research institutions. That meant that the quality tended to be very high.

But now anybody can put up a web page, and a good many anybodies have. Ninety percent of what's out there now, well, is crap. By that I mean it is ill-focused, rambling, often unattributed, erroneous, or content-free.

So this former librarian said, "What about our collections?" (meaning the books, movies, magazines, and other materials we buy for the public). He wanted to know whether I thought today's public library were a source of high, or low culture.

"Yes," I said.

You can find great books in the library. But they aren't the best used. You can find powerful and technically superior movies in the library. But the Barney videos are just as popular.

You can find thought-provoking and impeccably researched articles in our magazines. But they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by articles on how to get and hold a man, or the latest fashion in hair do-dads.

I gather all this used to make some librarians indignant. They felt that their job was to raise the moral tone of a community, and they could get a little huffy when the community didn't cooperate.

But today's librarians are, I think, both more honest, and less arrogant. As a consequence, our libraries are also far, far better used. Put baldly, we are not so powerful that anything we buy will be enthusiastically embraced by our patrons.

We don't direct the reading tastes of the public. We reflect them. We don't write the books on our shelves. We purchase them.

And the books that get published are the end result of a host of factors. Sometimes it's the topic itself that's interesting (the Titanic). Sometimes it's the approach that ensures popularity (kiss and tell). Sometimes it's the campaign to promote the book (the latest Harry Potter).

At any rate, many, many agents, authors, editors, book designers and distributors have a crack at a book long before they make it to the library. We're the last stop, not the first.

But I also wonder sometimes about the whole idea of "high" versus "low" culture. While I think I grasp the distinction between professional wrestling and the symphony, I can't help but remember that Shakespeare, in his day, was the treat of the peasants.

Ninety percent of what gets produced may well be crap. But that 10% that endures can be created in any age. And the surest test of its quality isn't necessarily who wrote it or approved of it at the time. There is only one test of cultural quality: endurance. And that 10% makes all the rest of it worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 2, 2000

August 2, 2000 - What is Wise?

Lately I've been thinking about a question I first ran across when I was in fifth grade. For three syllables, it packs a lot of punch.

What is wise?

My first encounter with this was through Plato. A librarian sent me home one day with a copy of the Dialogs, and I got hooked. The format was clever and engaging. That Socrates was a slippery rascal. He'd ask a few innocent questions, get perfectly reasonable answers, then prove that the answers were utterly foolish. I can't say I always followed just what was going on, but I could tell who was winning. It was sort of like wrestlemania with words.

But that one question really got to me. What does it mean to be wise?

Even today I find myself looking at the people around me and wondering. I know plenty of smart people, by which I mean quick. But some very quick people often seem to lack a basic understanding of the world around them.

I know plenty of learned people -- folks who went to prestigious schools and came back with fancy degrees. Sometimes their knowledge is very broad. They keep up with current events, and can talk about anything. Sometimes their learning is deep, but narrow. I'm thinking of people who spend their whole careers working with just one kind of technology, or specializing in the fifth year of the Tudor reign. Is that wise?

I've even known a few very successful people, by which I mean rich. They own a lot of stuff. But then, I've known some people I would call successful who owned very little. Rich might equal smart, sometimes, but it doesn't necessarily equal wise. On the other hand, wisdom might be a kind of success.

Famous? Puh-lease. O.J. Simpson is famous.

Effective? That seems to get a little closer to the mark. A wise leader, for instance, would be very effective. But it seems to me that he or she would be thinking long term, playing for gains that might not be immediately apparent.

How about loved? Well, I'm not sure that our culture, the American culture, places that much value on wisdom. I'm not sure we recognize it. I'm not sure we reward it. On occasion -- when a business leader focuses on long term rather than immediate return, I think we even punish wisdom. I think Socrates was wise, and he got the death sentence. That suggests that wisdom has NEVER had a lot of admirers.

Then is it desirable? Somehow, for me, it still seems that it is, more desirable than almost anything. It seems to me that wisdom has some element of peace to it, a reckoning of worth -- whether of word or deed -- that brings or finds meaning in the world.

Where do you find wisdom? I'm not sure. I wish I could tell you that all the answers can be found at the library. Many of them can be. But sometimes, you just have to settle for a few good questions.