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, September 27, 2000

September 27, 2000 - Quotations

I have a weakness. I love quotations. Along with dictionaries, collections of quotes are the most seductive books I know.

Start, for instance, with the magnificent "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" (16th edition, edited by Justin Kaplan). I consider this an absolutely essential contribution to any home library.

As Winston Churchill put it, "It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations. Bartlett's 'Familiar Quotations' is an admirable work, and I studied it intently. The quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts. They also make you anxious to read the authors and look for more."

But there are many quotations, even those of famous people, that don't wind up in authorized collections. They abound on the Internet. Take another Churchill quote: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Here's another: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

Quotations are one of the dangers of the public life. People remember what you said. This leads to such awkward moments as as that of Clinton aide George Stephanopolous, speaking on Larry King Live, "The President has kept all of the promises he intended to keep." One imagines our President to believe, as Tom Stoppard said, that "It is better to be quotable than to be honest."

As another, extremely quotable politician from another era observed, "Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that sometimes he has to eat them" (Adlai Stevenson). Or (to get in an inning for the other team) one J. Danforth Quayle has been justly immortalized for his pithy remark in an address to the United Negro College Fund, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is very wasteful."

As a librarian, I am, naturally enough, interested in quotes about books. Moses Hadas, a reviewer, wryly noted about one title that, "This book fills a much-needed gap."

The always subversive Ambrose Bierce once said, "The covers of this book are too far apart."

But not only writers have opinions about other writers. I like the comment of heavyweight boxer Tony Galento, when asked what he thought of William Shakespeare: "I'll moider da bum."

The great philosopher, Marx (I mean, of course, Groucho Marx), has two of my favorite quotes: "From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it." The second: "I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it."

I admit to a fondness for the unexpected response. There's this one, attributed to a Quaker who had been slapped on one cheek, turned the other one, and got slapped again: "Now that the scriptures have been fulfilled, I shall proceed to beat the hell out of thee."

And there's the irrepressible Voltaire. On his death bed, a priest implored him to renounce Satan. Voltaire responded, "Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies."

Quotations can offer sage advice. Consider Jimmy Durante's, "Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down." They can be provocative, as in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

But finally, my favorite quotations are the ones that make you laugh. I leave you with Will Rogers: "If Stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?"

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

September 20, 2000 - Building Community

I've just returned from the annual conference of the Colorado Library Association. The association has over 1000 members now, and its annual conference is an opportunity for people to share what theyíve learned, listen to (and challenge) some national leaders and thinkers, and socialize.

My first day of the conference was spent in a session about building community. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Kathleen McCook, happens to have been one of my teachers back in library school. She told a disturbing story: over the past thirty years or so, library science faculty have disengaged.

This could be demonstrated in two ways. First is the virtual disappearance of the word "library" from library schools. They're all schools of information studies, now.

Why the change? Because faculty, like most other people, seek status. And on campus thereís more respect for sexy technology-related studies than anything so mundane as working in a library.

There ís a direct negative consequence to all this: it ís getting hard to find classes on some fairly fundamental public library skills. There are fewer classes on how to develop services for children. There are fewer classes on the management of the public library. All this is happening just as an older generation of librarians (that did have these classes), is nearing retirement.

There is more to libraries than computers. Or to put it another way, computers are tools for libraries, not the other way around.

A second community related issue also involves library faculty. Library faculty, even 20 years ago, tended to be very visible in professional associations. They served on committees that formed policies, devised planning documents, and otherwise engaged with the practical issues of librarianship. But these days, according to Dr. McCook, it's a little harder to get these folks out of their ivory towers, not only to attend professional library meetings, but to truly connect to the world outside academia.

Their current distance hurts them because it isolates them from the vitality of library practice. What they don't know, they can't teach.

Finally then, McCook issued a call to arms. Library faculty need to immerse themselves not only in their professional associations, but also in their immediate communities.

In trying to test this theory, Dr. McCook did two things. First, she threw herself into her own community, showing up at meetings that had never seen librarians before.

Second, she started digging through the literature by and about libraries looking for people who practiced this new approach. Her idea was this: instead of pleading with people to use libraries (or waiting for the community to find us), we need to go to the community to see if we can help them solve THEIR problems.

She then introduced some panelists. One of them, Annette Choszczyk (CHOE-zik) works in Glendale, Colorado, where a tiny, tiny branch of the Arapahoe Library District suddenly found itself overwhelmed by a flood of Russian immigrants.

The library rose to the challenge. They launched volunteer-based English instruction classes. They formed book discussion groups. They bought computers and software to allow their new patrons to write letters back home in Russian.

Today, the library has a whole floor of classroom space, an astonishing collection of foreign language materials, and employs a good many Russians. The library is the unofficial welcoming station for perhaps as many as 40,000 new American residents in the Denver metropolitan area.

In the process, the library earned extraordinary respect from all the people around them. Librarians began to be the ones everybody naturally thought of when it came to the need for help or advice. Librarians now attend city council meetings and sit on advisory boards. The ultimate compliment might be something the mayor of Glendale said. To him, the library was the best symbol of what Glendale could be: a responsive institution that valued and celebrated its people.

In short, by challenging herself and her peers, my professor discovered something that applies to all librarians, not just library school faculty. Librarians belong to their communities. Our choice is engagement or retreat, success or failure, meaning or meaninglessness.

It's a powerful lesson.

Thank you, Dr. McCook. I,m still learning from you, and it still takes a lot of work to get a good grade.

Wednesday, September 13, 2000

September 13, 2000 - Dr. Laura Comes to Denver TV

Dr. Laura is coming to town. Rumored to have over 18 million listeners of her radio program, she is launching a new television show. Locally, she'll be on Channel 9.

What does that have to do with libraries? Well, new TV shows of a certain kind have to make a local splash, stir up a little controversy, to get people to watch them. And Dr. Laura has decided that the great issue of our times is pornography in libraries.

Most recently, the 15 year old daughter of a member of Dr. Laura's staff was sent to the Denver Public Library with some hi tech equipment and a dubious task. The equipment: a secret camera attached to a pair of glasses. The task: to find evidence of people looking at pornography on public Internet terminals, to look at pornography herself, and to check out an R-rated video.

She succeeded. Her video is the centerpiece for Dr. Laura's first program in the Denver area.

While I don't claim to speak for all librarians, I do have some observations about all this.

First, let's look at the job of the public library. Our mission is pretty simple: to provide public access to information (where "information" is used in its most general sense). The Internet, the World Wide Web, is but the latest tool to fulfill that mission.

Based on careful analysis of Internet traffic (what library web page selections our patrons click on, what URLs people enter, what search terms our patrons use) I have a pretty solid notion of how this tool is employed at our libraries.

Ready for the shocking truth? The World Wide Web is used ... for research -- homework assignments, company profiles, consumer purchases, and popular news topics. It is used, in fact, pretty much the same way our books are used.

Librarians have spent a great deal of time and talent selecting, and in some cases creating, high quality web-based resources. Not only that, we offer a host of classes that help parents and children learn to use the World Wide Web effectively.

In short, we make a positive contribution to the ever-growing volume of Internet resources, focusing on authoritative and useful data. In this, we fulfill our mission, and can demonstrate that the public makes altogether appropriate use of it.

Does that mean that "anything goes?" No. Libraries are still public space. Our Internet terminals, at every one of our libraries, are placed within easy line-of-sight supervision by our staff. On occasion, typically when a couple of people start giggling in front of a screen, one of our staff wanders over to see if they need assistance. A gentle and civil intervention has always been sufficient for us to restore decorum.

Is there pornography on the World Wide Web? Of course. It has a way of following every publishing media. Librarians aren't responsible for that, and we have neither the authority nor the means to stamp it out.

Can children and adults get to sexy pictures through library terminals? Sure, if they go looking for them. No library web page will direct them there.

Couldn't libraries use so-called "filtering software" to prevent children from stumbling across things their parents don't want them to see?

Well, some libraries do use such software. At present, the Douglas Public Library District uses it at the Internet terminals located in the children's room. We do not, however, use it on terminals elsewhere. This is the same principle we use for the rest of our collection: the books in the children's room are different from the ones in the rest of the building.

Why not use filtering software on all terminals? Because filtering software has two persistent problems: it fails to block much of what it purports to (sexy pictures, "hate speech," etc.), but succeeds in blocking many things that are perfectly innocuous, and often quite useful.

Vendors of filtering products consider what they block (which keywords, which specific sites) to be trade secrets. In other words, they don't tell you exactly what they block or why. Frankly, I'd rather trust the librarian I know than the software provider I don't, to decide what the public may be permitted to view. Even if one of Dr. Laura's sponsors happens to be such a vendor.

Is there an "epidemic" of pornography at the library? No more so than in the rest of our culture.

If you don't want your children to seek pornography, or watch R-rated videos, then I have a suggestion. Tell them not to, and tell them why. If they do it anyhow, hold them accountable for that decision.

But trust me, no matter what you see on TV, America's biggest problem is not that children are spending too much time at the library.

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

September 6, 2000 - Maddy Turns 13

Today my daughter becomes a teenager.

This is, of course, impossible. Maddy, my sweet daughter, was just born the other ... Oh my God.

I'm reminded of my Aunt Edith, who told me on the eve of my 13th birthday that something horrible was going to happen to me the next day. She asked me not to take it personally, but she said she really didn't want to talk to me for the next seven years. She was perfectly serious.

But I'm not Aunt Edith. I WANT Maddy to keep talking to me. She is one of my favorite conversationalists. From her first word ("dad"), I have found her absolutely fascinating.

She was a dreamy yet serious child. When she was about three, we were driving through a snowstorm one night. She mused quietly, "Some people call them snowflakes. But I call them starflakes."

But it isn't just Maddy's conversation that interests me. We once threw a party and entertained some 20 guests. At the end of the party, Maddy, then four or five, went into the bedroom and brought out everybody's coat, matching each one to its owner without hesitation, even for the folks she hadn't seen when they arrived.

As a student, Maddy was almost frighteningly well-organized. Once we asked her about an upcoming test. She informed us that she'd been studying up for it, 15 minutes every night for the past two weeks. Her idea.

I remember her acting debut, when she played a middle aged farm wife so convincingly, so engagingly, that I was utterly bewildered. Where did my daughter go?

I could go on. I have thousands of mental snapshots and audiorecordings of her.

In brief, Maddy is the best evidence I have seen for evolution. Or as my wife puts it, "It's hard to raise a child who is more mature than you are."

Maddy was our firstborn. That means that she changed us. She made us aware, as no one really is until they have children.

She made us aware of the future. We took out insurance policies, established savings accounts. We thought about a house not in terms of its costs or shopping convenience, but its nearness to schools, parks, libraries, other children to play with.

Before Maddy, my own awareness of the political and cultural environment was probably best summed up as: "live and let live." I got by fine, whatever the set-up.

But after Maddy, I was passionately concerned about the state of our schools, the efficacy and integrity of public officials. I became radicalized, an activist for causes I ignored before. What kind of world was this for Maddy to grow up in?

As is the case with so many other new parents, we rediscovered the public library: an almost inexhaustible source of books on health (to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, when to potty train, brain development), free story times, a place to meet other parents and children, children's videos, and children's literature in all its glory.

We saw the world anew through the eyes of our shining daughter. What we saw connected us to the society around us, invested us in it both emotionally and financially, made us a part of our culture in ways we had not been before, made us better people, better citizens, more aware of the responsibility one generation has to another.

And now she is a teenager. Incredible.

Happy Birthday, Maddy. Thank you.