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, November 29, 2000

November 29, 2000 - The Individual Versus Society

When I was in high school, I got deep into the works of Ayn Rand. Then I took a class from a guy who infuriated me. His subject was sociology. When he asked the question, "Who came first: the individual or society?" I knew the answer. The individual. Of course.

But the teacher said I was wrong. The right answer, he said, was "society." Without society, he said, you would have no self, would not have opinions about culture because there would be no culture. You would be an animal.

I would retort: what is society but the sum of individual accomplishments?

And he would reply: what is the individual but the sum of social accomplishments?

We spent through the rest of the school year snarling at each other, each of us refusing to back down. In short, as I have seen too often in my life since, things devolved to the point where both of us simply stopped listening to each other. Both of us were convinced that it was pointless, that the opposition was just too stupid to get it.

Well, I'm a little older now, and while I still believe in the importance of the individual -- I believe, in fact, that a society should be judged primarily on how well it protects individual liberties -- I also see some of what my teacher was getting at. My interpretation is a little softer, however.

Part of my life experience is centered around libraries. The value of the library can be measured in two ways.

First is the incalculable joy of finally finding a kindred spirit. If you have never loved a book, I mean loved it so fiercely that you bitterly resented every instant you had to spend eating, sleeping, or anything else that kept you away from that book, then ... I pity you. I've had maybe seven books like that, books that made worlds so powerful, so convincing, so right that I knew that was where I truly belonged. Those were times of exaltation and joy.

So ask the reader who has found those seven books, and he or she will tell you: the quality of the library is directly proportional to how many of those specific books the reader stumbled across. It's an individual experience. The place where you find a holy book is forever a temple to you.

But then I look at things from the administrative angle. The value of the library is the fact that it represents a cumulative experience. Whole civilizations have risen and fallen without grasping a tenth of the key knowledge captured in the World Book Encyclopedia. And there it is, just sitting there on our index tables. Free.

I review our statistics and see the number of kids who attended story times; the number of adults who attended meetings; the number of questions answered by our crack reference librarians; the number of titles recommended to young adults looking for some diversion. And the aggregate of all those activities, the fact that all of those resources are housed in a series of buildings right here in Douglas County, is remarkable. The library is the sum of lives stretching back 5,000 years.

And, therefore, every library patron who walks through our doors is just a little sharper, a little more ahead of the game, than those folks who don't come to see us.

It's like the child who grows up in a big family where lots of people tell him stories. He just knows more, understands how things fit.

A child who doesn't grow up in a family like that is still an individual, is still smart. But he doesn't have as much to work with.

So which came first? The individual or society?

Doesn't matter. The fact is, we are individuals within a society, both of it, and capable of changing it. A library is a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

November 22, 2000 - Tattered Cover and Customer Privacy

I have long been an admirer of Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore. I've even had the pleasure of working with her on several efforts to resist censorship.

Joyce doesn't just sell books, she really believes in the whole idea of an untrammeled world of ideas. She has lost customers by bringing in certain authors for book signings. This isn't an issue of left versus right, liberal versus conservative. Through her author invitations, she has offended both ends of the spectrum. Joyce believes that people have the right to think, speak, write, and read what they will. She literally puts her money where her mouth is.

Joyce is in the news again. She's seeking to block a subpoena forcing her to provide customer records to the police. Her notion -- almost quaint in an age of ever more invasive electronic attacks on privacy -- is that what you buy from a bookstore is a confidential transaction.

I'm not sure I can accurately summarize the police position. I believe they found a book at the scene of a crime, and that both involved the making of methamphetamine. A Tattered Cover invoice was also present at the scene. The police are seeking customer records from Tattered Cover to link the book to one of several persons under suspicion of the crime.

Joyce states that if her customers believe that business records about what books people purchase can be opened to governmental review, and that buying a book on a subject bespeaks an intent to commit a crime, this will have a "chilling effect" on her business. I think she's right.

I once faced a similar situation. I used to work in an Illinois library as the head of a large circulation department. The local police came to me with a library book, found at the place where arson was suspected. It was their only real lead. As in Colorado, I was forbidden to reveal this information UNLESS a subpoena were presented. First, though, I tried to verify that we had the information. I discovered that the book hadn't been checked out at all.

It should surprise no one to learn that somebody who steals a library book is capable of other crimes.

But Joyce has raised some troubling questions. Most people would grant that police work is important and difficult. Most of the time, cooperation with duly constituted authority is reasonable.

But for civil libertarians and others, alarm bells begin to sound when the government seeks to expand its ability to monitor not just what citizens DO, but what they are thinking about.

Have you ever read a book about something that was a crime? Or something that might one day be considered a crime?

Have you ever done a student report on drugs, or famous robberies? Have you, as a citizen, investigated charges of official corruption?

Just how eager should we be to start locking up people, or seeking to lock them up, on the basis of what strikes their curiosity? At what point does the attempt to catch crooks begin to make crooks of us all?

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

November 15, 2000 - Acting is Reading With Your Whole Body

It all started with a script -- "Greater Tuna."

Award winning director, Katie Damp (Best Director, "Raisin in the Sun," down in Colorado Springs last year), gave me the Tuna script some months ago and asked if I'd be interested in one of the leads in the two man show. She offered the other part to David Truhler, an enormously talented and experienced actor -- most recently seen as "Ali Hakim" in "Oklahoma."

I thought Tuna was hilarious. And there was one part I really, really wanted to play: Bertha Bumiller. Bertha was a Texan gal who headed up the Subcommittee to Snatch Books off the Shelves of the Local High School Library.

I've sat on the other side of the table of people like Bertha, and I've often thought they get to have more fun than I do. I am a professional librarian, and the odds of my getting to say the things she said ("There are four books we're going to try to have removed nationwide"), were pretty slim. So I told Katie to sign me up.

I suppose it should have occurred to me at the time that I'd also have to undergo some physical changes. Of my 8 characters, two of them are women.

The last time I had been clean-shaven was 1977, for exactly one week. My children, even my wife, had never seen my face. David's kids had never seen his face, either.

I don't know about David's family, but here's how my family took it. Six year old son: "You look better with a beard." Thirteen year old daughter: "You look weird." Wife of 17 years: "Ugh." As for me, my face was still my face, although another chin had somehow crept in. Shaving my upper lip for the first time in over a decade, I nearly sliced off my nose.

Another change: I am near-sighted, with mild astigmatism. My characters couldn't wear glasses. Without glasses, I couldn't see.

So I went to my eye doctor, who prescribed a novel solution: off the shelf, disposable contact lenses -- for a single eye. I walked out with one eye adjusted for distance, and one eye naked to the world (but capable of reading). I had never worn contact lenses before. Learning to touch my eye was ... interesting.

Then we mixed in the costuming. Gwen Nappo, who has an uncanny ability to find cheap, character-appropriate clothing in metropolitan thrift shops, outfitted David and me in some wacky outfits. Dresses. Wigs. Bolo ties. Slippers.

Individually, all of these changes made sense, sort of. But one day I realized that in the space of just a few weeks I had gone from a bearded, bespectacled, soft-spoken library director, to a clean-shaven man standing on a stage in a dress, tights, and heels, peering out of one good eye, and hollering at people.


My kids thought this was swell. Perry (the six year old) caught every rehearsal he could. Both he and Maddy helped me with the 49 pages of lines to be learned. Maddy became one of our fleet-fingered back stage dressers. And my wife picked up the slack in life as I became ever more monomaniacal.

Throughout the process, I've been aided tremendously not only by the sharp-eyed directorial corrections of Katie, but also by David's all-out comic genius. This boy has brought me to the point of near-incontinence, just by walking across the room in character. I'm also grateful for the stage management of Diane Sortore, and the sound and lighting skills of Ryan Williams and Seth Alison.

I am told that many people don't like change. And although I'll admit that all of these shifts in appearance and behavior do have their moments of stress, I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid.

I think "change" is why most people read -- we all have a longing for adventure and transformation. That's what keeps libraries in business. But the acting piece takes that one step further. Theater, finally, is just reading with your whole body.
"Greater Tuna," while itself a play more suitable for adults than young kids, is primarily designed to raise some money for Castle Rock Players, which has a focus on youth. Hence this column: please consider attending one of the shows this weekend.

The shows will be held at Kirk Hall, November 17-19. Friday and Saturday, there are performances at 8 p.m. Saturday, there will be a special matinee at 2 p.m. -- which allows people to get out in time to attend Castle Rock's Starlighting Ceremony. Sunday, we'll have a final performance at 4 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults, and $10 for seniors. To reserve tickets, call 303-814-7740.

Wednesday, November 8, 2000

November 8, 2000 - Information as Entertainment

Recently I had the opportunity to visit with some librarians on the Western Slope. Our main topic was Amendment 21. They were very concerned that rural library funding was going to be decided by the majority of voters who lived on the Front Range.

As one of the librarians pointed out to me, folks in the Denver metropolitan area have a rich array of cultural offerings: museums, art galleries, universities, theaters, ballet companies, and more.

On the Western Slope, for many communities, the library is it. That is, the public library is often the sole cultural amenity for many miles. To have metro people decide library funding in rural areas is a little like asking the rich if they think the poor have enough.

Clearly, culture is important to people in rural areas -- they put their own money into it. There just aren't as many choices.

But here's something that gets little attention -- libraries aren't just "information" centers. They reflect the trend toward treating information as entertainment.

I've been saving a piece of data for several years, a "Fast Facts" report from the Library Research Service. It states, "The June 1997 issue of Survey of Current Business reported detailed national data on consumer spending on recreation from 1993 to 1995. By 1995, more than a third of those expenditures were for "information" -- that is, books and periodicals as well as audio and video cassettes, CD-ROMs, computer software packages, and the hardware they each require."

The report highlights several other findings, namely that Americans spend:

- four times as much on books as on tickets to movies OR sporting events;
- more on books and periodicals combined than on children's toys OR adult "toy's" such as cameras, boats, and exercise equipment;
- twice as much on electronic information and the equipment it requires as on amusement parks, bowling alleys, bus tours, dance halls, golf courses, skating rinks, and swimming pools combined.

Librarians and others often emphasize the business, civic, and research roles of the library. Information has uses.
But we overlook two key roles the library plays in today's life.

First, libraries provide a powerful cooperative purchasing agreement. We are the entity that joins all the book, CD, and magazine clubs, scouting out the best deals so you don't have to.

Second, the presence of a well-funded library is an important component of a community's quality of life. With "information" such a growing part of consumer spending, Chambers of Commerce should latch onto and boost libraries much as they have schools. Access to a library is an economic value to a town. And based on the data concerning where people actually put their money, books are of greater importance than, for instance, the presence of sport fields or movie theaters.

This isn't to say that the presence of the library completely replaces the need for all those other cultural amenities. I always think of this as the convenience store phenomenon. Ever wonder why right next to a big new grocery store, you can find at least one convenience store?

Because it does well there. A strong library fuels the consumer demand for a book store, for a video store, for theaters of both filmed and live performance -- whetting the appetite for culture even as it feeds it.

I would sum it up like this. Libraries -- now that's entertainment!

Wednesday, November 1, 2000

November 1, 2000 - Patron Comment Cards

You see them everywhere. Sometimes they're called "complaint cards." Sometimes they're "suggestions," or "comments." Sometimes they're "quality check cards."

My favorite was one that we had right in the Philip S. Miller Library some 10 years ago. The forms were stacked below a box with a big sign over it that said: "How are you feeling?"

That sign so bemused me, I filled out a card myself. "Fine," I wrote. "How are you?" Then we tried to make the form a little more specific to libraries.

The purpose of such cards and forms is plain: the establishment is seeking feedback from its customers. Why? Several reasons come to mind.

1. Because it's trying to catch its employees doing something right. Assuming that management takes the time to do employee evaluations, it's always pleasant and useful to be able to rattle off a list of compliments -- especially when they have been earned.

2. Because its trying to catch its employees -- or the business itself -- doing something wrong. All too often, problems are only revealed after they've gotten big. Comment cards can help catch those problems when they're still small, and more easily addressed.

3. Because sometimes customers have great ideas for the improvement of services. Free consulting!

4. Because the manager longs to hear that the customer is thrilled with the service.

OK, maybe that's just me. As Assistant Director, I once had the responsibility (at another library) for setting up a big bulletin board of patron suggestions and complaints. My job was to write and post the responses. I braced myself for a flood of "what an impressive library!" comments. And maybe, just maybe, a "What a great assistant director!"

That's not what I got, of course. I got, "You're out of toilet paper." Or "How come nobody ever picks up the cigarette butts outside the front door?"

The sad truth is, people are more motivated to offer criticism than praise. Another sad truth is that sometimes criticism is necessary.

These days, most of our libraries offer some kind of comment sheet. (We will soon offer one on our Internet site, as well.) These go to the managers, and sometimes the managers refer them to me, usually when a pattern becomes clear.

For instance, we got a whole lot of complaints about our Internet workstations at Highlands Ranch. We had implemented a pretty interesting new technology called "disk on a chip," that looked like it might save us a lot of money. It didn't work, as our patrons made most pointedly clear. Result: a complete overhaul of the system, which involved moving from the "skinny client" to the "thin client" network model we have used successfully at our other locations for the past couple of years. (It even SOUNDS healthier, doesn't it?) By the time this column hits print, the problem should be resolved.

The general pattern at our other libraries is fairly predictable. People want more sit down Internet stations, more Harry Potter, quieter kids, etc.

But, according to Claudine Perrault, Manager of our Lone Tree Library, "every once in a while, something original or adorable comes along. For instance, tonight I received this request from a child:

'I want a pool and a dog.' He signed his name and left his phone number. Perhaps he thinks librarians have Santa's ear?"