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, January 31, 2001

January 31, 2001 - Colorado Council for Library Development

Librarianship has at least four dimensions. The first is the local level: this is the heart of library service.

The second is the regional level. Colorado, it happens, has 7 regional "systems." These small offices help libraries move materials around among themselves, and focus on various kinds of professional development and training.

Then there's the state level, where policies are made, cooperative strategies assembled, and money invested. Finally, there's the federal level.

I have to admit that I've done almost nothing at the federal level (a sprinkling of articles, a few talks). There's always enough happening closer to home to hold my interest.

For instance, I have recently had the privilege of being appointed to a body called the Colorado Council for Library Development.

Established in 1962, CCLD is "the principal advisory body to the State Board of Education, the State Librarian (Commissioner of Education), and the Assistant Commissioner... on library matters."

CCLD has a lot of members, drawn from public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries, library education institutions, regional library systems, special (or institutional) libraries, Trustees, and a smattering of general citizenry.

At my first meeting with this group, we focused on a variety of funding issues. The federal government, through a program called the Library Services and Technology Act, distributes a lot of money around the country. The State of Colorado, with advise from the Council, has the responsibility of divvying it up.

Much of the money is directed to people who submit competitive grants. This year, there are two rounds of these grants: one that addressed local needs (up to $10,000 each, for a total of $170,000), and ones that addressed statewide needs (up to a little over $600,000 together). I try to serve on grant-reading teams about every three or four years.

It's a crash course in what's going on in the state. The "little grants" gave me a good sense of the issues now facing Colorado's library and education communities. It also gives me a chance to find out what our own library ought to be working on.

One overwhelming statewide trend is the push for student achievement. Many school libraries are exploring the idea of various programmed reading approaches: methods that link selected readings with sequenced tests.

The same push also embraces the offerings of public libraries. Such longstanding staples as Summer Reading Programs have a distinct link to the maintenance of reading ability between grades. And the academic libraries are in on the act, too: who trains the teachers, and with what?

Another trend is the rising awareness of Colorado's increasing linguistic and cultural diversity. Many schools and libraries are finding the need to reach out to as many as 20 different language groups.

The "big grants" give another look at library issues. Once again, there's a marked focus on educational achievement. Several projects focused on helping school libraries build on the demonstrated effect of strong library programs on high student achievement.

But there were other projects, most having something to do with technology. There were programs focused on getting the new wealth of digital data (historic photographs, for instance) into the classrooms. Some programs centered on using wireless connections to get other digital content on the web.

At this moment, the final decisions about the grants have not been made, so I won't announce any winners here.

But here's the good news: your tax dollars, at both the statewide and federal level, go to fund a variety of programs that can have a powerful effect on people's lives. These grants, almost without exception, are predicated on the transformational power of reading and research.

Here's some more good news: the staff of the Douglas Public Library District are definitely keeping up with some of the most progressive ideas in the country. But then, I'd be surprised if they weren't.

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

January 24, 2001 - The Lessons of Buildings

I've always loved beautiful buildings. There's no one type. I like big prairie farm houses. I like tiny bungalows. I like the ornate two and three story office buildings with cornices and window ledges. I like skyscrapers that attempt to be more than Bauhaus blocks of concrete and glass. I even like gas stations -- at least those with some imagination (the green-roofed village style, the chrome art deco style).

In the course of my life, I have turned down various jobs simply because I couldn't imagine myself walking into a particular building every day.

Buildings have a deeply personal dimension.

But they have another dimension, too. I think this became clearest to me some years back when I attended a session put on by our own Local History staff. The topic was the old Douglas County courthouse.

We have quite a collection of photographs of the old building. When we presented pictures of the night the courthouse burned down, I was astonished to see tears in the eyes of even the gruffest ranch hands in the room. That old building had mattered to them. It also united them.

The building that replaced it -- a sort of concrete bunker with all the charm of a jail cell -- was universally loathed. The new front, added last year by the County, did much to soften the bare edges of the building, to at least point toward a more refined notion of public architecture.

A friend told me about a National Public Radio piece that ran a couple of weeks ago. The speaker commented that in the nineteen twenties and thirties, people lived in small, modest homes. But even in the midst of the Great Depression, they built public edifices of distinct quality and stature.

Today, the trend is opposite: those who can, build lavish trophy homes to live in. Meanwhile, all too often we throw up (I choose the phrase deliberately) public structures that are drab, cramped, and frankly cheap -- or have all the sweeping grace of a warehouse.

Our patrons have sent a consistent message to the Douglas Public Library District over the years. They want our buildings to be part of "downtown." But this isn't always just a matter of convenience. More often, it's a statement about the civic importance of the library as a place, a belief that a thriving library belongs in the heart of a community. I share that belief.

And they want our buildings to be something other than a big box buttressed by split face block, and finished with cement floors and exposed pipes. There persists in the American imagination the notion that the public library should be a building that not only houses the products of culture, but actually demonstrates some understanding of it. I share that belief, too.

I'm very proud of the library buildings that have gone up on my watch: from the surprising ingenuity of our Parker Library (a renovated bowling alley that brings Mainstreet right through the front door), to the sweeping extended river bank of the Lone Tree Library, to the overtly civic scope of our new Highlands Ranch Library. These buildings reflect a lot of good thinking, by a lot of good people.

All of these buildings, I do believe, are sources of pride for their communities. More and more, they are also a focus for community activity. There's a connection between the two.

There is a lesson in the buildings we love.

Wednesday, January 17, 2001

January 17, 2001 - The Technological Leash

I know I'm supposed to be a good consumer. I know I'm supposed to want More.

I want Less.

As a youth, I wandered the globe with a 14 pound backpack. It held everything I owned. This was, I believe, the last time I knew where everything was.

Eventually, I took on what the Hindus call the yoke (or "yoga") of the middle years, the years of family and social productivity. With that challenge came a host of new possessions. Some, I admit, would be hard to do without. Here I'm thinking: washing machine.

But there are two things lately that really bother me. The first is my e-mail address. I had the same e-mail since 1991:jlarue@csn.net. CSN stood for Colorado Supernet -- a company that librarians, and library dollars, significantly underwrote to establish the first telecommunications backbone in the state.

Business people take note: you may have been scrambling to get netwise these past two or three years. Librarians were working on the essential infrastructure of the World Wide Web -- laying the pipes for information traffic -- a decade ago.

Well, CSN begat SNI -- SuperNet, Inc. And SNI begat (or was swallowed by) Qwest. And Qwest begat (or acquired) US West. And on January 27, 2000, I received my first official notification that my csn address would soon be discontinued. By soon, I mean January 3, 2001. One week.

I settled on another Internet Service Provider -- Earthlink. Without too much trouble, really, I moved a bunch of library dial-in accounts over to the new company. After nine years, jlarue@csn.net became jaslarue@earthlink.net. ("jlarue" was taken. "jas" is short for "james.")

I also had to move the domain name I'd registered some 4 years ago. By just spending a little more money, I realized that I could grab an e-mail address closer to what I'd had. I could redirect mail from my domain to anywhere. So here's the new e-mail: jlarue@jlarue.com. Theoretically, I should never have to change it again.

Of course, I now need to send out some 300 messages or so to inform all the folks who have my e-mail address that I have another nom de net. And I need new business cards. And I have to update the records of a host of search engines that point people to my personal web page, which also has moved.

The second change also involves technology. My staff has more or less foisted on me a cell phone. I've fought this off for years. People would say, "Suppose there's an emergency!" I would say, "Define a library emergency." They'd say, "A fire!" I'd say, "911."

But the truth is, the life of a library director is most intelligently spent OUTSIDE the library. My highly competent staff is more than able to provide ongoing services. My contribution (to the extent I offer one) is to understand the larger environment in which we operate, and, with luck, to position us to respond to the future.

These days, there are many legitimate reasons to track me down, if only to coordinate my schedule. It's not easy.

So now I have a cell phone. The feeling is, I imagine, much like welding a collar and leash to my neck. I did get, with the phone package, a new voice mail box. I also got a little dangly thing I can screw into my ear, with a piece I can talk into, so I don't have to hold the phone whilst I drive.

Isn't this depressing? It used to be, as I trekked from one corner of the county to another, that I had time to think. Now, I'll beep or vibrate when the call comes in. I will, I swear, struggle mightily not to become one of those souls who is oblivious to the fact that his car is occupying every available lane of a freeway.

But I now have e-mail coming to three addresses (although I'm aggregating them to one). I have two voice mail boxes to check. (And a home answering machine.) After proudly whittling my life down to a Palm Pilot, I now also have to carry a cell phone.

Technology. Putting your life on batteries. And on a leash.

I need a good book. Don't you?

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

January 10, 2001 - Welcome to the Profession, 2000 Graduates

On January 6, 2001, I had the honor and privilege of giving the commencement address for Emporia State University's Master of Library Science Class of 2000.

Mostly, I talked to them about the great gift they had received: the gift of the library's reputation. Yes, it's true that "librarians" still call to some people's minds a somewhat silly and outdated stereotype (the spinsterish air, the general dowdiness). But that just goes to show that they've never seen a roomful of rowdy library professionals -- nor do they have any idea of the challenges and excitement of 21st century library work.

The important thing I have learned, after some 20 years of professional work, is that the library as an institution has great credibility. People tend to view library representatives with respect. Even the people who haven't set foot in one for years still somehow understand that the library is a public good, that we are fair, that we are neutral, that we mean them no harm. The library has no enemies. Well, at least that used to be the case. Over the past 10 years, a determined minority of religious and political leaders have worked very hard to paint the library, and librarians, as willing purveyors of pornography over the Internet.

I have to ask: just why does anyone think we would want to do this? Do they imagine that librarians leap out of bed in the morning and say, "Hey, I've got an idea! Let's package up a bunch of obscene images and highlight them in the children's room?" To what purpose? The whole thing is ludicrous. But the truth is, I think what angers this minority is not that they believe the library is deliberately pushing adult content at kids. What angers them is that we have not adopted their agenda as our own. Yes, your library carries representative works of socially conservative thought. It does not carry ONLY those works. Yes, the library purchases and presents materials that represent fundamentalist Christian approaches to child rearing. It does not purchase and present ONLY that perspective.

The mission of the public library is very clear: we gather, organize, and provide public access to the intellectual capital of our culture. Our selections seek to be representative OF that culture. Moreover, we have the ability, the means, to do this.

Our mission is NOT to govern a world wide communications network, the Internet, and keep its content at the level appropriate to the average 6 year old. Even if we wanted to, the task is wholly beyond our powers. I raise this because of Representative Istook's (R-Oklahoma) last minute attachment to the U.S. Congress's budget. In brief, this bill requires that all schools and public libraries install software filters on ALL public terminals, the better to protect children from pornography and violence. It does not provide any money to do so. The bill further requires that this software can be manually disabled for adult use, if, IN THE OPINION OF THE LIBRARIAN, the research request is "bona fide" and "legitimate."

So let's get this straight. If an adult -- that would be, legally, anyone 18 years or older -- wants to do research on venereal disease, infidelity, homosexuality, or the sexual misadventures of elected officials, for instance, they would have to explain this to a librarian, first. How likely is that? Children (that would be 17 and under), apparently couldn't even ask. As I've written before, software filtering technology has been extensively tested by librarians. In brief, it doesn't work. It allows a great deal of "bad stuff" to get through. It -- sometimes randomly, sometimes deliberately -- blocks plenty of "good stuff" that raises issues of political and religious censorship, endorsed by a public entity.

While some kinds of filtering might make sense in a public school setting, or in the children's room of the public library, it is not, nor do I believe it ever will be, an appropriate tool for adult Internet workstations.

But more to the point, even the suggestion of its mandated use by the federal government (at least, if the library wishes to get any federal funding, including telecommunications discounts) is tantamount to an invasion of privacy. This bill sets up librarians as the arbiters of appropriate inquiry. Adults must now ask PERMISSION from government employees to look up things that are, in themselves, perfectly legal.

This is monumentally dim legislation, betraying not only a profound lack of understanding of the limits of technology, but also, at base, directly attacking the mission of the public library. Class of 2000, consider this a post-graduate exercise. And welcome to the profession.

Wednesday, January 3, 2001

January 3, 2001 - Reflections on Gil Whitman

I have to admit that I’m a city boy, raised in a mid-size Midwest place of streets, tall trees, and lots of blue collar jobs.

Most of the time, I don’t think about that background. But when I get together with a bunch of Douglas County ranchers, I definitely feel citified, the sort of guy you wouldn’t want with you when there was trouble on the ranch.

I'm a reasonably good librarian, but the last time I was asked to do the simple task of closing a barbed wire fence, I locked myself in the pasture. Embarrassing.

I felt that lack of background again when I attended the funeral of Gil Whitman, a man I knew and deeply respected. Many of the longtime Douglas County ranchers were there, and I cannot imagine a harder working, plainer spoken, more civic-spirited group of people anywhere.

But I came away with an insight about the non-ranching side of his life. A former County Commissioner (1972-80) -- and a Democrat at that -- Gil was the sort of man who gave politics a good name.

Some years ago, I served as an election judge with his vivacious and fascinating wife, Cecile. She regaled us for hours with stories about Douglas County's near history. I remember her saying that for awhile, I believe when Gil was Commissioner, people actually used the Whitman's barn as a voting place.

In the fractious turmoil surrounding our recent Presidential election, I find it even more amazing that nobody ever thought there was anything the least bit fishy about holding elections on the private property of a sitting Commissioner. Why not? Because it was Gil Whitman, who integrity was so obvious, so immediately apparent just by meeting the man, whose fairness was so well-known, that the question never came up.

I got to visit Gil's ranch before he moved into town. He had rescued a good many abandoned county records from the courthouse after the fire, priceless archives that have now, thanks to his action and foresight, been restored to the public record. (He also had some of the most amazing machines in his barn!) I liked him.

We need more people like Gil Whitman. We need people who are willing to give thoughtfully of their time and experience to the public institutions that help define our community. As Gil Whitman served the school board, the county, and the Douglas County Fair board, we need a new generation of residents to step forward and invest themselves in the civic infrastructure of the county. They may follow his footsteps with the school district or county. They may serve on the Library Board of Trustees. They may give their time to some of the host of advisory committees serving the county or various towns.

But on thing is certain: they'll have a tough act to follow.