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, March 28, 2001

March 28, 2001 - Library Building Community in Downtown Castle Rock

As you have no doubt read elsewhere in this paper, the Philip S. Miller Library is moving back downtown. The library, as well as our technical operations and administration, will occupy the old Safeway building on Wilcox. If all goes well, we'll be in there by fall of 2002.

What I'd like to do this week is give some background information. Newspapers tell you what; I'd like to tell you why.

The Douglas Public Library District has done a good job of keeping up with growth. But that growth has required us to build, or renovate, at least one of our facilities every single one of the past ten years.

And here's a surprising fact: small building projects are as time-consuming and finicky as big ones. Once a library district reaches a certain size, it is actually easier to build a large library. The institution accommodates more public and organizational needs at a single pass.

Last year, we hired out a population study. Neighborhood by neighborhood, this study told us where we were going to experience the greatest new demand — and that demand follows closely on the growth of population. The challenge of the library is how best to fund an expansion of our services with existing resources.

In the library's 1996 mill levy campaign, we promised to be able to build and operate a series of facilities for the money we asked for. We've just about wrapped up all those promises. But we think it would be an even greater accomplishment to go to the next stage of our growth by leveraging the money we have, rather than by asking for more public funds. Taxpayers like that; and library Trustees and employees are taxpayers, too.

Our Highlands Ranch Library, we believe, will last us through the next ten years of growth. Our Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, our Lone Tree Library, and our Parker Library, will not. There is nothing wrong with the buildings; they simply are not large enough to house the new materials and services our growing public will seek from them.

There are two models for library service: regional center, and neighborhood center. In the regional center, the library is set up to offer the fullest possible range of services to a broad area. In the neighborhood library, the services are more precisely tailored to local developments. Both have advantages and limitations.

In some locations, it makes sense to add new neighborhood libraries. For instance, we hope to construct a Roxborough Library, probably also in 2002. The area is distinct enough not to fall naturally into another service area. (When that library opens, we will investigate moving our Roxborough bookmobile to another location, perhaps Castle Pines North.)

In other cases, as in the Parker Library, the current location has particular local meaning. We are in the heart of the town, a thing of great value both to the people we serve, and to us. We cannot expand that particular building; thus, in order to serve projected growth between Parker and Lone Tree, we are probably looking for a new location, although that may be some years away.

As you might imagine, of course, it costs more to open multiple libraries than it does to run one larger one.

Every once in a great while, an opportunity falls into your lap. The old Safeway was exactly that: the opportunity to more than double the space available to us, all on one solid floor, right on the community's Main Street — Wilcox.

The shell of the building, and the existing parking, are ideal for our purposes. Their existence saves us a tremendous amount of construction money. By selling the existing building, we will not only recoup much of the purchase costs, but (we believe) also pay for the renovation of the new space.

In the end, we will have leveraged our existing assets to create a much larger regional center, capable of serving the whole southern half of the county for the next decade. Our Technical Services area — which orders, receives, and processes over 100,000 new items per year — will be able to serve the entire district from this location.

This expansion, not coincidentally, also keeps a host of jobs right downtown, helping to provide some momentum and focus to the civic life of Castle Rock.

We keep saying this, but that's because it keeps being true: we're not just building libraries, we're building community. And that's the best part of my job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

March 21, 2001 - Personal Book Shopper Service

Last year, there came a point in our Castle Rock renovation when we had to replace the carpet. I figured we’d have to close the library. But Greg Mickells, the Manager of the Philip S. Miller Library, figured out a new wrinkle. When patrons showed up, we offered them a comfy chair, fed them cookies and lemonade, and asked them what they needed. Then we sent in staff to navigate among the roaming bookstacks (which got moved around to free up various parts of the floor) and fetch the items.

During this period, Greg referred to our staff as “Your Personal Shopper.” I thought that was brilliant. Instead of turning customers away, we brightened their day with sugar and service.

Generally speaking, service seems to be on the decline in America. Part of this is the very nature of our retail establishments. Gone are the corner grocery and hardware stores. Instead, we get the big box, echoing megastores. Given the volume of these spaces, it is understandably difficult to find someone to help you sometimes. At the dawn of the 21st century, service is giving way to “convenience” -- hence the Automated Teller Machine, the pump-your-own-gas station, and the vending machine.

Well, picking up on our earlier theme, Pam Nissler, manager of the Highlands Ranch Library, and her dedicated staff have decided to do something about this trend.

We call it our Personal Book Shopper service. Here’s how it works. Beginning on March 15th, you can just stop by or call the Highlands Ranch Library (303-791-7702) and request a Personal Book Shopper application form. I think of this as a sort of “reader’s profile.” You’ll be asked to specify your favorite authors, books you’ve already read and liked, topics of interest to you, and various other bits of information that tell us what sort of books best suit you.

Then, armed with this information, our tenacious librarians will start sifting through our over a-third-of-a-million holdings to select just the items you might have picked, had you the time to do this for yourself.

After we’ve assembled a digestible literary feast, we’ll either pull or place the items on hold, and let you know when it’s time to stop by the front desk and pick them up.

Time is, of course, our scarcest commodity. Throw anything else into the mix -- a vacation coming up, a sick child, a last minute business trip -- and a service like this just might mark the difference between having books in the house, or not.

Getting books into your house, by the way, is a big goal of the Douglas Public Library District.

The service does, however, have a few limitations. Right now, it is available for adults only. And I hate to break the news, but our Personal Book Shopper Service does not include cookies. At least, not yet.

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

March 14, 2001 - Mr. Mahanna's Continuing Education

The first time I saw Mr. Mahanna was also my first night working at the Normal Public Library. It was a blisteringly cold December night in central Illinois.

The door creaked open and there he was: about 5 foot 6, mostly bald with a fringe of snow white hair, which, when he removed his dark wool hat, stuck out in wild angles. He wore a huge white cotton coat, over some six layers of sweaters. Under the frayed bottoms of his denim overalls, were big black rubber boots. One eye was more or less permanently shut, and the other one bulged and glared. His walking stick was the plain wooden handle of a sweep broom.

He looked like Popeye's evil grandfather.

He was fascinating. He dragged himself (and his backpack) over to the periodicals, pulled out the local newspaper, and then extracted an enormous magnifying glass from somewhere about his person. Then he scrutinized the paper.

After awhile, he struck out into the reference section, where he spent some more time. Clearly, he knew his way around the library.

An hour or so after his arrival, he gathered up his belongings again. He paused on his way out the door to turn to me and bellow, "Good night!" in a voice remarkably rich and strong.

As you might imagine, I asked around about him. Mr. Mahanna was about 80. He was mostly deaf, and mostly blind. But he was uncommonly smart and strong. And why not?

Here was his schedule.

Every single day, he started from his home somewhere in Normal. He walked the five or six miles to the Bloomington Public Library. (Bloomington-Normal are known as Twin Cities.) There, too, he kept up with the events of the day. Then he walked to the Illinois Weslyan University Library in Bloomington. By early afternoon, he walked to the Illinois State University Library back in Normal. And he ended his day by walking to the Normal Public Library. The schedule varied on Saturday and Sunday somewhat, as the public library wasn't open in the evening.

But that was his circuit: four libraries a day, and a good 10-12 miles from start to finish. He made this circuit in rain or shine, balm or bluster. The only time he didn't show up was when his daughter was in town to visit.

I did finally get a chance to talk to him, and worked myself into his routine. Various parts of Mr. Mahanna's body were failing him, but his mind was alert, curious, and tenacious. He had a penchant for politics and local history, and would follow his investigations across four library collections. As a consequence, he was very knowledgeable.

He was entirely self-taught, a former farmer who became a rural circuit judge. The farming background no doubt accounted for his tough resistance to weather. Being a judge got him used to making the rounds.

Now that the Boomers are growing older, there's a growing field of research on the topic of prolonging human life. It won't surprise anyone to learn that two big components involve mental and physical activity. Another factor is diet.

The library will indeed provide information about food. (Hint: eat half of what you think you need, and at least twice as many fresh vegetables.) But Mr. Mahanna showed me the real contribution of the library: make us part of your daily exercise plan. Come see us every day.

When you get here, investigate something. Use both current and older sources. Talk to people younger than you.

I haven't seen Mr. Mahanna in over 20 years now. But it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he's still out there, making the circuit.

Wednesday, March 7, 2001

March 7, 2001 - Let's Put on a Political Musical!

Over the past couple of weeks, I attended a couple of events. They belong to completely separate worlds, but somehow I can't stop thinking about them together.

The first was a political event. The speakers were State Senator John Evans and State Representative Joe Nuñez. They both wore good suits. They talked about legislative efforts: both their own (which were worthy of support) and those of others (which needed to be resisted). Then the officials took questions, which tended to fall into the "why doesn't somebody DO something about" variety. Many of the political movers and shakers of the county were there.

I found the session most informative. I appreciate it when elected people take the time to directly answer the concerns of their constituents. And I also respect the 60 or so folks who showed up for the event.

Then, last Saturday night, I took my kids to a performance of the Douglas County High School's "Once Upon a Mattress." It was wonderful. They had rotating leads: I caught Kerri Driscoll as Princess Winifred, and she was utterly delightful, a natural comic with an irresistible smile and a great set of pipes ("Shy," and "Happily Ever After"). Sir Harry was Brady Young, another solid performance. I hear their alternate leads — Erin Griffith as Princess Winifred, and Devon Fanning as Harry — were great, too. I'll take the kids back to catch the other cast next weekend.

There were so many fine and funny performances (Chalon Myers was a stitch as the Queen, Zane Cooper as Prince Dauntless) — including the behind the scenes folks who did lighting, costumes, and sets — that my failure to mention names is a tribute in itself. There were simply too many people doing a great job.

Incidentally, on the popularity scale, I'd have to say the play pulled in more people than the political event. DCHS has about 250 seats. They were all taken, and I assume that's close to the case for all six of the scheduled performances.

Now, libraries tend to divide their collections into two distinct worlds, too. And the difference is not "kids versus adults," or even "print versus electronic." The difference is fiction and non-fiction.

Non-fiction corresponds to the world of politics. Few non-fiction books are neutral. They make an argument, adopt a position. Some of the better ones even marshal a little evidence in support of their positions. And when you finish such a book you say, "I agree with this," or "I don't agree," or "I agree in part, disagree in part."

Non-fiction accounts for more than half of our business. That's unusually high, by the way, in the world of libraries. That says something about the people who live in Douglas County.

Fiction, on the other hand, is no slouch. Kid's picture books all by themselves make up over a quarter of all our checkouts. Toss in the bestsellers, the genres of mystery, science fiction, western, and romance, and we're talking about nearly a million items a year.

Fiction is entertainment. Its purpose isn't so much to persuade, but to engage. And although good fiction also has an element of conflict (I challenge anyone to think of a great book that does NOT have some profound struggle at the heart of it), generally speaking people don't read fiction for detailed political analysis. They read fiction (or watch it on video, or listen to it on tape or CD) to enter into a human story.

Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the worlds of entertainment and politics do seem to be merging. However, it occurs to me that nobody has yet fused the drama of politics with the lyrics and choreography of the musical.

So my point this week is to publicly announce my candidacy. I haven't yet decided on which election, or even, to be frank, on which office.

But it'll take time to write the music, design the costumes, put together a catchy set of lyrics, and audition for the backup singers. I figure at least a month for the dance steps alone.

What this nation needs is a political party that sets your toes to tapping, and campaign financing that guarantees you a front row seat. Or wait, maybe we've already got that last one.

At any rate, if elected, I promise three musicals a years, and possibly a cabaret show. Think about it: can you count on that from my competitors?

Thank you for your support. (Curtain.)