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, April 25, 2001

April 25, 2001 - Grim Story Still Belongs In Young Adult Literature

Recently I got a very thoughtful note from a Highlands Ranch patron. She had requested that the library purchase a book called "Forgotten Fire," by Adam Bagdasarian. We bought it. After she read it, she wrote that she believed that although the book was very valuable and important, some of what was covered in the book might not be appropriate for the audience we marked it for: Young Adult.

The story is grim. "Forgotten Fire" describes, in simple and straightforward prose, something I didn't even know about: the Armenian Holocaust. Between the years of 1915 and 1918, roughly 1.5 million Armenians were murdered.

Also arresting was the quote at the beginning of the book, from Adolf Hitler. In 1939, he said, "Who does now remember the Armenians?" Clearly, Hitler did.

"Forgotten Fire" is the fictionalized true tale of a 12 year old Armenian boy, who lived a lovely, protected life in a beautiful home. Then, one day, his father disappeared. Soon thereafter, soldiers came, interrogated the family, and shot two of his older brothers right there in the family yard.

The remainder of the book describes the next three years in the main character's life, through his eyes, in his words.

I responded to the patron that I believe the book is correctly placed with our other Young Adult materials. The main character's age and perspective, and the manner in which the story is told, are entirely consistent with this always fascinating genre of literature.

Then I asked my 13 year old daughter to read the book, and we talked about it. The truly tragic aspect of this powerful story is that it is TRUE. Some of the things briefly described in the book, in particular, the murder (by bullet, by blade, and even by rape) of children, did in fact take place, over and over.

I sincerely hope that my daughter never has to go through anything like those awful times. But in the midst of war, in the midst of ethnic conflict, even in our own suburban schools, such things happen still. Is it better for our young adults to think history is remote, distant, detached from life, SAFE? — or is it better for them to understand the true human dimension of history, and the depths to which human beings may sometimes sink?

People don't clearly remember everything we read. But books, nonetheless, constitute a kind of distilled experience. I believe that should my daughter ever find herself in a situation anything like that described in "Forgotten Fire," she will not now be quite as bewildered, as helpless, as she might have been otherwise. In some part of her mind, she will understand, and perhaps be able to act, when otherwise she would perhaps have been a victim.

It is this belief in the power of literature to help us understand life, to prepare for situations we may never encounter, that is one of the reasons I became a librarian.

I believe that if such things as described in "Forgotten Fire" can happen to adolescents, then adolescents must have the freedom to read about them, if only for their own safety.

The part that haunts me about the book is that so much depended upon luck. Some children are murdered. Some live. Sometimes, survival is solely a matter of chance. It's one of life's hardest lessons.

As many parents have discovered talking about Columbine with their children this past week, it is sometimes very difficult to explain just how unfair life — and death — can be. But the alternative is silence and happy talk.

Sometimes, about some things, children need to know the truth.

Wednesday, April 18, 2001

April 18, 2001 - Cataloging & Metadata

Imagine that your mind is the front door of a refrigerator. Throughout the day, you stick all kinds of notes on it, using either sticky notes, or paper and magnets.

By the end of the day, and definitely by the end of the WEEK, let's face it, your mind is a mess. Some of those notes are very important. Some of them are trivial. But even very important things don't need to be attended to today.

Meanwhile, some exceedingly trivial things are tied to a time that's just around the corner. You can let them go, and it could be that you often do, but at least some people will not be pleased.

Not only that, a lot of those notes are just things you wished you could remember if your memory were perfect.

So part of the problem concerns time management. Some things are urgent and important. Others are urgent but less important. Some things are important, but not urgent at all. And many, many, many things, are neither important nor urgent.

But the refrigerator postings of your life have another dimension. This is something only librarians and other information professionals bother to think about. It falls into the area of "things you want to remember."

To really keep track of all the data and information that barrages us daily, we need a tool called "metadata." In brief, we need to take a step back from the odd jotting, the random note, in order to label it. Then, at some late date, we can retrieve that note on the basis of the label we gave it.

Or at least, we hope we can.

Take a book, for instance. A particular book contains a lot of information. The great value of librarianship is something we call "cataloging." In your own life, you might call it, "grouping."

Librarians extract data. We say, "this book has the following bits of information."

Somebody wrote it. That's the author. It could be that one day, you'll want to find or remember all the books by that person.

The book has a name, a title. Somebody is bound to look for it — although they might remember only a single word, and that might not be the first word of the title. And so librarians offer you a search for KEY words.

The book is about something. To librarians, that's the "subject." Suffice it to say that we have a lot of subject "headings" — words, descriptions, we have agreed to stick to, the better to help the average person stumble across books on the same topic, right next to each other on the same shelf.

Then there are things, other data elements, that you may not want to search by, but still matter. Somebody saw that it was produced. That's the publisher. The book has so many pages. It has an index.

By the time we're done, we have what we call a "bibliographic record," a detailed description of the item we snagged for our collection.

That record conforms to certain standards that librarians around the world try to follow. We dutifully type this information into our computers, and all around the globe, other librarians and library patrons type in those key bits of data, according to the systems we've established, and try to fetch all the books that match the search.
Of course, libraries are about more than books. New formats are popping up all the time. There are magazine articles, audiotapes, CDs, e-books, web pages. All of these contribute more new categories, new metadata.

Here's the bottom line: we are in danger of being inundated by new data, by random works, and facts, tossed at us from every angle.

Libraries can't tell you which, of all those offerings, really matter to YOU. But here's what we can do. We can give you a way to deal with all of it, to lump whole fields of knowledge together, to sort through it all, to fetch just those things that interest you, without being overwhelmed by irrelevancies.

Libraries are the memory you wish you had.

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

April 11, 2001 - Colorado Library Association Opposed to Internet Filtering Bill

State Representative Tim Fritz (R-Loveland) has recently introduced House Bill 1376. This bill mandates the use of "electronic protection measures" — commonly known as filtering software — on all Internet terminals that can be used by minors. It also allows for the disabling of that software, whether for adults or for children, if, in the opinion of the librarian, the person is doing "bona fide or legitimate research."

The Colorado Library Association is opposed to this bill. Here's why.

First, we're doing a great deal about this issue right now.

1. We build age-appropriate web sites that steer children to solid information. Check out our children's page, from www.dpld.org.

2. We buy authoritative content. As you'll also see on our website, we have paid for some high quality, commercial databases for kids, adding significant value to the Internet for your children.

3. We offer regular classes in safe surfing — both for kids and for adults. You'll find class listings on our website, too.

4. We actively experiment with various Internet management approaches. Some libraries use Internet contracts with students. Some use expensive "smart card" equipment and software. Some, as we do, use filtering software in the children's room only.

5. We supervise public space. We always have. We always will.

Second, here's why we think this bill is bad public policy.

1. This is an unfunded state mandate.

2. The bill overrides local decision-making. Most libraries in the state have gone through extensive public review of this issue, and hammered out solutions that work for them.

3. This bill overrides parental control. Englewood Public allows the parent to set the level of Internet access for his or her child. Under this bill, the state decides.

4. This bill requires case by case governmental approval (by librarians) even for adult use of the library. So if someone is searching for information on venereal disease, penile dysfunction, or drug abuse treatment, they must first explain this to one of our reference librarians — an outrageous breach of privacy by the state.

5. The bill ignores personal accountability. Yes, the Internet has some extreme content. In our experience, people rarely just stumble across it — they go looking for it. If people persist in being crude and lewd in public, they should lose their public Internet privileges. But everybody else shouldn't have to give up their privacy, or their freedom of inquiry.

6. Internet filtering doesn't work very well. Like language translation software, filtering software rarely understands context. So it lets a great deal of pornographic and violent content through. On the other hand, it often randomly blocks useful and even authoritative content. Filtering restricts information from both liberal and conservative sites, as recently discovered by a conservative candidate for Congress from Oregon, whose whole site was blocked because, in his statement about opposition to abortion, he used the words "rape" and "incest." Such stories are both real and common.

7. This bill attempts to intrude on and interfere with the market place. As noted above, all kinds of products and solutions are being tested by librarians in the field. In this, the fastest-changing area of technology in the world, the state has neither the expertise nor the wisdom to decide, as of 2001, the one correct solution for all libraries.

For more information, please feel free to contact me, or your State Representative.

Wednesday, April 4, 2001

April 4, 2001 - National Library Week & Freethinking

My grandfather was, I now realize, a Freethinker. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term as follows: "one who has rejected authority and dogma, especially in his religious thinking, in favor of rational inquiry and speculation."

Granddad's favorite period in history was the American Revolution, and his favorite person in that period was Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense," and "The Age of Reason." I recommend both of these books, by the way — Paine still has the power to infuriate and challenge, way more than any newspaper columnist today.

When I was a kid, I knew Granddad was pretty smart, mostly because he read all the time. He had dropped out of 10th grade to support his mother, but he had almost read his way to a law school correspondence degree when the Depression hit. After that, this time in order to support his family, he drove a pastry truck. Later, he went into politics and sales (if there's a difference between them). But he read constantly.

Granddad was the guy who told me, "Education isn't something that's done to you; it's something you do for yourself."

I also admired him because he was absolutely fearless in groups. While I was spending the summer with him, I saw a notice in the paper about a meeting of the John Birch Society, and asked what that was about. I was 11 or 12. "Let's go!" he said.

Well, the Birchers were an extremely agitated bunch. I can't say as I really followed all the talk, but there were an unusually high number of nail biters in the crowd. They struck me as worried and whiny.

Granddad sat there, his eyes twinkling. Then he whispered to me, "Watch this. I'll ask them a question, and you'll see them squirm." So he stood up, and in his rich, deep, marvelous voice, asked a question. I believe it was about the income tax. And sure enough, the main speaker reddened and looked discomfited.

As I say, I was really too young to follow the issues, but I got a very clear read on the social dynamics. Granddad was known to them, respected, but also feared. His grasp was a little too penetrating, his frequent questions a little too focused on issues that the speakers clearly didn't want to tackle in public. Yet when folks shot challenges back at him, you could see the relish Granddad took in the exchange.

I had seen him, many times, argue one side of an issue with one person then argue the other side with another — each time with equal passion and clarity. When I'd say, "But Granddad, what do you REALLY believe?" he would say, "What do YOU believe?" then make me defend it.

In part, Granddad felt like a kindred spirit to me as I was coming of age. "Question authority" was the slogan not only of librarians in general, but of the Boomer generation.

At the same time, Granddad was a loyal party man, a man who even on his days off, wore a suit. He wore a suit when he mowed the lawn. If he was a rebel, it was only in his ideas, not in the way he lived.

These days, so much in politics is foolish grandstanding, unprincipled posturing, and kowtowing to cash. So many of our leaders—political, religious, and intellectual—wallow in hypocrisy. But when I get complaints about the books in libraries — and I do get them — it's never about any of that.

Most often, grown-ups are protesting classic fairy tales, and the fear that children might somehow get the impression that the world isn't always a nice place.

I think, in the long run, it's best to have children get a real glimpse of just how complex life is, to read about different cultures and perspectives and problems, to introduce even young people to the principles of free inquiry and self-examination.

Of course, the examined life can be scary. You might have to revise your prejudices. You might even have to confront those of your parents.

But that's the message of this week, National Library Week, as it happens. Be brave enough to read.

Free your mind—@ the library.