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, June 27, 2001

June 27, 2001 - Lessons Learned from Minneapolis Public

Several people have sent me information about a recent court case: some librarians at Minneapolis Public sued the library for sexual harassment. The reason: widespread patron viewing of pornography on Internet terminals.

Some of the folks who sent me this were gleeful: liberals want unfiltered terminals, but think when other people look at a picture that might offend a feminist, it's sexual harassment. Pick one!

Others were more libertarian: these librarians are arguing FOR censorship. Isn't that a betrayal of all they stand for?

It happens that I have a good friend who works at Minneapolis Public, so I've been tracking this for some time. And I disagree with both parties.

The issue isn't about sexual harassment, and it isn't about free speech. It's about civil behavior in public places, and it's also, to be blunt, about bad library management.

Here's what I mean. Like most libraries, Minneapolis Public did some staff training before they put out their Internet terminals for the public. They brought in one of the big guns of the American Library Association to lecture about Intellectual Freedom, and the ostensible right of patrons to view anything they please on the Internet.

When the terminals hit the floor, Minneapolis Public experienced what every other library has experienced: some library patrons tested the limits of acceptable behavior.

That's not new, by the way. When I was a kid, I thought it was the height of sophisticated humor to practice can can dances in the library stairwell. So did four of my 7th grade friends. Library staff disagreed.

We got kicked out.

These days, some people walk into the library with boom boxes blaring. Library staff ask these patrons to turn them off. Sometimes the patrons refuse. Then they get kicked out, too.

Some people pull up the raciest imaginable materials the Internet can offer. Do they get kicked out?

Well, it depends. In most libraries across the country, staff is bound to notice eventually. Then they intervene. Sometimes they discover that the "racy" material isn't racy at all. It's legitimate research: artwork, mainstream advertising, or health-related. In that case, library staff back off. As they should.

Sometimes, they discover that the material is grossly pornographic. And in such cases, most library staff ask the patrons to stop, or to move along.

At Minneapolis Public, staff were instructed that any incidents of the latter case (patrons viewing sexually explicit content) were to be studiously ignored. When other library patrons complained (and they did), staff were basically discouraged from saying anything except, "We can't do anything about it."

And after several months, this de facto policy resulted in three things:

1. the virtual abandonment of the library by regular patrons,
2. the increased incidence of ever more extreme patron behaviors, and
3. the perfectly understandable discomfort of library staff.

Finally, after repeatedly refusing to deal with this issue, library administrators learned that the local TV station had waltzed in, and captured for video to be aired that night, the pathetic truth that fully 50% of library Internet workstations were being used for the viewing of what was, arguably, obscene material.

The very next day, library administrators authorized security guards to directly confront and escort the miscreants away. The strategy -- 180 degrees from the previous policy -- did solve the problem. The grosser misbehavior stopped. Slowly, the general public started returning.

The library had found a new principle. Patrons have an absolute right to view what they please. Unless it's bad PR.

I humbly submit that that's the wrong lesson.

So let's tackle some tough questions. Is it illegal to view sexy pictures on the Internet? Nope.

Do you have the right to do anything you want at the public library? I say again, nope. You have a right to free expression, but that right is constrained by place. I can expect to sing in the shower, as loud as I want (assuming a decent distance from my neighbors), pretty much without interference. But I can't expect that same freedom every place else. I probably can't prance around naked everywhere, either. Not even in the library.

Is it always perfectly clear what is appropriate and what isn't? Nope again. But the judgment of library staff is pretty darn good. And unless you're doing something out and out threatening or illegal, we're not calling in the cops; we're just reminding you to be polite when you're out in public.

Did any of this nonsense have to happen at Minneapolis? For the last time, nope. Here's one of the grimmer rules of administration: you get what you permit.

Libraries are not now, nor have they ever been, places where "anything goes." They have a purpose that most people, almost all of the time, understand and respect. On occasion, some people forget that, and have to be reminded. Sadly, that includes library administrators.

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

June 20, 2001 - Philip S. Miller Library It Remains

Several weeks ago I asked for some public advice about the name of the new library in Castle Rock, to be located at the site of the old Safeway. I got it.

Let me say right off the bat that the overwhelming sentiment (about 4 to 1, by the end) was to retain the Philip S. Miller name. Some of the advice was firm, but respectful. "Thank you so much for asking, instead of making this decision in secret. I believe that Mr. Miller's contributions to this town were so many and so outstanding..."

Others were a little less polite. "What kind of idiot would confuse the Miller LIBRARY with the Miller BUILDING?" (Answer: all kinds. I remain befuddled by the name of the street I've lived on for 8 years. I reside at Johnson Court, which is off of Johnson Drive, which is adjacent to Johnson Place. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder how often the fire department gets a panicked call that says, "Fire at 212 Johnson!" Click.)

One gentleman wrote me of the time he secured a loan from Mr. Miller, whom he had never met until then. He got the loan after only 15 minutes of conversation. There was no loan application form, no collateral, and no formal contract. This is what is known as a character loan, and Phil Miller seems to have made a lot of them.

My correspondent was definitely a character. Maybe, he jabbed, if I were so selfish as to ignore the remarkable generosity of this remarkable man, we should just call the new building the "Haime LaRue Memorial Library." (Good Lord, I thought, is this a death threat? Then I decided, Nah; a lot of people mistake sarcasm for wit.)

Some people did make the case for the "Castle Rock Library." Why? Because they felt it was simply less confusing. But even these people believed that the library should establish a "Miller Room."

Most, although not all, of the people supporting the Miller name have lived here a while. They remember other slights to Phil Miller's past -- for instance, what is now Plum Creek Parkway once bore the name of Miller. That still rankles.

Castle Rock, like Douglas County generally, has experienced truly phenomenal growth. Unlike some towns, it does try to balance its opposing strains. On the one hand, we have the convenience and modernity of typical suburban development: the King Soopers shopping center, the Outlet Malls, the Meadows, Founders Village.

On the other hand, we have a concerted attempt to preserve a sense of unique place: the new front of the county building, the Perry Street development. These attempts swim against the current, and are not guaranteed. I can't help but notice that despite the thriving new businesses along Perry Street, some long time Wilcox folks are slipping away to the mall.

What makes Castle Rock different from other Front Range communities? In part, it is our history. No history of Castle Rock is complete without a conscious celebration and honoring of the contributions of Philip S. Miller. His personal character was a formative influence on our civic character. It deserves to be remembered in more than the name of just one building, particularly as important as the library was to him.

So after my exploration of the issue, I'm inclined to retain the name of the Philip S. Miller Library. We have reason to be proud of it.

And speaking of history, I want to join my voice to the hearty endorsement of fellow Douglas County News-Press columnist, James O'Hern. Susie Appleby, a Highlands Ranch resident, recently published her superb history of Douglas County, "Fading Fast." Appleby not only wrote an intelligent and interesting tome, she also cleared up and corrected many mysteries and myths about our common past.

The book is available from selected area bookstores. Like Debbie Buboltz's "Philip Simon Miller: Butcher, Banker, Benefactor," it is one of the essential additions to the bookshelf of any Douglas County citizen with an interest in how we got to where we are today.

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

June 13, 2001 - The Value of Thoughtful Public Investment

For most of their history in this country, public libraries have been governed by library boards. Typically, libraries have been municipal creations. But even when the city didn't give it much money, library control tended to be the sole province of that Board.

That semi-independence was a marker of the perceived value of the library. During the immigrant waves in New York, circa 1938, the Depression meant that most city services were sharply curtailed. But not the library: it served as a sort of cultural receiving center, helping people to learn the language, and (mostly through newspapers) to find work. During these times, many libraries greatly increased their hours and staff -- and in the process, gave many, many people the chance to begin anew.

In the post-WWII boom, libraries mostly fared pretty well. Through the 50's, and certainly in the "Great Society" 60's, many millions of dollars of federal money were poured through states, creating State Libraries, and providing matching funds for library construction and outreach into both urban and rural areas.

That began to change during the 70's. City, state, and federal budgets were getting tighter. The trend, accelerating through the 80's and 90's, was to take governing authority away from library boards, making them "advisory." Many library boards were disbanded. Library Directors became library managers, reporting first to the Mayor, then the City Manager, then to a city department head, usually under Parks and Recreation.

Political priorities and values in America were changing. Libraries were no longer vital investments in a civic infrastructure. They were "secondary services," of recreational value only, if that.

I see a similar shift within libraries themselves. In Douglas County, our reference services (as measured by people asking informational questions of library staff) are growing rapidly. But more generally in the profession, the fastest growing public demand has been for non-print materials: books on tape, videos, CD's and DVD's. Thus libraries themselves are moving from institutions dedicated to civic support, traditional literature, and practical knowledge, to centers of pop culture, from information to infotainment.

Some of this, of course, is inevitable. Libraries are public institutions, and thus we reflect our times. A library that fails to adapt itself to the cultural and social realities of its day will accomplish nothing but its own extinction.

But I also believe that many of the founding principles of public librarianship -- the idea of free public access for all citizens to representative collections of significant knowledge -- still has value, and still must be preserved. Moreover, I think that libraries (and other public institutions) have to stay centered in their missions, serving in this case as a necessary counterweight to the swings of our society.

To my mind, one of the most encouraging developments in the history of American librarianship is the recognition by many big cities -- among them, San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver -- that the library can be a linchpin for a new focus on community development, in partnership with a diversified retail base.

Another encouraging trend has been the formation of independent library districts. Directly accountable not to larger governmental units, but to the people who actually pay for library services, library districts are often more nimble, more focused on specific local interests and trends. Moreover, the governance of these districts is closer to the historical root of library governance: a local board, concerned only with the library.

The closer government of any sort is to the people who use it, the more likely that government is to reflect the real concerns of its public.

And unless I miss my guess, I think the American public is coming around to a renewed understanding and appreciation of the value of thoughtful public investment. That has to be good for libraries -- and for the public.

Wednesday, June 6, 2001

June 6, 2001 - OnLine Book Club

This week's column is written by Moira Ash, Web Manager for the library.

The Douglas Public Library District has launched a new service on our Web site that some of you may have heard of. It's called the OnLine Book Club.

Click on the OnLine Book Club icon on the opening page of our Web site, www.dpld.org and you will be offered the opportunity to sign on with any one of six book clubs. Or you can go there by entering this URL: http://www.chapteraday.com/library/dpld

Once you choose a genre, submit an e-mail address (which will be kept confidential). You'll receive daily emailed segments from the selected book for a week. The daily segment is about a five minute read. These selections are consecutive so that by the end of the first week you will have read about the first two or three chapters of the book. At that point you can check the book out from a DPLD branch library, put it on hold, or really commit and buy the book. We supply the links to do any of the above.

The OnLine Book Club (www.chapteraday.com) was started by Florida businesswoman Suzanne Beecher to entice nonreaders to read and to encourage the use of libraries. Beecher used to type up short segments of books and e-mail her co-workers. The response was gratifying. Beecher, an energetic promoter, decided to sell the idea to libraries.

Over 3,000 library systems across the country have signed on, including 6 of our neighboring library systems here along the Front Range. For DPLD it's a win-win situation. We've paid a small fee to sign on, Ms Beecher is left to negotiate with the publishers and set up the mechanisms. The books are selected by librarians, and better yet, the selections are not the current bestsellers. We have no trouble circulating those, and we don't want to entice a patron to read the first three chapters only to find that there are 250 holds on the book.

Most of these selections are what we call second generation bestsellers. They've been around a bit and have proven to be good reads. We like the idea of keeping these books alive just a little bit longer, stretching the taxpayer's dollar, and if this service entices you to our Web site www.dpld.org, so much the better. We hope you'll click around and see what else we have to offer. You'll notice that at the end of the 5-minute read, we'll add our own two bits about upcoming library events and programs.

The OnLine Book Club assures us that our patron's e-mail addresses will be protected, and will not be sold to any list. You can subscribe and unsubscribe from the service at any time from our Web page. The OnLine Book Club will deliver your e-mail anywhere in the world or you can temporarily leave the club and then re-subscribe when you return. There are instructions for unsubscribing at the end of every 5-minute read.

We're offering the full gamut of the OnLine Book Club:

* The Original Book Club (this weeks selection is Potshot, by Robert Parker.)
* The Audio OnLine Book Club (this week hear Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel)
* Business Books (Make It Happen before Lunch, by Stephan Schiffman)
* Teen Book Club (Insatiable, by Eve Eliot)
* Good News (The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant)
* And the newly added Fiction Book Club (The Lecturer's Tale, by James Hynes)

The Teen Book Club intrigues me. The summer stretches ahead and I like the idea of sniffing out books for my teens with little or no effort on my part. This service (http://www.chapteraday.com/library/dpld) is like browsing in the library or bookstore without ever having to leave the house or change out of your pajamas. AND I can't resist saying that we're offering you the chance to judge a book by more than its cover.

Moira Ash is the Web Manager for the Douglas Public Library District, and invites your comments at web@mail.douglas.lib.co.us.