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, August 29, 2001

August 29, 2001 - Audio Warning Labels

The first time I saw Alanis Morissette, she was playing the part of God in the movie, "Dogma." I liked her face. It had complexity and depth.

The first time I got around to listening to her music was when someone complained about her use of two 4-letter words in her 1995, Grammy-winning release, "Jagged Little Pill."

The patron lodging the complaint had a pretty compelling story. She had been driving along the highway, listening to a library CD with her young children, when she suddenly heard a word that made her lurch for the eject button.

I've been there.

You spin around to glance at your children. And you see one of three things.

1) They're clearly involved in something else. They didn't hear a thing. Yes!

2) They heard it. Their eyes are wide. They are looking at you with that attitude that says, "I just heard a bad word." The good news (I think): they already know that it's a bad word.

3) They are utterly absorbed in the music. They nod, quietly repeating the words to themselves. They are completely oblivious to you, your shock, and your clearly futile attempt to manage their environment.

When it comes to 3), you can't help but want to blame all of several parties: the artist singing the song, the publisher who pressed the CD, and, alas, the ever humble local library that provided it to you and your children.

I see the point. Even supposing that you believe the library has an obligation to buy the more popular offerings of our culture, couldn't we at least find a way to give a head's up to the parents? That's what our patron wanted us to do: put some kind of label on it.

On the one hand, we do "label" many of our holdings right now. It's called "Cataloging." We assign a location for all items. Most broadly, they are "adult" or "juvenile." It happens that "Jagged Little Pill" is in our adult collection. But that's not because of the two four letter words that appear in Morissette's music. Her audience just isn't children between the ages of 2 and 10 or 11.

It happens that music companies are supposed to do their own labeling. It began in the early 1980s, kicked off by a group that eventually called itself the Parents' Music Resource Center. Among the people connected with this effort was Tipper Gore, Al Gore's wife. Finally, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed to enforce its own standards, much as the movie industry does.

But instead of ratings (G, PG, etc.) it adopted a warning or advisory label about "explicit lyrics" (alternatively, companies could print the lyrics on the outside of the item).

These days, the so-called Parental Advisory program has two pieces: first, stores post a sign that says, "The Parental Advisory is a notice to parents that recordings identified by this logo may contain strong language or depictions of violence, sex or substance abuse. Parental discretion is advised."

Second, recording companies have been encouraged to follow strict, but voluntary, guidelines about the use of the advisory label. I've tried to get a copy of those guidelines from the RIAA, thus far without success.

So what's the bottom line? Well, I guess I have four comments.

First, whatever the guidelines, Morissette doesn't have a warning label from the producer.

Second, I'm not sure the library can be expected to listen to the entirety of every piece of music we buy, in order to detect the use of certain words. You can see some of the problems: Which words? How many of them?

Third, after we attach all of our other labels to it, there's not a whole lot of room LEFT on a CD. Anything we add would, I fear, completely obscure what information is already present.

Fourth, I guess that means that parents have to figure that, like almost anything else in the adult area, adult language will sometimes be present. (And checking for the printed lyrics is one strategy.) Like so many other things, that means yet another talk with the kids. I realize that this is far from a perfect solution.

But I will say this: that Alanis Morissette can SING.

Wednesday, August 22, 2001

August 22, 2001 - The Tyranny of Numbers

I was bragging about my Associate Director, Rochelle Logan. Rochelle used to crunch numbers for the Colorado State Library, and speaks nationally on the topic of library statistics. I was enthused about some of the new reports she's cooked up. Having an acknowledged statistical expert on staff is handy.

But the colleague I was bragging to was full of dark forebodings. "Beware the tyranny of numbers," he said.

"Whatever are you talking about?" I said. "I use statistics for all kinds of things. They help me track trends in use. They help me find trouble spots and -"

"Exactly," said my colleague. "Trouble spots. When you get statistics, you get comparisons. When you get comparisons, inevitably, you get competition. And then you say to one manager, 'Gee, your program stats are much lower than everybody else's.' And then that manager starts manipulating the statistics to look good."

"Pish," I said, "and tosh. It may be that some libraries act that way. But then the problem isn't with the numbers, it's with how they are used."

"Are you saying you DON'T compare the statistics between your branches?" "Sure I do!" I said.

"And you don't follow-up with the managers to find out why there are differences in certain kinds of costs or library use?"

"Well, yes," I said, "but that's useful information for everybody. I encourage our managers to experiment, to try different things at different branches. It doesn't do any good to experiment, if you don't honestly report the results. Sometimes it turns out that a program, or service, catches on at one location, and bombs at another."

"My point exactly," said my colleague, "so that means the place where it worked, you had a better manager, right?"

"I don't see it that way," I said. "Different strategies yield different results. My managers get together pretty regularly to talk about this stuff. Sometimes one key factor turned the trick: advance publicity, for instance. If one manager learns something that worked well, the other managers give it a try. But more often than not, I learn something I've suspected from the beginning."

"What's that?"

"That each of our branches operates in a unique community. Library statistics do say something about the library, but they say even more about the community."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, the fact that one branch has a high use of educational software clearly has something to do with the fact it launched the service, and our other libraries don't have any yet. But let's say that both libraries offer an identical program for seniors, or for bilingual families. In that case, the number of people who show up for it reflect not the library offering, but the demographics of the community."

"How do you sort out which is the library and which is the community?" he asked.

"More numbers, for one thing. The 2000 census stuff will be very helpful. But also, more experiments," I said. "Say a young adult program doesn't catch on one year. But it might the next. The only way to find out is to model the experiments on successes elsewhere in the district — but also on things that haven't been tried yet."

"What about costs? Once you start tracking all this stuff, don't you feel pressured to find cheaper and cheaper ways to do them?"

"Well, I'm a fiscal conservative, if that's what you mean. It's certainly not my goal to find the most expensive way to run a library."

"Aha! So you do manage by spreadsheet. The tyranny of numbers!"

"But again, sometimes you have to poke the numbers to find out what's behind them. Suppose, for instance, that staff costs are way lower in one branch than another. The reason? Way more part-timers. But it might be that having too many part-timers drives up other costs -- supervisory time for evaluations, training time for new employees, more benefits administration. That's important information."

"But if all that numbers do is drive you to look for more numbers, then what's the point? I say again, you're slaving under the despotism of data."

"Catchy," I admit. "But ultimately, that's just paranoid. What's the alternative? Ignorance? The purpose of gathering and analyzing data is to understand your environment. It may not answer all your questions, but it can at least get you to ask better questions."

My colleague sighed. "So you're going to keep running your ship according to the numbers?"

"'Fraid so. But not just on the numbers."

"Oh? What else?"

"The good judgment of my staff."

"Even when it contradicts the spreadsheets? How come?"

"Simple," I said. Then I smiled. "I've learned that I can count on it."

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

August 15, 2001 - Newspaper Readership

I've been writing library columns for local newspapers for 13 years now. I believe that libraries and newspapers have strong similarities; we are natural allies.

The recent acquisition of the former Weekly News Chronicle by Colorado Community Newspapers got me curious. Ten years ago, there were as many as five separately owned newspapers in Douglas County. This marks the first column I've written that will appear, all at once, in four different newspapers (serving the communities of Highlands Ranch, Lone, Parker, and the rest of Douglas County).

The good news is, I now only have to write one column a week.

But I began to wonder: what's the business outlook for newspapers? Here's what I've learned.

In general, newspaper readership in America is slowly, but steadily, falling. In 1970, some 77% of Americans regularly read a newspaper; by 2000, that number had fallen to 58%. There are generational differences: 70% of pre-Boomers (born before 1945) subscribe to the local newspaper, compared to 58% for Boomers (born between 1946-1964), and falling to 47% of Gen-Xers (born between 1965-1976).

One study focused on the differences between two key demographic groups. Both Boomers and Gen Xers say they read newspapers to keep up-to-date on what is happening locally, nationally and internationally, and because newspapers provide them with depth and detail. About 7 out of 10 of both groups scan headlines, then focus on topics of interest.

Boomers are drawn to editorial and opinion pages and business coverage. Gen Xers are not. One reporter summed it up as follows: "Your job, Xers seem to be saying, is to give us the news in a straight-forward manner. We'll decide what we think about it."

There are also significant differences between men and women. More men read the paper; but more women read the ads. Newspapers depend on ad revenue, far more than on subscriptions.

It's not all bad news. In a typical week, according to another study, about 85 percent of the adult U.S. population uses a newspaper. Nationally, that's considerably better than the number of people who visit a library in a week. One newspaper editor noted, "We still sell more than 56 million newspapers a day, and an average of 2.23 people read each copy. No other medium reaches so many people on a regular basis." USA Today (America's largest daily), the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times have all seen modest increases in circulation since last year.

Overall, however, American newspaper readership dropped by .9% from 2000 to 2001. In the Denver metro area, things were worse. At the conclusion of the subscriber wars in Denver, Denver Rocky Mountain News circulation declined 17.9% over last year; Denver Post dropped by 11.9%. The Sunday Post, however, became the nation's fifth-largest Sunday paper, with a circulation of 970,934.

As you might expect, newspaper publishers and editors do see the writing on the wall. Since 1999, they have tried to better understand their actual and potential markets.

Most significant is the so-called Impact Study, conducted just last year. It involved several parties: the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University, the Newspaper Association of America, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The study, based on the results of 37,000 surveys from 100 newspapers of various sizes, showed that while the readers expect a variety of content, they have distinct preferences that may build frequency of readership. According to one summary, "At the top of the list is intensely local, people-centered news, which includes stories about ordinary people, community announcements and obituaries."
The bottom line: newspapers still play a significant role in informing local citizens about matters of local consequence. And like any other business, newspapers have their challenges.

Here's wishing the good people at Colorado Community Newspapers every success.

Wednesday, August 8, 2001

August 8, 2001 - 9 principles of Boardsmanship

I think I've worked about every side of this now. I have worked FOR a Board in three capacities: as the Chief Executive Officer (a library director hired by, reporting to, and accountable solely to the Board), as the staff member working for the CEO (but presenting information to the Board), and as an independent contractor or consultant.

I have worked ON a Board as a member (sometimes with few responsibilities, sometimes as a committee member or chair), as an executive officer (Secretary, for instance), and as Board President.

In that time, I've worked out some expectations of Board members. I sure wish someone had given all this to me at the beginning. So in the hopes that this might do some good, I hereby offer Nine Principles of Boardsmanship.

1. Understand the difference between governance and management. The purpose of the Board is oversight -- the big issues. Keep your eye on mission, on planning, on broad institutional strategy. Don't mess with day to day operational decisions.

2. Respect your fellow Board members' time. Stay focused on the tasks before you. All of us have lives that matter to us. Unless you have good reasons not to (meaning "reasons that are vital to the organization and actually involve you"), stick to the agenda.

3. Bring all relevant information to the Board. The purpose of the Board is to make informed decisions, to provide intelligent organizational leadership. If you have data that matters, bring it forth. Don't sit on it in the hopes you'll get your way. That's intellectually sloppy and morally dishonest.

4. Thoughtfully consider the opinions of others. Board deliberations do not consist of waiting for the other person to finish so you can speak. They consist of open-minded evaluations of the ideas of your colleagues, and staff. This obligation extends to each issue, not just to the people you usually agree with.

5. Have your say. Argue passionately for your beliefs. Articulate your opinions as clearly, concisely, and forcefully as possible.,

6. Vote your conscience -- what you believe, not what you think others might believe. Don't assume consensus when it could be that people are waiting to see how it comes out, or waiting for someone else to voice their dissatisfied but inchoate opinion. Take a stand!

7. Represent the "Board decision" honestly. It could be that you voted your conscience -- and were roundly defeated. So be it. Be clear about when you're speaking as yourself, and when you represent the Board. You're entitled to your opinions, your doubts, and your free speech. But do your colleagues and your audience the courtesy of clearly identifying the speaker. As a member of the Board, begin with a careful representation, without slander, of the decision of that body.

8. Move forward until new evidence urges a reconsideration. Don't keep revisiting things you've already decided. On the other hand, sometimes new evidence arises that compels you to think again. It could be that new evidence supports your dissenting opinion. Or it could be that it contradicts the majority opinion that you agreed with. But if you've got new data, be prepared to consider a new decision.

9. Build the organization by example. This is a big one. It speaks to fundamental attitude. There are lots of pieces to this, but here are the main ones:

* Presume innocence and the good intention of all parties.

* Make each other look good: speak well of your fellow Board members. Build on each other's work.

* Hold to the vision -- spend your time working FOR the big organization goals (not against this or that).

And, just in case you don't hear this enough, thank you for caring enough about an organization to give it your time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2001

August 1, 2001 - Teen Dreams

Some 15 years ago I did a workshop on creative writing. It was at a private school, grades K-12.

I started all the sessions with a simple question: who remembers what they dreamt last night? In the kindergarten class, every hand went up. Of course, not every child really did remember his or her dreams. But they all remembered something ABOUT their dreams and were eager to share it.

My pedagogical point that day was that everybody dreams. Nobody has to be taught how. The source of dreams is the same as the source for writing: something absolutely basic to the human birthright. But while I was teaching, I was also learning. I learned that with every grade, fewer hands went up. By the time I got to the tenth grade I was getting only one or two, and that furtively. The seniors, it would seem, slept in total, dignified, yet slightly cynical, blankness. The Sleep of the Undead.

Of course, just as some kindergartners raised their hands but really didn't remember their dreams of the night before, many teenagers did remember, but said nothing. What I was measuring was not nocturnal creativity, but the willingness to talk about it in the daylight, surrounded by peers.

I repeated the experiment in several schools, and the results were pretty consistent. Young people -- children between the ages of 4 and 8 -- had a more permeable barrier between their inner lives and their outer behavior. They concealed less, offered more.

Older children -- up to the ages of legal adults -- had somewhere learned, or been taught, or simply grew the knowledge within themselves, not to casually discuss their inner lives in public settings. They got wary.

It would be easy to say, "Isn't that a shame?" But sometimes dreams must pass through a period of containment, of silence, before they can be forged into something enduring and tangible. The teen years are a crucible, a time and a place for stoking and directing the inner flames -- and seeing what remains at the end.

Moreover, teen dreams can have more complex, disturbing content than those of young children. In the creation of personality, all those themes have to be assigned a value and a place. It takes time to figure out what's OK to feel, and to talk about, and to make real.

Hence the whole universe of what librarians call "Young Adult Literature." Here are the coming of age stories, the tales of first, terrible decisions and human signposts: the death of a parent or a friend, the first love, the first inkling of a career, the first big life lessons.

None of this is new, of course. In earlier times, all this was symbolized by that sturdy set piece of fairy tales: the woods. One day, it's into the woods, to flee or to find danger, and with luck, to come out at the end with the prize beyond price.

Speaking of fairy tales set in the forest, it happens that both of my children are in the upcoming Castle Rock Players production of Hansel and Gretel, directed by the talented Chris McCoy. (It runs from August 2 through August 5, at the Douglas County High School. Tickets have been on sale for awhile, but will also be available on a walk-in basis.) I highly recommend it.

Many theater productions are springing up in and around Douglas County these days. All of them entertain. But most of them, too, struggle with recurrent issues of human meaning. Those issues interest people of all ages.

After all, what are books and films and theater but the dreams we have when we're awake?