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, November 28, 2001

November 28, 2001 - New Mission Statement Reflects Connection to Community

There's something called the Fog Index. It's a simple calculation, applied to text, that tells you how complicated your writing is. In brief, when a sentence runs longer than 20 words, you start to lose people.

Back in October, the library's Board of Trustees held a long range planning retreat. One of their outcomes was a new library mission statement.

Mission statements have a faintly Dilbertish air these days. You have to brace yourself for pseudo-statements packed with whatever management buzzwords are making the rounds these days. But we tried to use several tests on our statement.

1. We wanted it to be clear. It should tell people not just WHAT the library does (provide library staff, materials and facilities), but WHY.

2. We wanted it to be brief enough for our staff to remember. (That's the Fog Index idea again.)

3. We wanted to capture the real thrust of our services at this time in our history.

All this followed some previous exercises. We listed some ideas for where we wanted to be in five years. We talked frankly about what we saw as our strengths and weaknesses. We talked about likely opportunities and threats facing the library. We gathered the perspectives not only of the Board, but of staff, of local media, and of other governmental entities in the county.

Two ideas emerged from this discussion. The first was the importance, especially post Sept. 11, of "building community." But in fact, we've been doing that for some time.

Douglas County's rapid growth over the past ten years has two sides to it. The first side is that growth brings many good things: new amenities, higher property values, more choices closer to home.

But it also means that there's an influx of people with no connection to each other. They still drive up to Denver, or down to Colorado Springs, for work. Often, they barely have time to drive home at the end of the day, eat, spend a little time with the family, and go to bed. They didn't grow up here, have family here, have friends here from before.

Yet the thirst for community remains, an essential human need.

Some people form community connections through their children. They discover 4H. They get involved in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Or they volunteer at their neighborhood schools. Or they become sport gypsies, joining the minivan and SUV caravans around the metro area.

Some turn to such community staples as churches, finding their strongest connections through rituals reflecting common beliefs.

Some build community around their business life. They delve into the Chamber of Commerce, join leads groups, and so get pulled into the community volunteerism upon which so many groups depend.

Others join recreation centers, finding allies in the struggle against cellulite. Most rare are the people drawn to directly participate in formal government: town meetings, boards and commissions.

Library people have seen for some time how a new library building energizes an area. It pulls people out of their homes and into a place that offers them so many opportunities to connect. There are are hundreds of programs for both children and adults. There are book discussion groups. There are the many, many community meetings every night, most of them open to the public. And there are the people, often eager to strike up a conversation, who hang around the same favorite sections of the library.

A second thrust of our planning was the fact that many people use the library to reinvent themselves. New parents come in to find information to make them better parents. Some people are going back to school as adults -- or retooling after a layoff. Others are negotiating such life changes as dealing with a serious illness, or retirement.

All of these people have something in common: they are working to improve their own lives. They see the library not just as an end in itself, some kind of abstract "good thing," but as a means to the betterment of the quality of their lives.

At any rate, here's our new mission statement. I offer it for your review and comment:

The Douglas Public Library District provides resources for learning and leisure to build communities and improve lives in Douglas County.

Next week I'll have a little more to say about "learning and leisure."

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

November 21, 2001 - Survey a Treasure for Library Planning

A couple of weeks ago, we asked everybody coming in to the library to fill out a brief survey.

We tested all library hours - morning, afternoon, evening, and weekend. To our great pleasure, we got over 700 responses in just a few days. In the jargon of data gathering, this is enough to be statistically significant, truly representative of the people we serve.

We learned some interesting things. First, some demographics. The most striking figure here relates to gender. Roughly 70% of our patrons are female; 30% are male. That matches our library cards registration. The mean age of our patrons is 39, and that person has lived in Douglas County for 7.72 years.

We asked how many of our patrons had various pieces of technology. A whopping 87% of our patrons have Internet access at home. 82% of them have a cassette player in their car, and 66.2% have a CD player in their car. Douglas County, incidentally, can hardly be said to be typical of the rest of the state.

Less pervasive are other emerging technologies: just 43.5% have DVD players, and a paltry 15.2% have MP3 players. Here too, though, we are no doubt ahead of the curve.

Then we asked how satisfied people were with our collection, our inventory of library holdings. By combining responses to Very satisfied, Satisfied, and Somewhat Satisfied, we get the following satisfaction ranking:

* Online databases - 96.9%
* Reference - 96.2%
* New materials -94.8%
* Books on tape - 93.8%
* Video tapes - 89.6%
* Older materials - 73.3%
* Children's materials - 66.9%
* Magazines and newspapers - 62.1%
* Music (whether on cassette or CD) - 37.8%

Then we asked people how satisfied they were with the quality of our various services. Here’s the ranking of those, again by combined total of “satisfieds.”

* Staff - 98%
* Reference staff - 98%
* Computer catalog - 97.3%
* Adult programs - 96%
* Hours - 95.3%
* Facilities (study,meeting) - 95.1%
* Children's staff - 94.7%
* DPLD website - 94.5%
* PR info about the library - 94.4%
* Children's programs - 51.1%
* Teen programs - 27.5%

It’s worth noting here that in the case of children’s programming, only 52 of our population responded to the question at all. For teen programs, only 29.5% marked it. In other words, those who used it, were satisfied. (This applies to several of the collection areas, too.)

Finally, we asked, "How important are these services to you personally?" These are the top 19 services, ranked in order of “votes,” that people put in the top five of their most important.

* Staff assistance/reference
* New materials/best sellers
* Children's materials
* Older materials
* Reference materials
* Video tapes
* Staff assistance/youth
* Books on tape
* Magazines and newspapers
* Website
* Family programs
* Catalog
* Facilities
* Databases
* Community/government info
* Music
* Adult education programs
* PR info
* Library staff active outside the library

So in broad terms, we have close to a 90% approval rating for most of our collection, especially when matched to the folks who are interested in those collections. The key exception is music, the ONLY category of our collection in which dissatisfaction rises above 10% (all the way to 70%, in fact).

Regarding our services generally, the clear winner is staff, at a 98% satisfaction level. (Thank you, staff!) The only areas where we fall below 50% satisfaction (teen and children’s programming), satisfaction ratings almost exactly match the number of people who were interested in the service to begin with.

It’s worth highlighting that despite today’s buzz about technology, the greatest single value of the library to our patrons is people, the extraordinary folks who staff our facilities. AFTER staff, people ask for materials, most of which, incidentally, are books. But it’s also clear that there is a distinct and growing interest in other formats. Finally, a few caveats. There's a difference between "very satisfied,"and "somewhat satisfied." So even in those areas where the library "scored" very well, we still have some work to do. Also, this survey only measures the opinions of those who use the library. We're working on another survey to find out more about those who don't.

The library has been working on a new long range plan. This information provides valuable insights into where we are, what our patrons think of our offerings, and where we need to go next.

I want to thank all the patrons who took five minutes to give us such a treasure trove of planning information. Now ... back to work!

Wednesday, November 14, 2001

November 14, 2001 - Character Revisited

I was born and raised in the north. So I talk, and mostly think, northern. Both my parents, though, come from the south. So my family has both types.

Of particular fascination to me is the Southern Woman. By turns brilliant and bitter, demure and demonic, she bewitches and bewilders. I've seen southern women transform from a ruthless roomful of incisive social critics to a bevy of giggling belles, and in just the instant it takes for a man to walk through the door.

And God help the man. Make no mistake, the South is a matriarchy. But men do have their small sorties and rebellions. I'm thinking about all this because I have been afforded a rare opportunity. A year ago, I had the pleasure of appearing in the play, "Greater Tuna," with my friend and cohort, David Truhler. It's a farce set in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas.

Between the two of us, we portrayed some 20 characters, most of the population of Tuna. I played two women; David played three. All of them were Southern Ladies, with that Texas twist. One of my female characters, Bertha, is a would-be censor of library books.

Well, it happens that we're reprising the play again this year, as a fundraiser for the Castle Rock Players. You can get tickets by calling 303-814-7740. Our shows, in Castle Rock, are Thursday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m., a matinee on Saturday at 12:30, and a Sunday performance at 4 p.m. All of them take place at Kirk Hall, at the Douglas County fairgrounds. The cost is $15 per ticket.

Actors rarely have the chance to reprise previous parts. I'm finding that the second shot is instructive. The characters have grown in my imagination. I feel that I have more insight into their deep motives, their longings and their disappointments.

They now feel to me not like skits, or gags. They feel like whole people.

It's made me realize just how much life, and reading, is like acting.

All of us have selves: the work self, the family self. Or maybe it's the public self and the private self. That self is made manifest by the choices we make: how we dress, how we carry ourselves, the patterns of our speech and gestures.

In short, we present a character to the world. That character is intelligible—or not. If the character has clarity of choice, a consistency of presentation, it is comprehensible. If the character behaves so randomly that it cannot be predicted or grasped, then it doesn't feel like a character at all.

Likewise, character is a trap—or not. If it hems us in with an ever smaller set of responses, in the name of tradition, of consistency, of social expectation, it is a kind of jail cell.

On the other hand, if the character allows us the full range of our emotions and intelligence, if it has the ability to change, then that character is a stage, like the stage of a rocket.

It's like going back to a library book you read and liked, and this time, with a year's extra experience, getting more out of every page.

There is a value in re-reading. There is a value in revisiting a character you have played before. And there is a value in seeing a play you have seen before.

I hope to see you at Kirk Hall.