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, January 30, 2002

January 30, 2002 - Libraries Still Reasonably Safe Public Places

When I was a kid, I remember heading over to a local carnival one summer night. With me was a buddy about the same age. We were 7 years old or so. We had a good time listening to the barkers, agonizing over which rides most deserved our meager allowances, and generally soaking up atmosphere.

Then we met a very well dressed, middle aged man who was unusually friendly. He bought us a couple of snow cones and seemed to want to hang around us. Finally, he asked if he could show us something he had out in his car.

I remember looking at my friend, who returned the gaze blankly. I said, "Sure! Are you out in the parking lot?"

The man smiled, "Just around the corner behind this tent," he said. "Great!" I said. "But I left my hat back by the ticket booth. We'll go get it, and meet you there!"

He seemed pleased, and wandered off into the dark, toward where he said his car was.

My friend and I turned toward the ticket booth. The instant the man was out of sight, both of us starting running. We didn't stop till we got home.

In part, our suspicions went back to the "never take candy from strangers" talk from our moms (which we had just done, of course). But it was also intuition. It just didn't add up.

That was 40 years ago. Those were, I've been told, the good old days.

More recently, just this month in fact, a library patron, quietly minding her own business in the Denver Public Library's children's room, was suddenly attacked by a man with a knife. Also this month, as featured prominently in the metro media, children have been sexually assaulted in public schools, and even in a church.

So parents are understandably worried. I even had someone ask me, "Is our library safe?"

Here's the straight story: no.

The awful truth is, anywhere you go, whether it be the grocery store, the gas station, the post office, or even your own home, someone could turn violent. If you're looking for absolute guarantees of personal safety, at the library or anywhere else, I'm afraid you're out of luck.

Some people are deeply disturbed and unpredictable. Sometimes they go to public places.

On the other hand, what so often gets lost in these discussions is a sense of perspective. In 2001 alone, our libraries had over 1.8 million visits. As far as I'm aware (and I believe I would have heard) not one person was mugged, knifed, or sexually assaulted.

In fact, I don't think it's EVER happened at any of our libraries. The odds are very much against it happening now. Even Denver Public, which has annual foot traffic greater than every single sporting event in the city COMBINED, and has been in business for over a century, has apparently had such an act of violence occur just once.

It's easy to be torn. I am confident that the public library is a REASONABLY safe place to hang out, no matter how old you are. But it also worries me when I see small, unaccompanied children apparently abandoned here.

Sure, we supervise public space. Sure, we'll step in if something looks amiss. But there are loonies out there, and bad things can happen fast.

So remember: the odds are very good that everything is perfectly fine at the library, both for you and your kids. But don't abandon kids too small to look after themselves, even if you'll be "right back." Even with older kids, instruct them to tell one of our staff if anyone is bothering them.

And stay alert.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

January 23, 2002 - Even Idleness Fraught With Import

"Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 at a speed of 35 mph." (Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

That charming quote is, I believe, the only circumstance I can imagine in which the old math story problem actually generates any interest for me.

From my perspective, since I have never been charged with making sure that, for instance, one space capsule correctly rendezvoused with another, this kind of math problem was a complete waste of time for me. I didn't enjoy, I never used it, I never will use it.

On the other hand, take something like sentence diagramming. Now THAT, I loved. To my delight, it's apparently making a comeback. At least, my daughter (who is in middle school) has been coming home with sentence diagramming homework. We've had a lovely time on the tricky ones. She likes sentence diagramming, too.

Of course, honesty compels me to admit that although I've been in a lot of peculiar business situations, never once has somebody said, "Hold on! We're going to have to diagram this sentence, or we're in real trouble."

What's my point? Perfectly useless skills fall into two categories: useless and boring, useless and interesting. I think I should be spared from the boring ones. This frees up the time for the interesting ones.

The problem, of course, at least from the educational perspective, is that you never know in advance just which specific exercise will fall into a particular student's "interesting" category. There are people who despise sentence diagramming. There are people who adore to calculate the exact instant when two trains might collide.

Moreover, my wife tells me that sentence diagramming might actually have some educational significance. Those who master sentence diagramming, she says, understand the underlying structure of language. Hence, they tend to write more clearly. That makes perfect sense to me.

Although, come to think of it, then I would imagine that the folks who "get" the two train exercise have a similar insight into the laws governing motion and time. That's the sort of thing that might be handy in, oh, an air traffic controller. And possibly other professions and circumstances.

I may be on to something here. Let's try another example.

OK. There are people who just can't understand why anyone would want to read fiction. Let's face it; by definition, it's not true. It has no practical application. Why waste your time reading it?

But then, I notice that the more people read fiction, the better they grasp the underlying principles of relationships. They begin to see patterns in human interaction. This gives them insight into countless real life situations. That includes everything from their first date to keeping up with local politics. Reading fiction is like living many lifetimes: you get the distilled experience of all kinds of characters.
That means, just possibly, you won't make as many mistakes in your own life.

So, what have we learned? It would seem that even totally useless things can turn out to be positively practical. Even idleness is fraught with import.

It's getting harder and harder to really waste your time these days.

Wednesday, January 16, 2002

January 16, 2002 - Newcomer

Every now and then, I like to repeat some key information for Douglas County's many newcomers.

First of all, welcome! You'll find that Colorado is a hard place to leave. Douglas County not only enjoys Colorado's remarkable climate, but also offers extraordinary views, a highly educated community, and a surprisingly rich history.

Second, let me tell you a little bit about your library. The Douglas Public Library District, founded by citizen vote in 1990, is an independent governmental entity serving the residents of Douglas County. It depends for its funding on property tax: 4 mills (that's .0004 of your assessed value). That averages out to somewhere between $40 and $60 per year per household.

What does that buy you? Well, there are four "full service libraries" in the county. "Full service" means "open 7 days a week." These libraries are located in the communities of Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, and Parker.

In addition, we have 3 "satellite libraries" located in Cherry Valley, Louviers, and Roxborough. These libraries vary in hours, but can be counted on to be open at least two or three days a week. We also offer a books by mail program to our Deckers patrons, way out in the southwest tip of the county.

All together, we have some 400,000 items: books, magazines, videos, audiotapes, DVD's, CD's, local history materials, and more. Our full service libraries also offer Internet terminals. Computers in the children's room are filtered. Computers in the adult areas are not.

The basic library service is "circulation" -- checking materials in and out. We also offer reference services in person, by telephone, or by email.

A huge part of our business involves children. In addition to an ever-growing collection of picture books, juvenile fiction and non-fiction, as well as various other media, we also offer creative and dedicated staff. Our employees offer an astonishing number of story times. All of our full service libraries give at least one story time session per week day, and often as many as three. The sessions are free.

We were the first Web site in the county, and we continue to be one of the deepest. You can find us at www.dpld.org -- and you'll see that it offers everything from 24X7 access to our catalog (including the ability to place reserves, check the status of your card, and renew materials), to a host of commercial databases. If it's 10:30 p.m., the day before a school or business report is due, our Web site can help you find current
and authoritative information from thousands of periodicals and other online resources.

Another of our contributions is community meeting space. We provide free public space for local and non-profit groups -- literally hundreds of meetings a year.

Among our most precious resources, however, is the people who work here. You may have run across good service before. At our libraries, you'll see excellent service, day after day, year after year. We have the brightest, most dedicated, most persistent people you'll ever find.

The purpose of the public library is pretty clear. It's our job to gather, organize, and provide public access to the intellectual capital of our culture. We take that job very seriously. That means that sometimes you'll find things that startle or offend you. But you'll also find deep, nourishing sources of information to help you in your quest
for learning and meaning.

The library works hard to be visible. That means you'll find listings for all our location in the yellow pages (look under "Library"). We publish an extensive weekly calendar in the newspaper, as well as a steady stream of press releases announcing speakers, reading programs (we do three a year for kids, and another one for adults), and other events.

We're also available as speakers. Just ask at your local library.

If, at any time, you think of something you wish we were doing, or would provide, just let us know. I'm the director of the library, and you can track me down at 720-733-8624, or via email at jlarue@jlarue.com.

And welcome again to Douglas County. Have you got your library card yet?

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

January 9, 2002 - New Years Resolution

A dozen years or so ago, I made some money on the side by writing software reviews. Once a month, I’d install some 5 or 6 programs on my computer, and put them through their paces. Then I’d crank out 2,500 words about them, and delete the software from my machine.

I formed a prejudice for something that rarely characterizes software anymore. I liked software that was small, fast, and did one thing well. In the DOS world, I liked programs that were 64K or less in memory. Often, such programs took up about the same amount of disk space.

Even these days, just as a hobby, I’ll roam around the Internet seeking classic software. Just recently, I found a program called WordEdit for the Macintosh. This little gem uses 606K memory, and about 503K storage space. What does it do? Well, it’s a little word processor. It does fonts, justification, tabs, rulers, and so on. It also has a built-in word count, dictionary, does headers and footers, performs alphabetic sorts, and switches the case of letters. Cost: absolutely free.

At that price, of course, it’s doomed. A free product that does just about 90% of what anybody who uses a word processor needs simply can’t compete with, let’s say, Microsoft Word, an expensive program with so many features most people can’t even find them. When I installed WordEdit, it made one tidy little folder on my hard drive. When I recently installed Microsoft Word on a Macintosh, it all but forced me out of my house.

But I’m not writing about computer software, not really. I’m writing about attitude. I’m thinking about my New Year’s resolutions. This coming year, I resolve to want less.

An example: I resolve to take the 8 or 10 piles of books next to my bed and give them to the library. The library will do one of two things: either accept them, catalog them, and keep them in good order on their shelves; or pass them along to community booksales. In either case, the books will no longer be in my house. I will have fewer things to dust, shuffle through, and otherwise look after.

What will I do with the space and time thereby freed up? Well, I could spend more time reading. But the more generic answer is: Focus on the things I do well. It ISN’T (alas) dusting, shuffling through and looking after lots of objects.

What do I do well? That’s an excellent question. It may be time to find out.

We can still learn a lesson or two from those old software programs: low cost, less memory, less storage space, more focus.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

January 2, 2002 - Movies Can Encourage Kids to Read

What is WRONG with movie reviewers?

My first instinct is to be kind. They had a bad day. They just don't happen to like a particular film genre.

But then you wonder. If you choose to review movies for a living, I presume it's because you really like movies. The lights go down, the excitement of anticipation mounts. The story snatches you up to the screen. Then, later, you get to write about it! A movie critic should be happy.

Of course, a good critic should tell you when something doesn't work. But the observation should be tendered with a note of regret. We WANT to be transported, we want to believe that greatness is possible. That we see it so seldom is no cause for celebration.

Why is it, then, that so many movie reviewers get, well, snotty? Here, I'm responding to several incomprehensibly uncomprehending reviews of two movies I've seen lately. The first was "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The second was "Lord of the Rings."

I liked both movies, a lot, for two reasons.

First, they presume intelligence, both on the part of the creator, and the part of the audience.

Despite the fantastic element of both movies, the issues are all too real. In the case of Harry Potter, how do you discover the real self? Does it depend on the treatment you receive from relatives? Does it require strict adherence to institutional rules?

Lord of the Rings asks: how and when should one leave the comforts of the shire, of home, of possessions all too precious? What does it mean to be tested?

They both tackle other questions with impressive directness. How should one respond to evil? What does it mean to be, or to have, a friend?

Both have a keen eye toward character. And both, in my opinion, were very well acted.

The second reason I like these movies is that they get kids to read. I can't tell you how many young people I've seen lugging around copies of the works of J.K Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. It does a librarian's heart good to see big books in the hands of small children.

It's something of a miracle. Children have grown accustomed to getting their dreams relayed through Hollywood. They might seek the appropriate action figures, but if there's a book at all, it's written AFTER the movie, and it only comes out in paperback. In short, their dreams are commodities, transient by design.

But these two movies don't come from Hollywood. Not coincidentally, they both break the tidy American formula for length, itself based on the carefully stunted attention span of children raised in front of the tube.

It's as if these movies poked a window through the small room of their cinematic expectations. Fascinated, many children then turned to the source, the books on which the movies are based. Those children then discovered they could add whole new wings to their imaginations. No new purchase necessary.

In sum, I disagree with the critics. I enjoyed both movies tremendously, as did my children. All of us scurried back to the books, where we found great riches and life lessons.

Unlike a movie critic, I'm still happy with my field. When I crack the cover of a book (gently, gently), I still expect to find magic. And I do.