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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2002

April 30, 2002 - Dougie Dollars Help Pay for Fines

A friend of mine used to be the library director in a small town in Illinois. There was one little girl, Rebecca, that just couldn't get her books back on time. She was a bright, sweet child, and stopped by the library almost daily. And every day, at least one librarian would remind her, "Rebecca, you've got a book due tomorrow. Don't forget."

But she always did. Every book she checked out, she brought back late. That meant Rebecca had to pay overdue fines.

This infuriated her. Every time she'd bring back her books she'd wait as they were checked in. Then, "Do I have any fines?" she'd ask, nervously. Always, the answer was, "Yes." And Rebecca would stamp her little foot.

Now, the books were never outrageously late. But the librarians held her to the modest fine -- two cents a day -- in the vain hope that it would teach her to be a little more responsible. After all, they explained, other little girls wanted to read those books, too. Sometimes they let her work off her debt by putting the kid's books in order.

Then, one sunny Saturday morning Rebecca biked to the door, and carefully removed a basket full of books attached to her front fender. She carted it to the checkin desk.

"All of these are a day early," she said proudly (and loudly). "WHERE'S MY MONEY?"

"What could I do?" said my friend. "I paid her."

That was many years ago. It will surprise no one to learn that the price of an overdue book has gone up. On the other hand, it's hardly the rampant inflation of, say, the price of a house. At the Douglas Public Library District, we charge a nickel a day (for overdue materials, not houses) -- and for some items, we offer a "grace period" of a couple days extra. We do understand that people get busy.

We even cap the fine. For most things -- at least, providing that you bring it back -- we won't charge MORE than $3.00 per item.

Some libraries, incidentally, don't call them "fines" any more. They call them "extended use fees." It's just like any other kind of rental. If you want an item for a little extra time than usual, you pay a little more for the privilege. There's no shame attached to it -- just a decision on the part of a patron to buy more time. Your business.

Some libraries have done away with fines altogether, or just done away with them for children's materials. The last thing we want to do is to scare parents or children away from the library because they're afraid they're running up too big a tab.

To this day, when I'm introduced to people I've never met before, they often shift uneasily and say, "I've got a couple of books at home that are late." "Yes," I say sternly. "We know. That's why I'm here." Then I laugh. Sometimes, they do, too.

But I've noticed that people do remember fines, just as they remember late charges for video rentals. These little charges motivate all of us to dig around under the couch for things that otherwise wouldn't get used by anybody.

So despite the (I hope) modest discomfort fines may cause our patrons, we keep the fees because, just as we told Rebecca those many years ago, they help keep the books moving.

You may have noticed, however, our recent distribution of "Dougie dollars." These library coupons, featuring the friendly face of Dougie P. L. Dog, are redeemable only for fines (not to pay for lost books) and only at DPLD libraries.

So remember, you don't have to feel embarrassed when a book comes back a little late. We're not trying to bankrupt you, and we're delighted that you're using the library.

But it couldn't hurt to carry a Dougie dollar or two, just in case.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

April 24, 2002 - Patron Confidentiality

Sometimes I joke about it. Now that King Soopers and Safeway have foisted their credit cards on me (in exchange for some terrific discounts), I know that they can also track my purchasing habits. Not that my habits are all that weird. I buy tortillas and beans. I buy pre-grated cheese. I buy pre-chopped salad. I buy lots of fruit, and have a fondness for squash, and more rarely, cauliflower.

I like wild rice. I buy more chicken than beef. I have a weakness for sausage (both chorizo and Italian). I LOVE organic apple juice.

And now you know everything they know.

But occasionally, just to throw them off, I buy something I don't want, don't need, won't use. Try to profile ME, will they? Hah!

Childish? You bet. But I'm aware that with the advent of computers, it's getting far too easy to collect such data, both on the individual level, and the aggregate.

On the one hand, I understand that such data gathering is good business.

First, you have a really good handle on who buys what. That means you can identify both your customer base, and their preferences. Together, that translates to good inventory control. You stock what your customers want.

Second, you can target your advertising very precisely. You can generate coupons at the register for just those items people buy. That brings them back for other purchases. You can generate mailings (or sell lists for other people's mailings) for products most likely to appeal to them.

Together, these strategies mean more sales. They also mean, for many customers, that they only get the advertising that interests them.

So why not do the same thing in the library world? To check out a book or unlock a database, you already need (and probably already have) a library card. It would be simplicity itself to build patron profiles.

Many of our patrons have checked out literally thousands of books, videos, and tapes. Just by cross-tabbing our data files, we could easily determine that Ms. B- checks out mostly children's books, the odd mystery, and Vogue magazine.

It wouldn't be hard to take that one step further. What are her FAVORITE children's and mystery writers? When we get a new book, why not send her an e-mail to say we got it? Better yet, why not put it on hold for her automatically?

This would be good for her (less work to get more books). It would be good for us (less work for more use).

So why don't we? Why not adopt cutting edge technologies to push our inventory?

Well, librarians have a bias. We think that your transactions with us are nobody's business but yours. Every time we buy an automated system we demand that it deliberately throw historical data away.

That's worth highlighting. At this writing, there is NO public library computer system that gathers and stores the pattern of your library use.

How come? Because we hesitate to create a record that somebody else (NOT you) could ask for.

Maybe you're reading a book about mental illness. Maybe it's about divorce. Maybe it's about sexual dysfunction, or substance abuse, or bankruptcy.

If we don't preserve such information, then nobody can get it from us.

The recent decision of the Colorado Supreme Court (Tattered Cover versus the City of Thornton) says that "The First Amendment ... protects more than simply the right to speak freely .... it safeguards a wide spectrum of activities, including ... the right to receive information and ideas."

To librarians, the ideas you receive from the public library — the most comprehensive collection of intellectual artifacts imaginable, whose value is far beyond what even the wealthiest of our citizens can afford — are PRIVATE.

That means that the books, magazines, and web pages you read are nobody's business but yours, for whatever reasons you may have.

That means that the videos and DVD's and music you borrow from us, not to mention the questions you ask of us are, utterly confidential.

Frankly, sometimes this troubles me. We could offer you way better service. We could make your interactions with the library far more efficient. Librarians are really, really smart about just what technology can do.

But we've held ourselves back. Why? Because when it comes right down to it, we think that what YOU think about shouldn't be part of a governmental file.

What do you think about that? Are you glad we feel this way? Or is it time for us to get with the program, serving you better in the confidence that the courts will protect you?

I'd like to know. My phone number is 720-733-8624. You can also reach me at jlarue@jlarue.com.

I promise I won't tell anybody where it came from.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

April 17, 2002 - Tattered Cover Bookstore v. City of Thornton

Here are the facts.

The Thornton police department, as part of an ongoing criminal investigation, was watching a trailer home in Thornton. They suspected it was the site of a methamphetamine lab.

On March 13, 2000, the police went through some of the home's outside trash. The officer found not only evidence of drug operations, but also a mailing envelope from the Tattered Cover addressed to "Suspect A" -- one of the people living in the trailer home, and suspected to be involved in the drug operation.

The Tattered Cover mailer listed the invoice number, order number, and customer phone number. It did not, however, list the book or books that had been mailed.

The next day, the police got a warrant to search inside the trailer. In the master bedroom, they indeed found a methamphetamine lab, and a small amount of the drug.

Some evidence was available to link the suspects to the occupants of the bedroom. However, the police didn't try to match up the fingerprints taken from the glass equipment to any of the suspects. They did find two books about how to manufacture illegal drugs. These books were observed to be "new," and to match the approximate dimensions of the Tattered Cover mailer. Based on its website information, Tattered Cover did offer both books for sale.

Subsequent analysis by police experts revealed that the two books had never been read. Other books were in the bedroom, too, but were not seized. The Thornton officer then got a Drug Enforcement Agency administrative subpoena, demanding the title of the books corresponding to the order and invoice numbers of the mailer. Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover, contacted the store's attorney.

Then, the police officer, without informing the Adams County DA's office, got a warrant from the Denver District Attorney. The officer, and five other policeman, tried to execute the warrant on April 5, 2000. Again, Meskis called an attorney, who in turn contacted the Denver DA's office. The DA persuaded the police offers not to execute the warrant at that time.

Tattered Cover then brought suit against the City of Thornton. A trial court met to consider the search warrant's validity. That court granted a restraining order for part of the warrant (the suspect's 30 day purchasing history). Thornton subsequently abandoned that broader request.

The Colorado State Supreme Court then agreed to review the case. On April 8, 2002, they found for the Tattered Cover.

How come?

In general, the court said, "The Supreme Court recognized that both the United States and the Colorado Constitutions protect the rights of the general public to purchase books anonymously, without governmental interference."

Further, the Supreme Court stated that "The First Amendment ... protects more than simply the right to speak freely .... it safeguards a wide spectrum of activites, including ... the right to receive information and ideas."

Moreover, before law enforcement officials can obtain a warrant to discover which books a customer has purchased from an innocent, third-party bookseller, they must show a compelling need. That need must meet a specific "balancing" test:

* are there reasonable alternative methods to meet the government's need?

* is the search warrant unduly broad?

* are officials seeking the purchased records for reasons related to the CONTENTS of any particular book?

The Supreme Court concluded that the test was not met in this case, and that the warrant should not have been issued.

Why did the Tattered Cover resist the warrant? There were two reasons:
(1) Joyce Meskis believes in the right to privacy, of a confidential relationship between bookseller and book buyer.
(2) At least 100 letters from her customers attested to the fact that if book buyers thought their purchases were NOT confidential, many of them would simply stop buying books from Tattered Cover.

How does this affect your relationship with other bookstores? Meskis's bold willingness to face down six armed law enforcement officers means that the government will only have the ability to find out what books you've bought if that's the ONLY way the government can solve some important crime. They can't go fishing. They can't just ask because they think the subjects you read about incline you toward criminal behavior.

How does this affect your relationship with the library? More about that next week.

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

April 10, 2002 - An Open Mind

Some years ago a woman who read my columns every week told me, "You and I are the only people in Douglas County with an open mind."

I grinned. She said, "No really. I always agree with you."

That tickled me, too. Why? For one thing, just because you agree with someone doesn't mean that person has an open mind; it only means you share the same opinions.

For another, in the course of writing a column, it's not unusual for me to change my own mind three or four times.

Yet, I think I DO have an open mind. Here's why: no matter how much research I've done, I always entertain the possibility that I might be wrong.

I've learned, over the years, that this is a fairly unusual characteristic. People receive or fabricate opinions early in life, and spend a sometimes astonishing amount of energy defending those opinions, whether or not there's a whole lot of evidence for them.

Or to paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, "When confronted with contrary evidence, people have two choices: change their prejudice, or try to justify it. Most folks get busy on the proof."

I'm not immune to this, of course. I do have my biases.

But back when I was still a kid, I remember a very clear dream. Some fifteen people were gathered around the table. I was one of them. Everyone (men, women, people of various races) said something, sometimes in languages I didn't speak.

Then, abruptly, we all SHIFTED. Now I was the next person, number 14 instead of 15. We went around the table again, and this time, I said what that person said the last time. When the next cycle completed, we shifted again. This went on all night.

Here's the peculiar truth of my psyche: I really can imagine waking up tomorrow in almost anybody's life.

I share this trait with all my siblings: one brother, and both sisters. I don't know where we got it -- maybe from my mother, a gifted head nurse for the Veteran's Administration. She had an unusually strong sense of empathy. I do know that whenever my siblings heard someone's life story, we all found it remarkably easy to imagine ourselves inside of it.

Like the service orientation of nursing, librarianship encourages this idiosyncrasy. Whether we're behind the circulation desk, the reference desk, or sequestered in the back room, the ability to see things from the other side means that librarians can be quick to get what you're after.

It can also be bewildering. Some people have the reassuring ability always to know what's right. They're conservative, no question. Or they're liberal, how else? Or they're Christian, or Jew, or Hindu, just as they're supposed to be. I admit that such an attitude baffles me.

To be genuinely open-minded is a lot of work. It means that you're always dredging up your hidden premises, and exposing them to contradictory evidence. It means that you always have to seriously consider the notion that you were, and might be right now, utterly mistaken. It means that even if you pick out a new belief, that might be wrong, too.

I've never met anybody who thought that sounded like fun. Except my own family.

Except librarians.

Wednesday, April 3, 2002

April 3, 2002 - Recently Passed "Patriot Act" is Worrisome

The FBI wants to know what you're reading.

Of course, not you, personally. Probably.

But consider section 215 of the recently passed "Patriot Act." It authorizes the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or his designee to seek an order from a specialized federal court "requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities."

You may ask, couldn't a law enforcement agency, if it suspected you of committing some crime, request information about what you bought from a bookstore, or checked out from a library anyhow?

Yes. But until now, a bookstore or library had the opportunity to protest the warrant in court, arguing that the request was outrageous, or unnecessary, or too broad. But under the Patriot Act, "[n]o person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained)." In other words, the law says you can't talk to anybody: not the press, not the American Civil Liberties Union, and some think, not even your own lawyer.

In more informal terms, this is known as a "gag order."

Moreover, Section 802 of the Patriot Act gives a definition of "domestic terrorism" that is a little worrisome. It includes "acts [that] appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." On the other hand, Section 215 says, "An investigation under this section shall not be conducted of a United States person solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States."

Is writing or reading a book in which some violent act or potentially violent philosophy is described and tacitly approved "intended to influence the policy of a government?" Is the act of reading itself an act of intimidation or coercion? The problem can be summed up in the old question: "Who decides?" The Patriot Act makes that very clear: the government decides.

What happens if you (as a librarian or bookstore owner) disagree? The law not only requires you to comply anyhow, it forbids you from saying anything about it.

Naturally, no library or bookstore has any interest in aiding or abetting acts of terrorism. And September 11 proved that there are indeed people who would commit such crimes. I support our law enforcement agencies in their difficult task of ensuring public safety.

But let's be honest. It is unwise for any citizen to put too much BLIND trust in the performance of any government, particularly when it demands secrecy. There is simply too much evidence of abuse. As the recent spate of DNA investigations has demonstrated, duly appointed authorities have sentenced perfectly innocent people to death, have in fact murdered people who committed no crimes at all. The FBI itself has a history of overreaching constitutional boundaries, most notably under J. Edgar Hoover.

Closer to home, Denver police have requested purchase records from the Tattered Cover. They have also made lists and done background checks on all kinds of civic activists, including the Quakers.

In their wisdom, the Founders of this nation established a system of independent checks and balances. The sad truth of the human condition is that nobody can be trusted all of the time. Sometimes the legislative branch goes too far; sometimes the executive; sometimes the judicial; and sometimes, the agencies entrusted with law enforcement.

Outside of government, there are other kinds of checks and balances. The media may uncover abuse of power, and through public exposure and discussion, precipitate reform. If, that is, the media knows about those abuses.

Then there is the public library. A long cherished tenet of librarianship is "patron confidentiality." It states that your use of the library is private, a matter between you and the library only. You may read about communism without fear of being branded a communist. You may read mysteries without being rounded up as a potential murderer. You may read about the abuse of governmental power without being jailed for treason.

I believe that in the utterly misnamed Patriot Act, this core premise of librarianship is under direct attack by the federal government.

Am I just being alarmist? How many libraries have actually been forced to fork over user records?

According to a recent article by civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, as of March 25, 2002, nervous informants have revealed that the FBI has conducted at least three "visitations." To public libraries? Bookstores? Were the requests justified?

We don't know. It's against the law to say. And there's the rub.