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 28, 2002

August 28, 2002 - New Tools for the Desktop

It's a kind of illness. I know that.

Nonetheless, every 18 months or so, I'm compelled to do an inventory of all the tools on my computer desktop. Here are the things I look at:

First, where do I spend most of my time? That is, what kinds of work do I need to do?

Second, which applications do I use to accomplish that work?

Third, what else is out there that might help me be more productive, to accomplish more work in fewer steps?

Fourth, how can I save both my own and the public's money, or at least, invest it more wisely?

All across the country, libraries are spending millions of dollars annually on staff computer desktops. Most of it goes to the software. That covers a lot of ground: operating systems, commercial applications, and an increasingly steep upgrade cycle.

These upgrades, proprietary by definition, are both expensive and disruptive. That is, they require regular and significant infusions of public dollars, and each upgrade is just different enough from the previous version to require both more staff training, and more upgrades.

Is there a net gain? Sometimes, I wonder. But it's time for the library to replace a lot of our older computers, and it makes sense to ask, "Upgrade to what?"

There is a significant alternative to Windows or the Macintosh OS. It's called Linux. A comprehensive resource is available at www.linux.org, or through the library's many Linux books.

In brief, Linux is a "free" operating system. You can download it at no cost beyond whatever you pay to connect to the Internet; or you can buy remarkably inexpensive CD's, and load it that way. Linux can co-exist with your Windows or Mac systems.

Why Linux? Well, in addition to the fact that it's free (no license fees of any kind, and you can install it on as many machines as you like), Linux runs the world's most popular Internet server, Apache. It also provides a variety of industrial strength email, printer, and other workstation management services. In contrast to Microsoft operating systems, Linux, like Unix, is remarkably stable, remarkably resistant to viruses, and a workhorse.

More recently, Linux also comes with a complement of free, or "Open Source" desktop software. One of them, Open Office, provides a word processor, a spreadsheet, and presentation applications, all compatible with Microsoft Office. Linux also runs applications that let you share data with a PDA, run database applications, browse the Internet, manage email, and much more.

We already use Linux for various behind-the-scene servers. But over the next few weeks, I'm going to try to make the move to the Linux desktop.

Along the way, I'm going to look at other software tools. Thoreau once said, "Men have become the tools of their tools." You've probably seen it another way: when you get a new hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail.

But everything isn't a nail. And traditional word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and personal information managers, for all the time they save, also impose limits on the way we think.

Is the Linux desktop ready for prime time? If so, it has the potential not only to preserve work created on other platforms, but also to liberate many dollars that might be put to other, better, uses.

More importantly, are there are software applications out there that will make us even more productive than the current crop?

I think the answer to both questions, is "Yes." So it's time to test it out and see if I'm right. Either way, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

August 21, 2002 - The No Collar Worker

First we had blue collar workers. Then we had white collar. And now we have ... no collar.

The no collar or "creative class," according to author Richard Florida, "includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, and designers and architects, as well as the thought leadership of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion-makers. The creative class also includes 'creative professionals' who work in a wide range of knowledge-intensive industries such as high-tech sectors, financial services, the legal and health care professions, and business management. The distinguishing characteristic of the creative class is that its members engage in work whose function is to create meaningful new forms."

There are a lot of them -- an estimated 38.3 million Americans, roughly 30 percent of the US work force. They also tend to make better than average incomes.

These people aren't just fun to be around. Recent studies have shown that their presence in a community is a key factor in economic vitality.

The creative class isn't bound by place. When conditions don't suit them, they move. This is turning traditional ideas of economic development on its ear: where once it was thought that creative people moved to the company, now the company is moving to the people it needs.

Professor Florida cites the case of Lycos (an Internet search engine company), which one day picked up its roots from Pittsburgh and moved to Boston.

Interestingly, the creative class has focused around a relatively small number of regions, leaving, as Florida says, "many older industrial regions - and many Sun Belt cities (once lauded as models of economic growth) - behind."

Florida writes that there are three T's of this "new economic geography:" technology, talent, and tolerance. Technology speaks to infrastructure, talent (at least in part) to the presence of universities, but the tolerance one, in Florida's words, is a "real stunner."

He says, "One of the best indicators of regional innovation, high-tech industry and growth, is a measure I call the 'gay index.'" In brief, Florida found that his research on the movement of the creative class closely correlated with someone else's study on the location patterns of gay people. This also closely matched the "bohemian" index -- a count of artists, writers and performers in a region.

The point isn't that all creative people are gay, or even that all gay people are creative. The point is that the extent to which gay people are tolerated in a community speaks to how open a place might be to non-ordinary thinking and behavior.

Members of the creative class use the word "diversity" a lot -- but not in the sense of a political agenda. They just like lots of choices: music, performance, art scenes, restaurants, "authentic" neighborhoods with some flavor.

Which cities come out on top in this new ranking?

Here are the top five: the San Francisco Bay area, Greater Boston, Washington, Austin, and Seattle.

The title of the book is "The Rise of the Creative Class: How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life." The author, again, is Richard Florida. The book is available from our libraries. It's creating a buzz in the community planning community.

And it may contain a tip or two about how a growing community can position itself to attract and hang onto interesting people.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

August 14, 2002 - Librarianship: Does it Get Any Better?

If my best friend had told me, back when I was in high school, that I would grow up to be a librarian, I would have laughed in his face.

But then, I was an idiot in high school. These days, I think I have the most fascinating job in the world. Consider just a couple of weeks in the life of your local librarian.

Shakespeare at the Rock. Some 750 people lined up to snag their free tickets to this library-sponsored cultural event. We put it on in the parking lot of an old Safeway store (soon to be a new Philip S. Miller Library). At just one performance I saw young and old, people in wheel chairs, people of color, white collar and blue collar workers. Every one of them left the performance stunned by both the sheer power of the imagination of a man who has been dead for centuries, as well as the living actors who gave this particular story such power.

Geekfest. I invited some of the key library technology staff in the state to come to our Highlands Ranch Library for a day. These six computing gurus, affectionately dubbed "geeks" (we gave them pocket protectors, geek T-shirts, and propeller hats as souvenirs) sat in front of a statewide audience of some 50 library workers, some from as far away as Montrose.

I got to ask our speakers some deceptively simple questions. What are you working on? What's on the technology horizon? How can we use technology to save money? What do you read to stay up to date?

To my utter delight, each of the six (including our own Kevin Watkins) was articulate, insightful, knowledgeable and, I swear, funny. The audience got a look at some key trends in the world of computing, not to mention some shrewd insights into the practices of important operating system developers, software vendors, and the library technology marketplace in general.

I learned all over again what an asset library staff can be, when we just take the time to ask them what they're thinking about. We also got some very specific guidance toward the development of a technology plan for the library.

Cultural Facilities planning. The great joy of aging is discovering how much there is yet to learn -- and how much fun it can be. The Douglas County Cultural Commission, in concert with several other local entities, brought in some high-powered cultural facilities consultants to talk about what people should think about before they build. Representatives of many governmental and cultural entities attended. Not only did we get treated to a history of theater architecture (about which I knew nothing), we heard some very straight talk from people who understood both the politics and the economics of the local community cultural center.

Community development. In just two weeks, I sat in on discussions with town councils, metro district planners, school district staff, chambers of commerce, county offices, developers, and appraisers in Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Roxborough, and Castle Pines North. Lone Tree and Parker are on the agenda for next week.

Communities all over the country -- but most particularly right here in Douglas County -- are starting to realize that the public library is a commercial anchor, an educational asset, an economic development fulcrum, a cultural catalyst, a quality of life indicator, a lure for the creation of a truly creative community.

Along the way, I've relearned something I first realized years ago: everything connects.

Your local public library touches the deeply private lives of each individual who uses it. It also adds extraordinary value to both the business and the civic life of our community.

In the process, it harvests from all these fields the most exciting, interesting, and challenging ideas you can imagine. It repackages them for the widest possible distribution.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I ask you. Can any of you possibly have a job as awesome as librarianship?

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

August 7, 2002 - Writing in the Margins

I was shocked and appalled to find out that John Adams, architect of the Constitution, 2nd President of these United States, actually (and I still can't believe this) wrote in the margins of almost every book he owned.

In one book, his marginal comments were actually longer than the book itself. Clearly, he took more pleasure in his disagreements than in the writing.

What are we to make of such a travesty?

It's possible, of course, that I'm a little demented on this subject. I have never struck either of my children, but, once, I did yell at one of them, at some length, with deep and genuine anger. She had written in one of our books, scribbled right over a title page.

OK, she was 2 years old. But a title page!

My reaction was utter horror. And that response -- out of all previous bounds of predictable behavior -- did the trick. She never wrote in one again. (Do I feel bad about that? Yes ... and no.)

Years ago, I had a library board member who came in and casually tossed a history book on the circulation desk. I walked up just as the circulation clerk opened the book, and stared uncomfortably at the inked margins.

"There were several errors," said my board member, haughtily. She glanced at me. "I have corrected them."

"You've done more than that," I said savagely. "You've BOUGHT this book. We will, of course, replace the copy you defaced." I might have lost my job. But it never crossed my mind. It was all I could do not to call the police.

I admit that my own grandfather also had this incomprehensible illness. I further confess that I found it interesting to see what he underlined and quarreled with. It gave me unexpected insights into his values.

But mainly, I kept thinking. "Granddad, you RUINED these books!" I was ashamed for him.

I suppose it's tempting, in this electronic age, to think that a book is no more than a kind of bound Post-It note. But I have books in my private collection that are more a century old. They have survived (thank God) the vandalism of generations. They retain the integrity of their typography. They make the statement their designers intended, their enduring look exempt from incidental graffiti.

And those comments! I've seen them. On an artfully crafted page, next to some precisely turned phrase, some imbecile scrawls "True!" Thank you!

Or to some thoughtful argument, rejoins the anonymous, "Oh?" Or "I disagree!"

People. Please. Unless you are John Adams (and I'm guessing here that you are NOT) keep your idle side commentaries to yourself.

Books, you see, have a life of their own. They pass from our too often indifferent care through book sales and bequests and personal loans to the hands of others. The people who tender their hard-earned cash for the privilege of considering the organized thoughts of writers really aren't interested in your random lapses of synapses.

To quote Granddad again, "Everyone is entitled to his opinion. But some opinions are better than others." Have a little respect for those few who actually got edited, got typeset, got distributed. If you must write in other people's books, at least have the decency to use a pencil.

Grumble. A President of the United States!