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.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

October 31, 2001 - Fantasy Fest!

Many people think fantasy and science fiction are the same. They're not.

"Fantasy" takes place in a world where certain, often basic, things are just impossible. Take the Harry Potter series. The author doesn't spend a lot of time trying to work out sort-of-sensible explanations for why magic works. It's a given, part of the background. Spells work, ghosts inhabit Hogwart's halls, and brooms fly. On with the story!

Sometimes an author starts out as a fantasy writer, then changes. Take Anne McCaffrey's popular Dragonrider of Pern series. It began as fantasy: a young woman rode a dragon. The tale fit right in with the stereotypical swords-and-sorcery, faintly medievalist universe.

But over time, McCaffrey started exploring the physics of dragon flight. At some point, when a phenomena or worldview can be plausibly extrapolated from today's scientific knowledge, you're not talking fantasy anymore. You're talking science fiction.

And that's good. I admit it. I'm a science fiction fan. In that realm, I've read some pretty wacky stuff, but no matter where it leads me, it always begins with the same thing: the real world. Some dogged part of my imagination has to know that you can get there from here.

I have to say that on occasion, that makes science fiction far more frightening than fantasy could ever be. Check out the "Handmaid's Tale," by Margaret Atwood, for instance.

This bias toward reality is precisely the reason my wife, Suzanne, refuses to watch horror movies of the mad slasher type. Why? Because there really are insane people who will try to kill you. After the last horror movie she saw (about 15 years ago), Suzanne went out and bought nightlights for all our bedrooms. For months afterward, she also checked under the bed each night before committing herself to sleep.

By contrast, the most terrifying movie I ever saw was the first "Alien" movie, when the alien wrapped herself around John Hurt's throat and laid an egg in his chest.

That didn't bother Suzanne. Aliens? Fantasy.

But in my view, the alien adhered to certain strict, predictable, all too possible rules. I've never met one, but I COULD. Sure, a mad slasher might poke a long knife up through my mattress some night, but he's not going to lay an egg in my chest.

My point, though, is that you'll soon have the opportunity to learn about the differences between fantasy and science fiction from people far more qualified than I am. On Friday, November 2, from 6 to 10 p.m., the library will sponsor Fantasy Fest! The location: the old Safeway at 100 South Wilcox Street, Castle Rock, future site of our new Philip S. Miller Library.

The event begins with a keynote speech by Colorado author Connie Willis. Willis bears the distinction of having won more literary awards -- both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, science fiction's highest accolades -- than anyone in history. In addition to being an accomplished, moving, and often very humorous writer, she is one of the most erudite, witty, and engaging speakers I've ever heard. I recommend her highly.

But that's not all. We'll have other authors, including Hilari Bell and Wick Downing. You can see Harry Potter collectibles, and demonstrations of fantasy role playing games. You can thrill to exciting stories by nationally renowned local storyteller, John Stansfield. We'll have live owls!

All attendees are encouraged to wear costumes, and to stop by the Costume Judge. At 9:30 p.m. precisely, a winner will be announced.

Did I mention the free food?

In short, this event, however fantastic, is not a fantasy. It is real. I hope you can join us.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

October 30, 2002 - Board Accountability

Public employees, as I described last week, are accountable through annual evaluations, and the general oversight of their supervisors.

Elected officials are accountable to the voters. If they prove to be unresponsive, or incompetent, they get voted out of office.

But what about appointed officials? For many members of public boards, there are few performance guidelines, and virtually no way to hold members -- or the body as a whole -- up to those guidelines even if they did exist.

The Trustees of the Douglas Public Library District decided to tackle this issue head on. On Sept. 21, 2002, they got together with the Trustees of the Arapahoe Library District for a joint retreat. Here was the agenda:

* Review and agree upon trustee job descriptions for officers (President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer) and general trustee responsibilities.

* Assess self and board performance over the past year.

* Discuss jointly what we do well (and should be maintained), and what needs improvement.

* Select 3-5 goals for the coming year.

The job descriptions came from various Library Trustee training workbooks around the country. We augmented them with a host of data from not-for-profit board websites. It turns out (surprise!) that most board position requirements are remarkably similar.

For instance, consider this responsibility of the board president: "Plans and presides over board meetings. The president is responsible for advance, written agenda; plans and conducts meetings to assure productive sessions which steadily move the board toward its internal goals and objectives as well as the library goals and objectives. The president's knowledge of, and commitment to, parliamentary procedures, plus an understanding of group dynamics, can make the difference between a meeting which keeps the discussion focused on the major action issues to be considered, or a rambling, semi-social session."

I submit that this applies to any board president.

The self-assessment was private. Trustees were given time to fill out a one page form, then were permitted to hang onto it. We did the form ourselves, and I intend to post it on our website for others to use.

Next, they filled out another form we designed, this time to assess the performance of their Board. This made some statements that, again, apply to all Boards, for instance: The board pays more attention to ends than to means, i.e. To what will be done not to how it will be done. Trustees then rated those statements as to yes, no, NA or don't need, or Need to do.

The joint discussion that followed was fascinating. There were some things that the Arapahoe Board did that my Board wanted to adopt. Some of the things we did, they found interesting. Each of us got to see the ways that our library governance was similar, and the ways it differed.

Then we broke into two small groups and worked up our list of goals for the year. Here are two of ours: to conduct a Board evaluation annually, and to require at least one continuing education event per Board member per year.

I've learned through this process what I suspected all along. Accountability can be imposed from the outside, or from the inside. It works best if it starts within the organization, by people who have thought about what their jobs are, and trust each other to give honest feedback.

I'm very impressed with the Trustees of both libraries. And I wouldn't be surprised to find out that what we have begun here spreads to other library boards. That would be a good thing.

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

October 9, 2002 - Irony in DPL #1 Rating

October 2, 2002, was a day rich in irony.

On the one hand, according to the Denver Post, the Denver Public Library was, once again, awarded first place in the Hennen's American Public Library Ratings. Hennen, a Wisconsin librarian, used 2000 data to rate public libraries in 15 categories, including circulation, staffing, materials and funding levels.

The index has a theoretical minimum of 1 and a maximum of 1,000. Denver's score was 893. Hurray for DPL, which has now won the "top rating" twice in a row.

Each library is compared to its own "class" -- which is determined by the number of people it serves. Comparing the STATES, Colorado comes in number 7 for the quality of its public libraries.

I'm not surprised. There are many excellent libraries in the state. As noted in the Rocky Mountain News, "The tiny Silverton Public Library, 250 miles west of Pueblo, is 10th among 1,003 libraries nationwide serving 1,000 or fewer people. Its score was 807." Also scoring very well were East Routt, Arapahoe Library District, La Junta, Lafayette, Louisville, Hinsdale, and even, I'm pleased to report, the Douglas Public Library District (with a score of 752).

But that was 2000. This year, library news is a little different. Elsewhere in the Post, also on Oct. 2, was the news that the Denver Public Library, which had already laid off 14 people when Gov. Bill Owens cut state support for libraries (including over $2.5 million for DPL) may have to slash yet another $410,000 from next year's budget.

What does that mean to the Douglas Public Library District patron?

Well, some of our patrons have already seen one result. With fewer people to support the requests of other libraries, the wait for our Interlibrary Loan requests is lengthening. DPL, the state's largest collection, simply can't handle the volume it used to. We used to get between 100-130 items a month. Now we average about 11 a month.

Nor can DPL answer as many reference questions when local librarians don't have the resources.

Nor will DPL be able to buy as many books as it used to. A major statewide resource is being whittled away.

Nor will DPL be able to be open as many hours as it now is.

Finally, DPL will have to think long and hard about whether or not it wishes to continue to serve, for free, an estimated 100,000 library patrons from the metro area who use their services on a walk-in basis. Consider: over 20 percent of the people who check out DPL materials do not reside in Denver.

It happens that I have a Denver library card, as well, and I use it. I recognize the extraordinary resource that is a well-staffed, well-stocked library.

But that brings me to another irony. Denver Councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie said she prefers the library not reduce hours. Why?

"People need access to the Internet and the libraries are one place they can find that," she said.

I use the Internet, too. But the Internet at it's best is a small subset of what any library does. DPL's greatness to date has more to do with its people, and its materials, than it does its number of Internet terminals.

In my judgment, the Denver Public Library deserved its rating as one of America's best libraries. With fewer people, older books, and fewer patrons, it's going to find it tough to win next year.

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

October 2, 2002 - More About Linux

Last week I made what some might have found a surprising statement: "By and by, Windows users still might want to move to Linux." This was even though Windows users might then be using Open Office as a free alternative to Microsoft Office.
Why did I say that?

Because Windows software is inherently less secure than Linux (a free Unix clone).

All computer operating systems have security holes. "Vulnerabilities" are constantly being found and exploited by malicious hackers. That's true for Linux as well as Windows.

But Windows has two problems: the first is its intrinsic design. Consider this statement (from ComputerWeekly) by Brian Valentine, senior vice-president in charge of Microsoft's Windows development. Speaking at a Microsoft Windows Server.net developer conference in Seattle, Sept. 6, he said, "Our products aren't engineered for security." Linux, designed as a multi-user system from the beginning, is.

The second problem with Windows is the usual response of Microsoft to reports of security issues. Consider this excerpt from eweek, September 13, 2002: "Officials at Microsoft are busy investigating the extent of a problem that was reported by several media outlets Friday about multiple versions of Microsoft Word containing a vulnerability that could allow hackers to steal files. An Associated Press version of the story ended up on at least two major Web sites Friday, saying that Microsoft does intend to deliver a fix for the problem, but that the problem is the worst for users of Word 97, and that Microsoft will not deliver a fix for users of Word 97." Roughly 32% of America's business users still use Word 97.

Microsoft's answer to the problem: upgrade. Then wait.

Microsoft does, of course, have to tackle the same issues any business does. It isn't commercially feasible to maintain every product you create. Microsoft is out to make money, after all, and there's nothing wrong with that.

But the issues speaks to another advantage of Open Source software.

There are now hundreds of thousands of Linux programmers, very smart people, who typically solve security problems within hours after they are reported. Why? Because they want the glory of the job well done. They want, and they receive, the respect of their peers.

Microsoft, which employs some very smart people also, just doesn't have as many of them, and they're occupied with other things, for pay. Security breaches, when they're fixed at all, can and have taken months.

I'm also impressed by another Linux performance issue: uptime. Linux keeps track internally of how long it's been running. There are many, many Linux boxes that haven't so much as hiccuped in years of operation. That's remarkable.

Cost, security, stability. Three good reasons to think about a change.

On the other hand, it probably doesn't make sense for you or anyone else to toss out your current hardware and software set-up if you've already paid for it, it does what you want it to do, and you're satisfied that you're at little risk. At least, it doesn't make sense until there are other reasons to think about an upgrade.

And that's exactly the library's interest: financial planning. Based on my research and testing, here's what I've decided: our future purchases will, to the greatest extent possible, be based on open source, rather than proprietary operating systems and software.

Other businesses and not-for-profit agencies might want to consider that course, too.