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, March 26, 2003

March 26, 2003 - The Home Library

I'm shocked when I visit the houses of some of the people I know. They are often exquisite housekeepers. They possess a flair for decoration that I can appreciate, but cannot match.

Often, too, they are more diligent, more industrious in the maintenance of their homes than I.

But they don't have any books!

I mean it. No favorite childhood books. No comic books. No reference shelves. No series -- and I don't care if it's the Hardy Boys, the Lord of the Rings, or "the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" -- ya gotta have series!

Some people have home entertainment centers the size of the local multiplex, but not a bookshelf in sight.

I should think that even if you're not a big reader, you'd be interested in acquiring a brace of books if only to improve your R-value. (A wall of books provides excellent home insulation).

If you have children, then an absence of books is inexcusable. Repeated studies have shown that one of the greatest contributing factors in the education of your children is the presence of print in the home. Don't you care?

It occurred to me, though, that maybe people don't have books in their houses just because they don't know where to start. (This is very different from the problem of librarians, who don't know where to stop.)

So this week, as a public service, I'm going to offer a list of what I believe to be the minimum requirements for a home library.

The World Almanac. This is an annual purchase. No other single volume so succinctly and intelligently organizes the world. The Almanac puts most geo-political information -- population, budgets, leaders, top news stories, and so forth -- immediately at hand. It belongs beside another obvious purchase, namely ...

Newspapers. You need at least two. You have to have a local paper to keep up your immediate environment. You should subscribe to a metro Denver daily. A truly dedicated reader would also subscribe to a paper of national repute, but I admit that I myself barely get through the other two.

The World Book Encyclopedia. An encyclopedia lasts a good 5 years, and may run 10. The Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopedia Americana are both good. But the World Book, in my judgment, is still the winner in clarity of writing style, cogency of illustrations, and straightforwardness of organization. You can buy a CD-ROM encyclopedia, too, if you like, but here I'm talking the whole paper set. In our family, the World Book is something we send each other to when a topic comes up at the dinner table. You can't do that with a CD (and besides, the paper version has more copy).

American Heritage Dictionary. You need a good dictionary, and the American Heritage is topnotch, hitting just the right balance between currency and authoritativeness. A dictionary lasts 5-10 years, too.

National Geographic. You need at least one magazine subscription, and the Geographic continues its remarkable tradition of lively writing and stunning photography. And nothing hooks children on reading like giving them subscriptions in their own name.

Rand McNally Atlas. I can't tell you how handy this is. We have both the United States travel guide and an international atlas at home, but truthfully, when it comes to international maps, I prefer a globe, which I also recommend.

Local phone books and the Yellow Pages. In Douglas County, you need at least two local phone books, not to mention the big Denver books. But the Yellow Pages are a powerful tool to keeping your money in your own community.

A library card. The above represents the bare minimum. Your library card gives you access to everything else.

If I had more time, I'd add a few others: a cookbook, a Bible (both King James and Revised Standard), the Tao te Ching, a Dictionary of Quotations, the Reader's Encyclopedia, a collection of world poetry, or at least American poetry. A compendium of fairy tales, whether you've got kids at home or not. A handyman guide.

And let's throw this open to the rest of you. What books do YOU consider essential at home? Call me at 720-733-8624, or email me at jlarue@jlarue.com. I'll print the list here next week.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

March 19, 2003 - Too Much Information

Some 12 years ago, I wrote a professional article that a lot of my colleagues ridiculed.

I was talking about email, then beginning to be hailed as a kind of perfect communication tool, both intimate and immediate.

"Mark my words," I wrote. "Coming tomorrow -- junk email."

OK, I got the name wrong. Today it's called "spam" (after the hilarious Monty Python sketch). But I nailed the idea.

At this moment, the dawn of the 21st century, it is estimated that spam costs corporate America at least $10 billion per year of lost productivity.

Nowadays, many of us also have personal email accounts. It's hard to calculate the personal cost of spam. Certainly, there is some entertainment value. A full 80% of my unsolicited email has to do with increasing the size of various body parts (40% male parts, 40% female). Most of the others have to do with reducing all the rest of me.

Now that's funny, and I'll happily ante up some of my time for a laugh. But not for the same joke, not every day, day after day, week after week, year after year.

Fortunately, what technology hath wrought it can also rend asunder.

Apple's new operating system includes an email enhancement that, in the background, tells the spammer that your address is invalid. Sorry!

Mozilla -- the blindingly fast (and free!) Open Source browser and email program -- is about to offer a similar service. Like the Mac software, it lets you tell it what you think is spam. Correct it for a while. Then let it run. (Incidentally, Mozilla also lets you disable, with one click under your "preferences," those annoying popup ads you get when you're browsing the Internet.)

Lately, I'm investigating options (mostly through another Open Source program called Evolution) to automatically sort my email, to move it from inbox to folder, the folders arranged by how often I need to look at them. And I'm also sending a lot of those emails to a folder I call " spam."

I believe in the value of information. But too much information, flooding my inbox, is just noise.

Sometimes you have to manage your life as if it were a library. You have to categorize, and sort, and assign some value to all the traffic.

I suppose it's sad that much of that email traffic is worthless. But I've concluded that you have a choice. Give your time, give your life, to the importunities of strangers. Or assert the priorities you've so painfully established.

The library itself works hard to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Our online databases, for instance, comprise only the best sources. It's the difference between the authoritative advice of a knowledgeable friend you trust, or a random Google search. It's the difference between email that matters and trash.

It's the difference finally, between meaning and noise.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

March 12, 2003 - Volunteering

Recently, I spent a Saturday selling tickets for the Rotary Clubs of Castle Rock 7th Annual Ducky Derby and Street Fest. The money raised through this family-oriented event is split between the Castle Rock Senior Center, and the Women's Crisis Center.

I was outside the local Safeway grocery store, which generously allowed us the opportunity to appeal to their foot traffic. (King Soopers has also provided this opportunity.) And in about two hours, I sold fifty tickets.

I enjoyed it. The causes are good, deserving of support. Besides, people tickle me. Selling like that is a kind of game: how do you get people to part with $5 for a community event? Answer: with good humor, and a quick appeal to the cause that speaks to them most directly.

Since then, I've been thinking about the logic of both volunteerism and fundraising. We are in a recession. Many people have lost their jobs. That means that on the one hand, more non-profits are looking for help. It also means that people may have less to give.

But they do give, both their time (as with the Rotarians), and their money. Why?

The literature on volunteerism is wide and deep. But the decision is very personal.

To some, volunteering is, or ought to be, pure altruism. It's " do-gooding" for its own sake. But the truth is, volunteering also gives benefits to the volunteer.

Some seek to be more involved in their community. Others are trying to learn something new, either as a way to occupy their minds generally, or to build up their skills for the job market.

Some people volunteer just as a way to meet people with similar interests. People with similar interests are good bets for future friends, or even spouses.

Some people volunteer for fun. They have excess energy, brainpower, time. They want the sheer pleasure of living up to their capacity for life.

Others volunteer for different personal rewards. They feel that righteous sense of putting in some time on the cause. Most mature adults at some point recognize that they have been the beneficiary of the contributions of many others. "Giving back" is literally that -- repaying some of the interest on the debt we all owe to the people who underwrote our education, built our streets, tackled the tricky issues of zoning and water use, defended our nation from foreign invaders, and on and on.

It could be, as well, that people are volunteering to fulfill a course requirement. For instance, Douglas County high schools now require some community service in order to graduate.

There is another rare kind of volunteer that sees volunteerism as something that families can do together. Maybe they clean up a patch of highway, collect clothes for the homeless, organize a food drive, or work a library booksale. Such activities build a common bond of purpose, and of precious time spent together.

And therein lies a tale. Research has shown that the people likeliest to volunteer, or to donate money to a cause, do so because they were exposed to that behavior as children. In other words, we learn to invest in our communities by seeing our parents do so.

It could be that you, the reader did NOT come from such a family. In that case, you have a choice: be nothing more than a product of your childhood, or take that first step.

Why not become a role model for your children in a way that never occurred to your parents? Why not establish a new tradition, such that all the members of your family now point with pride to their contributions to the library, or church, or town, or cause? Know that your family has made a difference.

That gift not only outlives the moment, it may outlive you as well.

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

March 5, 2003 - Mr. Rogers

My family moved to Douglas County 13 years ago. Our daughter, Maddy, was a little over three years old at the time.

We lived kind of far out in the country, and had only one car, which I drove to work every day. My wife, Suzanne, says as she watched me drive off down the hill she would think, "I am Rapunzel."

Perhaps in part because of her early exposure to country quiet, Maddy has always had a rich interior life. She's a watcher: deep and observant.

At about this time, one of the few TV programs she watched was Mr. Rogers. She would sit, in her serious and thoughtful way, and watch the slow-moving, quiet show daily.

One day, she said to Suzanne, "Mama, I want to write a letter to Mr. Rogers." So Suzanne wrote it for her, exactly as Maddy dictated.

The gist of the letter was this: every day, Mr. Rogers would step into his house, swap his sneakers for slippers, and put on his cardigan. At the end of the show, he'd hang up his cardigan, put on his coat, and walk out the door.

In his slippers!

Well, Maddy got a letter back from Mr. Rogers. He said she was pretty sharp to notice that. But he said he really did change back into his street shoes. The people who did the TV show thought that showing him changing his shoes again was kind of boring, so they just left that part out.

Maddy was perfectly satisfied. And it did not seem at all strange to her that she could both write the guy who was on TV, or that she would get such a straightforward, approving personal response.

But, of course, it is strange. Fred Rogers, born in 1928, and who recently died, inspired that sort of direct, personal confidence. His gentle, reassuring tone was absolutely genuine. Kids knew they could trust him.

Mr. Rogers duplicated this tone in his writings, too. The library currently has some 25 of his titles: 11 picture books, 5 books for older children, 5 videos, and 4 books for grown-ups. The titles show his ministerial background, his willingness to tackle subjects that kids want to know about, and sometimes adults can't figure out how to discuss:

* Going to the potty -- a book that startled me, when I read it to Maddy years and years ago, with the revelation that children sometimes get anxious when they see former parts of their body whisked away into pipes. Never occurred to me.

* When a pet dies.

* Making friends.

* Going to the dentist, and the doctor. Also, "Wearing a Cast."

* Moving.

* Adoption and stepfamilies.

* Divorce. And even:

* Death.

He also tackled some topics just for fun. A musician himself, Mr. Rogers has a video about musical stories. Another of his books is just about kindness. One of his videos is about circuses. But throughout it all, he consistently presented this powerful message: you are special. I'm so glad to know you.

I don't know about you all, but I'll miss having him in our neighborhood.