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, April 30, 2003

April 30, 2003 - Mistakes in Columns

Let me tell you about the agony of being a weekly columnist.

The problem is not coming up with ideas. There's always so much going on in our libraries (not to mention my own head) that I've only had real trouble coming up with a topic just three times in 16 years.

In fact, there's so much going on around here, I often kick myself for having overlooked something that would have made a great column on that particular date.

Mostly, the opportunity to think about library issues, right out in public, week after week, is a good thing. It keeps me honest, keeps me curious, keeps me connected to the profession at the same time is makes the library less mysterious to my community.

But the agonizing piece is this: despite the fact that I consider myself reasonably articulate and educated, despite the fact that I always give myself at least 6 hours between writing a column and editing it one last time before I send it in, it just KILLS me how often I make basic mistakes in grammar or spelling.

I'd love to blame the News Press. But the truth is, the editors pretty much print it the way I send it. I deeply appreciate their confidence. I sure wish I deserved it.

I no longer worry about some things. I split infinitives with impunity. The rule against that was just dumb -- an attempt to make English conform to Latin grammar.

The same thing holds true for the injunction not to end sentences with prepositions. In Latin, you can't. But English isn't Latin. Or as Winston Churchhill put it, "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I shall not put."

I start some sentences with "and" and "but." By way of justification, I cite William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well." Zinsser says the purpose of writing is to be clear. And giving clear signals to the reader about what's coming next is a good, not a bad thing.

I used to tell people that I made one goofy mistake each week, just to see if anyone was watching. But that's a lie. I was just covering myself. I'm sure I do make at least one mistake a week, though. English is a tricky language. As I used to say when I was a literacy tutor for adults, "English follows 80% of its rules -- 20% of the time."

My most common goof is something that has just about become an American standard. It goes like this: "The Board made several comments. They said..." A board is an it, not a they.

Another version is, "A parent may be confused by all the educational options. Should they choose neighborhood schools, charter schools, or home schooling?" "A parent" isn't a they, either.

Lately, I seem to be having more and more trouble getting my subjects and verbs to agree. It's that singular versus plural thing again.

I won't even get into the issue of the subjunctive - "if it were" (correct, but sounds funny) or "if it was" (wrong, but sounds right).

By the way, I made a big mistake in THIS week's column. Can you find it?

If so, I don't need to know about it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

April 23, 2003 - You're Never Too Old

Last Saturday morning, I attended a workshop on "boardsmanship," put on by Pat Wagner of Pattern Research (www.pattern.com). With me were Mark Weston, President of our Library Board of Trustees, and Stevan Strain, head of our Board's Personnel Committee.

There were also public library board members and directors from several other libraries around the state. There were about 40 of us, all together.

Pat is one of Colorado's best presenters and facilitators, with lots of good advice, clearly presented models, and a relaxed, humorous style. I warmly recommend her for similar presentations for groups of almost any type or size.

As Pat put it herself, the American system of lay review of many governmental functions, as well as our incredible bounty of volunteerism, is very unusual in the world. Moreover, it's effective.

Yes, there are cases of public boards failing in their oversight. There are some boards that can only be described as dysfunctional. Nonetheless, most public entities do very well. And very few have the sort of corruption and cronyism so prevalent elsewhere in the world.

Our system works -- and kudos to our own Board members for seeking the training, on their own time, to be even more effective.

What most struck me, though, was one of Pat's stray comments. She said that something she was putting up on a flip chart represented her " current thinking." "Ask me next week," she said, "and I may think something different."

Maybe it's just this particular time in my own life, but I've become increasingly appreciative and admiring of people who keep reading and thinking about things, and in the process, come to a deeper and different understanding.

There's plenty of evidence of this. Take, for instance, the explosive growth of book discussion groups around the country. We're not just talking bestsellers here -- people gather to tackle some tough titles on some tough subjects. Whether it's Great Books groups immersed in Roman playwrights, or church study groups reviewing titles on the particulars of raising boys, there's something reassuring about adults willing to explore new subjects.

Suzanne, my wife, had long expressed a wistful longing to play the cello. Several years ago now, I got her a rented cello for Christmas, and worked with a local musician to find a teacher. To Suzanne's great credit, she through herself into the task with gusto. She's gotten pretty good, too.

The example is a good one. Now my son is also taking cello lessons, and my daughter is studying the viola. They even play together.

I was chatting with a woman at a high school play the other night who told me that she has started pushing for a new kind of family vacation. Now, she says, she encourages her teenage children to take up something new. She's a new golfer. She seeks new hiking trails. She's started going to plays.

What's the common thread? She is building new skills that she and her family can enjoy for years, together.

While sports can be a wonderful experience, and it can be lots of fun going to games to watch your children compete, few families will keep playing soccer, or football, or LaCrosse, TOGETHER.

Learning bridge, or golfing, or chess, or music, or attending cultural events, or taking classes, is something that can both challenge and bond a family. Any of these open doors to whole lifetimes of interesting days in each other's company.

Whether you're in your teens, or midlife, or in your eighties, it's never too late to take up a new interest. If you're looking for ideas, why not start at your local library? And feel free, as you start exploring, to change your mind about things.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

April 16, 2003 - Library Troubles

These are hard times for Colorado libraries, and they are getting worse.

Over the past several weeks, I've talked to my colleagues on the West Slope and the Front Range, in rural Colorado and the metro area. I've talked to librarians working in schools, colleges, and municipalities.

All of them are in trouble.

There are a variety of factors. The most crucial, for public libraries, has been the abrupt loss of city sales tax revenue. Some libraries, such as Denver Public, have already sustained up to 25% losses within a single year, with more to come. Virtually every city librarian I talk to has lost positions, or is about to.

I've mentioned before that bad times in the economy inevitably result in an increase of library use. People come in to rent what they used to buy, or to read job ads, or to work on their resumes, or to meet people who also find themselves at liberty.

The demand for library services is going up. The resources necessary to meet that demand, and even the hours some libraries will be open, are going down.

College and academic libraries are also facing massive reductions, but here the cause is the drop in state revenues. Libraries aren't being singled out, generally, but their fortunes are closely tied to higher education funding. In Colorado, this year, that's not a good thing.

So my colleagues in college and universities are looking at significant lay-offs, and sharply curtailed purchases of books and journals.

Right now, school librarians don't seem to be as hard hit, in part because their revenues are based on property taxes, rather than more volatile sales taxes. But in Colorado, school libraries have been fighting their own budget battles -- and losing -- for many years before the current crisis.

Colorado libraries may take comfort, or even more alarm, in the fact that this severe downturn in library fortunes is nationwide. The Queens Public Library in New York is slashing hours and staff. The University of Michigan just cut 30 jobs. Minneapolis Public is hacking off 10% of its services and staff.

The news isn't all bad, of course. The New York Times recently announced the expansion of its annual awards for librarians, recognizing librarians who provide outstanding community service on a consistent basis.

The Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library just got nearly $450,000 in donations toward a new branch library. Right here in Castle Rock, our library district is completing a new branch that will be built without a penny of public debt. (But also, thank goodness, with many private donations.)

How, though, shall we make sense of our times?

Here's a suggestion. Read "The Fourth Turning," by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Written in 1997, "The Fourth Turning" is mainly concerned with various strong cycles in American history. Those cycles are economic, social, and cultural. They even directly address the likelihood and severity of war.

According to the authors, America in many areas is coming to the end of an autumn, feeling the first tinges of a winter. Strauss and Howe predicted the current recession, and the challenges faced by both business and government.

In times of crisis, Americans look to their enduring institutions. Over the next decade or so, librarians will need to work smarter, do more with less, form new partnerships, and reach out to both their communities, and the rare philanthropists within them.

As Strauss and Howe point out, even if winter is coming, winter comes every year. Let's hope this one isn't too severe, or lasts too long.

And let's remember that in time, there will be spring. Even for Colorado libraries.

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

April 9, 2003 - Home Library - Results

I got a wonderful response to my column about the essential home library -- more, in fact, than I can fit into a single column. So here are some of the highlights, pretty close to the way I got them:

One coffee table book of photos -- Ansel Adams or John Fielder.

One history book -- "The Century," by Peter Jennings.

"Who said that?" and "Familiar Quotations," by John Bartlett

"The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Brewer"

"Putnam's Concise Myth*o*log'i*cal Dictionary" (absolutely invaluable for crossword puzzles)

"Mythology," by Edith Hamilton

"The Age of Fable," by Thomas Bulfinch

"The Book of the Cat," edited by Michael Wright and Sally Walter

"How to be your dog's best friend; a training manual for dog owners," by The Monks of New Skete

A collection of Greek comedies and tragedies

Shakespeare's comedies and dramas

The original illustrated Sherlock Holmes

Aesops's Fables

"Annotated Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass," by Lewis Carrol, illustrated by John Tenniel

"The Secret Garden," by Frances Hodgson Burnett

French/English, Spanish/English and to a lesser extent German/English and Italian/English dictionaries.

Anything by Stephen King

Terry Brooks' Shannara books

Magazines for children: Spider, Highlights, and Sesame Street

The N.C. Wyeth illustrated versions of Children's Classics to reread or read as adults for the first time like "Treasure Island," "Robinson Crusoe," "Robin Hood," "Last of the Mohicans," "Ivanhoe," etc.

Some easy, classic poetry like Longfellow or Frost (or Robinson Jeffers!)

The Children's Illustrated World Atlas

Scholastic World Atlas, and an illustrated childrens dictionary.

"Where the Sidewalk Ends," by Shel Silverstein

"A Light in the Attic," by Shel Silverstein

Mother Goose

"The Deluxe Transitive Vampire," by Karen Elizabeth Gordon Pantheon), plus her "The New Well Tempered Sentence"

Timetables of History and/or Timetables of American History, although Timetables of Science and Technology is pretty interesting, too

A historical atlas

Hart/Oxford Companion to American Literature and Drabble/Oxford Companion to English Literature! (Not to mention the Oxford Companion to African-American Literature…)

Plutarch's Lives, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aenead, Euclid's Geometric Theorum, Complete writings of Plato and Aristotle, Heroditus, Xenophanes, Thucydides, Cicero, Tacitus, Marcus Aurelius, Josephus, St. Augustine, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, "Paradise Lost" by Milton, Isaac Newton's physics, The 4 voyages of Columbus, Travels of Marco Polo, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Voltaire, Montesquie's "Spirit of Law", John Locke's works, David Hume's Works, The Prince by Machievelli, Descartes, Rousseau's works, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Autobiographies of Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Age of Reason, The Federalist Papers, The Constitution, Darwin's Origin of Species, "Communist Manifesto", Complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Writings of Frederick Douglas, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Grimm's Fairy tales, Nietzsche, Works of Washington Irving, Chekhov's Works, Poems of Emily Dickensen, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other most requested poetry, Complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, The Count of Monte Cristo, Frankenstein, "Little Women", Complete Works of Mark Twain, Grant's Memoirs, "A Christmas Carol", Sherlock Holmes Treasury, The Grapes of Wrath, O. Henry's works, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, Wister's The Virginian, The Big Sky, DBE Dubois' "Black Folk", "Call of the Wild", Works of CS Lewis, All Quiet on the Western Front, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the Autobiography of Malcom X, Erma Bombeck Selections, Art Buchwald, James Thurber, Biographies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Aldous and Julius Huxley writings, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame - complete volumes, Reader's Digest collections of Humor, MAD Magazine, Stephen King selections, the complete series of "Far Side", The Giver by Lowry, The Black Stallion, The Source by Michener, Freud and Carl Jung works, Jules Verne Complete Set and H.G. Wells complete set, The Scout Handbook and Camping Guide, Textbooks of Algebra, Geometry, Biology, Anatomy, Insurance, Accounting, Finance, Business Law, Landscaping and Lawn Care, Physician's Desk Reference of Medications, Medical Dictionary, Black's Law Dictionary, Glenn's Complete Bicycle Manual, The Home Fix-it Series, Basic auto repair, the complete Internal Revenue Code and Regulations, The Colorado Revised Statutes and Annotations, along with the Bible, the Vedas, The Book of Mormon, The Koran, Confucius, The Buddha, perhaps the Urantia book....

The complete Oxford English Dictionary in hard copy form

The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland. As my correspondent wrote, "okay, so it's not a book, I don't like the Baum books (too sickly sweet), but, I do think you can learn everything you need to know to live a good and decent life from that movie."

So there you have it. Buy them all for home. Or ... visit your local library.

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

April 2, 2003 - JBC Decision

I had intended to follow up on last week's column about the essential home library. But some actions taken this week by the Joint Budget Committee of the Colorado Legislature -- severe cuts in library funding, as well as many other programs -- deserve comment.

To begin with, I do understand that times are tough, and the job of cutting state services is difficult. It happens that I began my administrative career in libraries, back in Illinois, by having to deal with a 30% slash in revenue. This situation was not of my making, but it was my responsibility to deal with it. And I did.

So I don't hold the necessity of making cuts against the people having to make them. I do, however, have strong personal and professional feelings about the people and staggeringly short-sighted policies that led us to this moment -- the fiscal irresponsibility of both TABOR and Amendment 23, for instance.

Too, the philosophy that we should "give it back to the taxpayers" (whether through TABOR or the Governor's tax cut) when times are good has had this practical result: when times are bad, and people more desperately require the government services they reviled, those services can no longer be afforded. A modest personal refund doesn't buy you what the pooled resources used to. And that's all government is: a cooperative purchasing agreement.

But enough editorializing. The hard facts are these: since June 1 of last year, 85% of the state's spending on libraries -- and roughly 30 years of library progress -- has been eliminated. The recent Joint Budget Committee decisions zeroed out 7 regional library systems, our statewide courier system, and sharply reduced funding for the Talking Book Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

There's not much left -- a small State Library staff that itself looks terribly vulnerable for the next round of cuts.

The existing cuts won't take effect until this fall, and the effect, even then, probably won't be immediate or startling to much of the public. Library systems, for instance, provided consulting, automation support, planning assistance, and continuing education for libraries. They've repeatedly demonstrated their ability to make libraries more effective, both in terms of service and of cost. But it will take time for the lack of those services to show themselves.

I predict that in the coming months and years, many Colorado libraries will move in the following directions:

* cost recovery for interlibrary loan transactions. For years, the cost of delivery (from one library to another) has been subsidized in part by the state. In essence, this program meant that other libraries would ship to your local library almost anything you wanted. This greatly expanded what your library could offer. Gradually, this service will be available only to those who can afford it.

* the elimination of the Colorado Library Card. This program allowed you to use your local library card at close to 100% of the public libraries and universities in the state. You just walked in, presented your card, and got to check things out. This too was in part underwritten by the state in the form of modest grants to purchase more materials. Absent that funding, thrown back on diminishing local resources, I expect libraries to begin charging a "non-resident fee" for anybody outside their actual service area (typically, a town or county). Not one fee statewide, but a fee for each of the libraries you want to use.

* the Balkanization of library catalogs. The State Library has encouraged the development of large coalitions of library catalogs and databases. The advantage to the public is that they can perform one search, and see the holdings of many libraries. But those coalitions take central staff. If you can't borrow what other libraries own, who cares what they've got?

The bottom line is this: the Colorado library community, through visionary leadership and just a little seed money from the state, managed to weld together a truly unified statewide library system, one of the best in the United States. That system, which was itself a powerful forced for local economic development, and benefiting rural areas in particular, is being dismantled before our eyes.

From now on, fiscal realities may dictate a new operational motto: it's every library for itself.