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, July 30, 2003

July 20, 2003 - hitting the bullseye

My son, Perry, is 9 years old. Not long ago, we went through a period when we played a lot of darts.

We'd make up various scoring systems, based more or less on our growing expertise. You won if you got the greatest number of darts to actually stick. Then you won if you got the highest number of darts within the broad inner circle. Finally, you won based solely on the number of bullseyes.

It was fun, and Perry got really good. I can't help but think that it's smart training for business.

I'm serious. Whether you're in the business of business (to make money) or the business of service (government or non-profits, for instance), there are lots of parallels. First, you have to understand what "winning" looks like.

Then, the trick is consistency. Perry's progress came down to learning how to nail down more and more of the variables: distance from the board, placement of feet, the grip, position of elbow and wrist, force.

People often complain about "bureaucracy." Really, what they object to is the heavy emphasis on rules. "We do what we do because that's what we've always done." In business, the idea is that we're supposed to innovate, become more productive, endlessly reinvent our processes.

But the truth is, any organization that leaves everything up for grabs, year after year, never really learns how to do anything. It can't track its progress, because it can't compare this year to last. Successful organizations aren't necessarily the ones that innovate; they're the ones that have learned to remember, and build on, the things they do well.

I think about how our library system has grown. In 1990, just about all we offered was a circulating collection. So we focused on that, learned to do it in a way that was standardized throughout the county. This service became predictable, and therefore sustainable.

Then we moved on to the next thing: establishing "reference" service around the county. We learned what kinds of skill sets to look for; we built core collections and databases; we identified essential equipment needs and job performance standards.

When that became more standardized and predictable, we moved on to children's services. Once again, we hired, trained, tested, built support systems and standards.

The most recent service area in the library to receive this kind of careful staging and development is marketing -- the combination of programming, public relations, community information, and public communication strategies generally.

None of this is to say that once you get these things figured out, you're done. There continue to be significant changes in how we operate . Technology offers us a whole bag of new options every year. The audience or market for our services is also in flux. Each generation discovers its own ideas of the value, and the demand, for the library.

Finally, our staff are themselves a major force for innovation. They tweak our processes, find ways to simplify, or invent whole new approaches.

But whether a new start-up business, or an institution that has endured for a hundred years, finding a precise, unvarying system for some basic functions is vital if you want to hit, not just once, but over and over, the bullseye of success.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

July 23, 2003 - Pueblo Library

Recently, I was asked to facilitate a staff meeting in Pueblo. My task was to help them "process" a lot of change in a short period of time. This is their story.

Act I. When I first arrived in Colorado some 16 years ago now, I learned that the consistent winner of the Colorado reading program awards was the Pueblo City-County Library District.

Later on, I met Chuck Bates, its director. He was a good leader. Here's how you tell: staff keep doing great things. Pueblo was one of the early adopters of an innovative automation system. It was one of the first independent library districts, well-supported by its community, as tested by several elections.

Over the next decade or so, I had a chance to work with Chuck on several statewide library projects. He was a pro. And his library continued to rack up one success after another: lots of use, lots of new buildings, lots of good people doing useful and impressive work.

Chuck was also a swimmer, a man in excellent physical condition. So it came as even more of a shock when he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it for several years, bravely and with dignity. At last, after 22 years of effective leadership, Chuck succumbed. He died in Denver last year.

Act II. When someone is fighting a terminal illness, he or she must of necessity disengage, pull back from some things to focus on the essential business of life. In Chuck's case, this created two power gaps: one at the staff level, and one at the board level.

On the staff side, Richard Lee, the Associate Director, stepped up. Pueblo was working on a big library project, and Richard had extensive construction management experience with libraries. Richard is a gentle, humorous man who got things done. Staff liked him. After Chuck's death, Richard was appointed Acting Director, then offered the permanent job. The transition looked as if it had gone with surprisingly smoothness.

On the Board side, the power gap was filled by the Board President. He was a high-powered fundraiser -- and in fact had been instrumental in getting a $4 million pledge from the local newspaper publisher for the new downtown library.

The problem the new library director faced was this: the Board president was also getting some $6,000 a month from the library for marketing services. State law says that library board members can't get paid; but presumably, he was being paid for other services. Richard began to set that bill in front of the Board every month for approval, believing that the situation raised some ethical issues.

That's when Richard's problems began. His contract wasn't signed. Conflicts seemed to be escalating between the Board President and him. Attorneys began to be involved.

Then, one day, Richard showed up at work to find an unsigned piece of paper informing him that he had lost his job. No explanation, no severance pay.

The library staff went through a range of emotions: shock, outrage, fear. But then something unexpected happened: they got organized. About 80 of the 100 staff members got together at a rally and discussed their options. They kept meeting regularly over the next three months. They wrote letters to the paper, they attended city and county commission meetings, and often spoke, with both emotion and intelligence. They were interviewed on television.

The issue became one of the hot topics of the town. Independent investigations revealed that more money that had been steered to the Board president -- over half a million in contract kickbacks.

In succession, the Board President resigned. Then the whole board resigned. Then a new board was appointed. Then, finally, the new board offered Richard Lee his job back.

All of this, to my knowledge, is completely unprecedented in the library world. For one thing, library boards are pretty upright. But when faced with significant breaches of process, ethics and public finance, this particular staff risked a great deal -- their jobs, not to mention the challenge of speaking out publicly against some very powerful people. And they won.

During the three months this was going on, however, Richard did have to feed his family. He had applied for other positions, and got several offers. Finally, he accepted one in Illinois.

So he agreed to come back for just a few weeks, as an interim director, trying to leave the library in as good a shape as he can.

Act III. What happens to the library now? Well, it will recruit another director, who will find a staff that can rise, once again, to greatness.

But what's to stop them? They've done it twice before.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

July 16, 2003 - help save lonely librarians!

This week's column was written by Naioma Walberg, of our Parker Library. Not only is it charming, I means I get a week off! Enjoy. - Jamie

During the summer months things tend to get a bit quieter here at the library. As librarians, whose job it is to help people, it drives us down right crazy. So we are asking for your help in the campaign to save our sanity, because, quite frankly, librarians running amok in your community truly would not be a pretty sight. And you can help with just one visit to check out all the really awesome things here at your library and it will go a long way in saving us lonely librarians.

Getting ready to take a vacation? We can help with guidebooks, videos, web sites, maps, currency exchange rates, weather and even airport floor plans for anywhere you want to go in the world. Or if not in this world…we can give you contact information on companies booking reservations for outer space. And if you need a book on tape for the long trip, we have that too.

Staying home this summer? You may not know it but librarians know where the best fishing holes are, all the great scenic drives as well as the most amazing hiking and biking trails through out the state. But before you take off for a fun day outdoors, make it even better and check out some of the hundreds of guidebooks that offer identifying information on just about anything you want to explore from bugs to rocks. My dear I believe that is….

Did you know that librarians are purveyors of some of the finest concerts in the world? Beethoven, Bach and the Backstreet Boys, Dolly and the Dixie Chicks or a little jazz to sooth your soul are just part of the thousands of music CD choices available at your library. So grab your boom box, the most comfortable lounge chair and head all the way out to your backyard for an outdoor concert – every star filled night.

Pick a series any series for a nice lazy summer of good reads. From trilogies and tragedies of the ancient Greeks to Star Trek (enough volumes to fill any intergalactic library) series have been around for a long time. Stop by and we will be happy to get you started on a wonderful relationship with an interesting character.

Gourmet grilling, tiling a kitchen, gardening without water or climbing a fourteener – the library can help enhance the pleasure of all your summer activities. What ever your plans your first stop should be to see a friendly librarian who will help with all your information needs as well as be happy to fill your arms with a choice of good reads, great
music and movie or two.

And you will move the campaign to save the lonely librarians one step ahead.

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

July 9, 2003 - Internet filtering

People are still talking about just what the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Internet filtering really means. It seems to boil down to this: if public libraries accept federal "e-rate" reimbursements for Internet access, Congress has the right to require those libraries to use software "filters" on all Internet workstations.

The intent was to protect minors from pornography. However, the Supreme Court also said that those filters should be capable of being instantly disabled at the request of an adult. So far, there haven't been any other features required: number of sites blocked, how arrived at, frequency of updates, etc.

"E-rate" is a federal program funded by the Universal Service Fee we've all been paying on our phone bills for years. In essence, it provides a discount on various telecommunications costs for qualifying public entities.

Douglas County Libraries, it happens, does NOT apply for e-rate reimbursements for Internet access. Right now, it appears that the ruling does not apply to us. (We do request e-rate reimbursements for what the feds call "Plain Old Telephone Service," which is for us the much higher bill.)

For the past couple of years, we have had a software filter installed on all of the Internet terminals in the children's areas.

Couldn't we extend it to include all terminals in the adult areas as well? Yes, but there's no easy way for us to disable them on the spot -- it requires some technical fussing by network administrative staff. We didn't know, at the time we did our research into the options, that this particular feature might be required by the federal government. Nor, as noted above, do we know what new features may be required, which makes it difficult to shop for a replacement.

Like several other Supreme Court decisions this year, this one has precipitated a lot of posturing by the usual suspects, both liberal and conservative. I find those approaches tedious and divisive. Here's how one librarian sizes it up:

1. Libraries do have a basic job description. It is to gather, organize, and provide public access to what I call "the intellectual capital of our culture." That means books, magazines, movies, music, local organizations, databases, websites, and more.

2. Librarians, like everybody else, have to follow the law.

3. Librarians have no more desire than any other citizen or parent to push pornography at anybody, much less children. Public viewing of pornography may not be unconstitutional, but it is certainly lewd, crude, and rude.

4. Librarians have some real concerns about filters. We've tested a lot of them, and every filter we've looked at blocks access to a disturbing number of things that don't seem to have anything to do with pornography. Some of them block access to ANYTHING on the National Organization of Women's website. Some of them stop people from looking at the Focus on the Family website. It seems to many of us that these significant, often secret biases of commercial software directly contradict our basic job description.

5. According to various news reports it appears likely that the Colorado State Legislature, which provides no money to public libraries at all, will seek to mandate filters for all terminals in public libraries.

I admit that I'm troubled by what seems to me to be a trend. I just discovered that the Internet search engine Google routinely tracks and stores your searches. Under the Patriot Act, the federal government may, without your permission or knowledge, seize those profiles.

In that context, new limits on what people can search for or see at their public libraries is worth thinking about. Sometimes, as at the fourth of July, people get so caught up in the fireworks, they forget about the meaning of Independence.

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

July 2, 2003 - Toronto Round-Up

From Friday, June 21, through Monday, June 23, I was in Toronto for the combined meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) and the Canadian Library Association.

I don't usually go to the annual conferences -- I think I've attended just 3 times in 13 years. But I'd never been to Toronto before. Besides, this time I had the offer of an outside agency to pay my way as a presenter.

That offer came from a surprising source: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For the past several years, this foundation has been responsible for handing out thousands of Gateway computers, preinstalled with Windows and various Windows products, to public libraries around the country. (Douglas County was not among them.)

Recently, however, the Foundation has realized that there's a significant problem in this country: in a couple of years both the hardware and software distributed through the Foundation will start to look a little long in the tooth. Many of those recipients won't be able to upgrade. The issue is "sustainability of public computing."

The presenters were asked to speak about a variety of "best practices" that helped to ensure financial viability. Some of us spoke about partnerships; others about the technology planning process; I talked about marketing and fundraising.

I was frankly surprised to have been asked, as I have been a fairly outspoken critic of some Microsoft practices, and in fact have directed our own technology planning toward Open Source products.

Imagine my surprise when one of the Foundation employees told me that in one case, they funded an entirely Open Source project at a library in Ohio. Why? Because library staff made the case that they COULD sustain the project from the savings in licensing fees.

I complimented the Foundation employee, who said, "Hey, I'm a librarian, not a salesman."

Toronto is an incredibly diverse and international city. I can't remember when I've heard so many languages. At times, it felt very familiar. But then the little things would catch you.

Money, for instance. I have to say that the Canadians have this one right: they have done away with the one and two dollar bills, and replaced them with coins. The one dollar coin is a Loony (for the image of the loon on the back). The two dollar coin is a Toony. I taught myself to distinguish them by touch, which is the work of a few seconds. The other coins are like ours: penny, nickel, dime, quarter.

Loonies and Toonies are comparatively recent, the result of the realization that although paper bills are cheaper to produce (in America, a one dollar bill costs about 4 cents, versus 8 cents for a coin), they don't last as long. A paper bill lasts about 18 months. Coins average closer to 30.

America needs Loonies and Toonies.

I attended a variety of other sessions, most of them focused on technology. I met with the President of Dynix, the company that provides our public catalog, and we talked about Open Source and the acquisitions process. How could we make things better, faster, cheaper? I got some good demonstrations, probably a year away from installing in Douglas County.

I had a chance to hobnob with the new leadership of ALA. They're good people.

And then, when I got home, I immediately contracted a summer cold. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have thought much about it -- but the symptoms of a summer cold are distressingly similar to SARS, which is indeed in Toronto, although greatly exaggerated as to scope. (The odds of contracting SARS, in fact, were about 141,000 to 1 against.)

After a few calls to my health care provider, the helpful people at Littleton Hospital, and the Center for Disease Control, I decided to stay home for a few days. I regret to report that I do not have SARS; a 10 day quarantine didn't sound too bad, if I could lay in a sufficient supply of reading material. (I did have a chance to plow through the latest Harry Potter -- the Canadian edition, snapped up in Toronto.)

And then the Supreme Court made its decision about Internet filtering. But more about that next week.