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 27, 2003

August 27, 2003 - staff day

Douglas County Libraries just held its 9th annual staff day -- the one day each year when we pull all of our staff together for a variety of training workshops.

There's a lot on our plate. Technology continues to transform what libraries do -- hence our sessions on new electronic databases, features of our catalog, and more.

Technology also continues to make greater demands on our finances. At our library, we spend 60% of our revenue on staff, 20% on library materials (books, magazines, DVD's, etc.), and something approaching 10% on computers and telecommunications.

Then there are the fees over which we have no control. For instance, the county treasurer takes a percentage of what we collect in taxes. Our various kinds of insurance eat up a chunk of change. A certain number of our buildings can be counted on to have troubles -- HVAC units go out, roofs leak, and so on.

But back to technology. One of the ways we're trying to whittle down some of those expenses is by the adoption of Open Source technologies. We've found that our Linux-based servers (the machines that manage our catalog and our website, for instance) not only cost less to buy, but are also more reliable than other commercial products.

This year, the whole library is moving to a new "office suite." It's called StarOffice -- on which the OpenOffice.org project is based. You may be used to paying about $250 per machine for a Microsoft Office license. How about $79 for essentially the same thing? Now suppose that you just have to buy one copy per building, and you actually have permission to copy it for the other machines?

So one of our sessions last week was on just what StarOffice is and does. Frankly, I'm hoping to kick off something of a local government move toward Open Source software. As any business person knows, revenue is only one side of your operation; controlling expenses is the other side.

But there's more to a business -- or the library -- than computers and finance. So we devoted some time during our staff day to another topic: communication. That divides into all kinds of categories.

* Mission. Every now and then, organizations have to get together to remind each other what the business is all about. In our case, that's pretty straightforward: service. That's service to the patron first, then to staff -- and not the other way around.

* Planning. What are we going to be focusing on for the next couple of years? One of the answers to that one is marketing. We've changed our name. We'll be rolling out a new logo. We're working on cleaning up a host of internal "looks" and processes to send a more intelligently coordinated and consistent message to the public. We're also looking for ways to mobilize our resources to help the many other worthy organizations in the county.

* Organizational culture. The library district is one of the county's larger employees. We currently have about 300 people on the payroll. How can we make sure that our ability to make decisions doesn't break down, or get snarled in bureaucracy? There are lots of answers to that one, too: keep the decision-making ability as low in the organization, as close to the public, as possible. Work out lots of different ways to get a message both up and down the administrative structure. Make sure that people are encouraged to toss the rules out the window when they clearly don't work (and tell the rest of us why!). Talk to each other with the same courtesy and cooperativeness we demonstrate to our patrons.

At the end of our staff day, I realized what I realize every year. Libraries are good places, doing good work. And the people, our staff, are a pleasure. They're not only smart and capable, they are also funny. I'm proud -- and lucky -- to work with them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

August 20, 2003 - need new Board member

I've decided that there are just two kinds of libraries in America: the ones you can see, and the ones you don't.

The libraries you can see are the ones that relish their communities. You'll see library meeting room chairs at local plays and band concerts. You'll see library program fliers on a table by the volleyball tryouts. You'll see library staff everywhere -- any meeting of any group around. You'll see library buildings in the heart of downtown.

The libraries you don't see are the ones that just don't get out much.

Even those libraries can have a powerful effect on individual lives. One of the libraries I used as a kid was like that: off the beaten track, not much visited, a little musty, but still full of interesting people and intriguing treasures.

Part of the reason I liked it so much was that it was it was almost a secret. The staff were not only glad to see me, they were a little surprised. How had I found them?

The Douglas County Libraries work hard to be the kind of library you can see. We, too, have that ability to change lives. But we have something else -- the ability to change communities.

The point is to bring one more community asset to the table. Library participation can make the difference between a school outreach effort that works, or almost works. We can make the difference in public awareness between a crime prevention program that people know about, or that no one knows about. We can help the many good people in a community find each other. We can make a town a nicer place to live.

But to really make that happen takes something very special. It takes leadership. I'm not just talking about the leadership of library staff. I'm talking about citizen leadership.

It happens that we have an opening, right now, for a member of the Board of Trustees. This is the governing body of the Douglas County Libraries. There are 7 Trustees. They have terms of 3 years -- and if you like it (and are doing well!), you can sign up for a total of 4 terms.

The job description is pretty straightforward: to adopt policy, to set direction, to approve the budget, and to guide and evaluate the director (me).

Trustees are recommended for appointment by the rest of the Board. (They invite candidates in for an interview first.) The appointing authority, however, is the Board of County Commissioners. Each of the three commissioners may appoint two Trustees. The seventh is "at large," and is appointed by whichever commissioner represents that person.

The current library trustee vacancy is in Commissioner District 2 (Jim Sullivan's district) -- which encompasses all of Castle Rock, and most of the southern half of the county.

Right now, for the first time in the 13 years I've been here, we've got an imbalance of gender on the library board: 5 men, and just 1 woman. While there aren't any real rules about this, there are certainly far more women who USE the library than men.

So this is a call to some enterprising, community-minded women with an interest in helping the library help the people around it live richer, deeper lives.

What's in it for you? Well, we can't PAY board members. But we do feed you at least once a month. And as long as you're a board member, you're exempt from fines. To the genuine library user, that's as good as a tax rebate.

If you've got the interest and the time (between 4 and 20 hours a month, depending upon what's up), and you really do want to make a difference, then please, by September 3, 2003, send a letter of interest, and a resume to

Board Applications
c/o Douglas County Libraries
312 Wilcox
Suite 204
Castle Rock CO 80104
Or email powendelay@dclibraries.org

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

August 13, 2003 - no joke

Recently,  I was listening to the library's Fresh Air Laughs tape (from the NPR program hosted by interviewer Terry Gross).

One of the 14 interviewees was Drew Carey. How, Gross wanted to know, did Carey ever learn to write jokes in the first place?

She was astonished to discover that he started where he said he always started -- at the library. He just checked out a book that told him how to write a joke. It laid it all out for him, he said. There were other books that gave examples.

There are so many subjects in the world. Some of them may be of great interest to you. But where to start? Learning to fake your way through a song on the piano. Learning to speak Russian. Learning how to build a deck. Learning how to throw a successful party for kids.

Once you get started on this list it's hard to stop. (And wouldn't making such a list be great fun the next time you gather around the table with your family?) How to raise rabbits. Win at chess. Make prize-winning pies. Make a business plan.Travel through Europe on $10 a day. Braid hair.

After that, wouldn't it be at least interesting  to try to follow up? If you have a son who really, really wants to draw comic book heroes, why not take him to the library and ask the reference librarian to pull together a stack of books that might help your boy get started?

Or maybe it's your daughter who has always secretly longed to explore Celtic mythology. Or henna tattoos.

Or maybe it's you who wants to know more about Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Marilyn Monroe, or evolution, or railroads, or body-building, or diet, or urban design.

Here's the whole secret to a fascinating life. Ask yourself what interests you. Use the library to begin exploring some subjects. Drop the things that don't hold your interest. Dig deeper into the things that do.

Before very long, you just might find that those books, or DVD's, or magazine articles that started as nothing more than the way to scratch a vague curiosity, wind up unlocking the door to a whole new passion.

In other words, those library materials might pave the way to other learning environments: classes, clubs, hours of happy practice and experience. Or, for your children, it might be the kind of thing that turns them into regular reading program participants. Some of you may be practicing that already -- certainly, we have had over twice as many people in this year's reading programs (wrapping up this month) as last year.

But what's my point? Using the library can improve your life. And that's no joke.

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

August 6, 2003 - libraries stand for something

In our neighborhood, Louis Yarc was the king of the hill.

When we all got together to play the game on some bales of hay, Louis was the undisputed winner. I still have vivid memories of him, in the midwest summer twilight, fending off the regicidal lunges of as many as 8 other boys. He'd dance around them, hoist them over his shoulder and toss them off, or just muscle them down.

But you know what? I could take Louis. Not once, but over and over. I wasn't anywhere near the oldest kid, or the biggest, or the strongest. But that was the whole point. I'd lurk behind him, then, just after he'd wrestled somebody away, and paused for breath, just slightly off-balance, I'd hurl myself into the back of his knees. Down he'd go.

That was the first lesson I learned: it doesn't matter how good you are, there's somebody -- and it doesn't have to be somebody big and obvious -- who can get you.

I should point out, however, that just because you can take down the king, doesn't make YOU the king. If I'd scramble up to the top, one of the bigger kids would just shoulder me aside, or even more humiliating, pick me up bodily and set me aside. By then, Louis would be up and fighting. So I'd jump back behind him and lurk some more, waiting for the right moment.

Probably nobody thinks of librarians as king of the hill. It's not our style. We are not engaged in a ruthless struggle to outmuscle the masses for our greater glory.

On the other hand, if Louis stood for something -- a magnificent spirit, a certain animal vigor -- we stand for something, too. Here's the short version: librarians think people have the right to read what they please, and that that's nobody else's business. In the jargon of the profession, the first one is "intellectual freedom," and the second is "patron confidentiality."

You might not always agree with that. In fact, not all librarians do, all of the time. There are extenuating circumstances. Free speech isn't an absolute, even in the library. If someone comes into the library yelling at the top of his lungs about some political point, whatever the point may be, we'll ask him to be quiet or to leave.

There are certain situations where librarians promptly comply to legal requests for information. I’m thinking of a case where a library book was found near the place where a snatched child was last seen.

Librarians were the first to protest laws that allowed the government to block internet content through filters. Recently, we lost that one -- got muscled right off the hill by the Supreme Court.

Librarians were among the first to speak out against the Patriot Act, calling for citizen oversight of what could very well turn into unprincipled snooping into the reading habits of innocent Americans.

I remember how much I always irritated Louis -- how did this sneaky little kid keep toppling him?

But I admired HIM tremendously. Knock him down, and he'd struggle his way back to the top, every time. He stood for something: a refusal to give up, a gallantry.

Librarians will keep struggling, too. We may not always win. But at least you know what we're fighting for.