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, September 24, 2003

September 24, 2003 - the Patriot Act revisited

I don't know what to think.

I've written before about the Patriot Act, passed in haste after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

The provisions were disturbing to librarians. Among other things, the Act:

* lowered the legal standard for obtaining a search warrant from "probable cause" to "suspicion;"

* allowed the FBI to get a special search warrant to retrieve records of library use;

* overrode state and local privacy laws;

* prohibited the library from notifying the patron, or the press, or anyone else that an investigation was underway; and

* granted expanded wiretapping authority to federal & state law enforcement agencies that allowed monitoring of public computers.

It's possible that librarians are a little more sensitive to the issue of patron privacy than most folks. But I think that makes us useful. We're like canaries in the mines -- the first to sense that it's going to get a little harder to breathe by and by.

To many librarians, the Patriot Act is a clear threat to the confidentiality of library use. But when I've talked about this to people I respect, they tell me that I'm worrying over nothing. Besides, don't librarians want to catch terrorists?

Well, sure. But I don't think  looking at our patrons' reading lists is the best way to do that.

More troubling yet is the fact that until recently the whole pattern of use of the Patriot Act has been "classified."

Librarians abhor that kind of information vacuum. So back in 2002, one year after 9/11, the Library Research Center of the University of Illinois surveyed 1,505 libraries; 906 responded.

According to that survey, in the year after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, federal and local law enforcement officials visited at least 545 libraries to ask for borrowing or computer use records. Of these, 178 libraries received visits from the FBI.

It's important to note that the USA Patriot Act makes it illegal for persons or institutions to disclose that a search warrant has been served. Fifteen libraries acknowledged there were questions they did not answer because, legally, they couldn't. (Not all of those requests related to suspected terrorist activities.)

My conclusion: it seems quite likely that the FBI, under the Patriot Act, was indeed visiting libraries and asking for patron information. Not just once, but many times.

Imagine my surprise to read in the September 18, 2003 Denver Post that Attorney General John Ashcroft that day disclosed, "The number of times (the provision) has been used to date is zero."

Somebody, it would seem, is not telling the truth. Librarians? Or the Attorney General of the United States?

Frankly, both of those are distressing prospects.

I do have my bias. But in this case it isn't political. Many of the provisions of the Patriot Act were in fact formulated if not instituted under Clinton; that's one of the reasons they were able to be rolled out so fast after 9/11.

The "intelligence community" is very much about security and secrecy. And there are times when such practices are indeed vital to public safety.

But the problem is not a new one. Who watches the watchers?

There is evidence that the law enforcement community is using the Patriot Act for purposes far beyond, and very different than,  those originally declared.

According to an Associated Press piece from September 14, 2003, federal prosecutors have brought more than 250 criminal charges under the law, with more than 130 convictions or guilty pleas.

That's about half. What about the other half? And what were they charged with?

We don't know. Classified.

The same piece reported that investigators used a provision of the Patriot Act to recover $4.5 million from a group of telemarketers accused of tricking elderly U.S. citizens into thinking they had won the Canadian lottery.

Using a new state law barring the manufacture of "chemical weapons," a North Carolina county prosecutor recently caught and accused a man of running a methamphetamine lab. If convicted, he could get life in prison for a crime that usually gets about six months.

The same piece quoted Dan Dodson, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "Within six months of passing the Patriot Act," he said, "the Justice Department was conducting seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them beyond terror cases."

It’s possible that both Ashcroft and librarians are telling the truth, that no technical use of the Patriot Act's specific provision relating to libraries has taken place. Maybe all of those "visits" were done under other laws. The problem remains that it's almost impossible to know. And I still think that's wrong.

We need police. We don't need a police state.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

September 13, 2003 - manners

Some years ago now, there were two ministers living on my cul de sac. One minister worked for a fairly liberal Christian church. Another was the pastor of a more conservative, evangelical congregation. Each of them had a daughter about the same age as Maddy, who was then about 4 years old.

One day, while I was washing the dishes, I heard the three girls playing together. Then I heard the daughter of the conservative minister begin talking about Jesus. The daughter of the liberal minister chimed in. After they chatted for awhile, finally, one of them turned to my daughter, a little exasperated.

"What do YOUR parents believe?" she asked.

Maddy said, "My parents believe..." and I all but fell out the window trying to catch this, "in being polite."

I grinned for days.

I'm not one of those people who believe that everything is getting worse in America. I see many things to celebrate in our culture.

But that isn't to say that I see no problems at all. The one that bothers me most is what seems to me a growing tendency, especially in the political world, but elsewhere as well, to mistake rudeness for cleverness.

It's also true that I meet so many genuinely accomplished people who seem to me best characterized by a profound courtesy. They are slow to take offense, and slow to give it. They are inclined to give other people the benefit of the doubt.

They may disagree with someone else's opinion. But they have learned to be pleasant about it. They have learned to separate an opinion from the person expressing it.

I'm addicted to reading letters to the editor, and I'm alternately aghast or amused by the frequency with which people simply attack the motives or intelligence of someone, and believe they have somehow made a point.

This is the fallacy of "ad hominem" -- attacking the man, instead of attacking the argument. When people do that, they lose my respect twice: first, for being rude, and second, for dodging the real question or questions.

A 2002 study by the PEW Charitable Trusts called "Aggravating Circumstances," found that some 79% of the American public believes that lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem for our society and we should try to address it. While some feel that we've made progress with minorities and the disabled, many feel that in other areas, we’ve gotten significantly worse.

Here's a telling statistic: some 41% of the survey respondents said that they were themselves rude and disrespectful in public, and it bothered them a lot.

Recently, I re-read a book in my personal library: Robert Heinlein’s "Friday." In it, one Dr. Hartley M. Baldwin said something that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

"Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms .... but a DYING culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot."

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

September 10, 2003 - Philip S. Miller Library move

Back when I was working on my graduate degree, my parents moved. It was the house I'd lived in for most of my childhood. I went up for the last weekend before they packed, and it was very strange.

My childhood home was a two-story, brick gingerbread sort of house, surrounded by towering trees. I spent a nostalgic evening rocking by the fireplace, listening to the sound of the old water pipes popping and hissing. And that was the last time I was ever really able to feel like I was "home."

For the past 13 years, I have mostly worked out of the Philip S. Miller Library on Plum Creek Boulevard. In less than a week, we'll be moving to our new location at 100 S. Wilcox in Castle Rock -- the site of the old Safeway grocery store.

I am so excited I can hardly stand it. The building no longer looks like a Safeway. Our architects, Humphries-Poli, have made a truly interesting place both within and without.

You can also tell, from the outside, what is likely to be going on in the inside -- from our two-story glass Teen Tower, to our red brick children's room, to our quiet reading room, to our open and spacious conference center.
Coordinating the move from old to new, not to mention incorporating various other pieces from around the district, will be a little tricky. Some of you may have already picked up much of this information from the circulation desk in Castle Rock, but I thought it might bear repeating here.

Our timetable looks like this:

• Saturday, September 13, 5 p.m. The library closes as usual. Then the movers arrive, and we start unplugging things. The Philip S. Miller Library will then be closed until September 27 (except for returns, as below).

• Monday, September 15, and Tuesday, September 16, all day. We will be moving all of our central computer equipment. That means our catalog, our web server, and our Internet server will be down all across the entire district, not just Castle Rock. With any luck, Qwest will have live T1 lines to plug into at the new location. Pray for us. If all goes well, we will return to cyberspace on Wednesday, September 17.

• Tuesday, September 16 through Friday, September 26. We'll continue receiving and setting up shelving, followed by the transfer of the old collection to its new location. Then we've got time (barely) to get everything else plugged in, situated, tested, and shaken down.

• Saturday, September 27. Our Grand Opening! Festivities begin at 10 a.m. with the dedication of the building by the Masons. The children's parade, from the old to the new library, begins at the old location at 10:30 am. The big party at the new library, with guest Reggie Rivers, begins at 11:30 a.m. The doors will be open at noon! That night, we'll have a parking lot dance from 7-10 p.m.

During the period the Philip S. Miller Library will be closed, we have nevertheless figured out a way to allow you to return your materials. You have three options: the book drop at the new library (right by the entrance), our book drop by the King Soopers off Founders Parkways and I-25, and any other Douglas County Libraries location.

Except for the two days when our computers are down, you can also go online at www.douglascountylibraries.org and renew your materials as usual.

Finally, we've also figured out a way to let you pick up anything you may have placed on hold. Depending on how the logistics work out, we'll have a pickup and checkout location either just inside the foyer of the new library, or working from the new meeting room. We'll have signs outside to direct you to the right spot.

Whether you make it to our Grand Opening, or sometime afterward, we know it will feel like home.

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

September 3, 2003 - ISMS

When libraries across the country rolled out their Internet workstations, the truth is that we really didn't know how they would be used.

Sure, we HOPED people would see them as portals to the many databases we have purchased, full of all kinds of authoritative information.

We have topnotch commercial resources in a host of subjects: arts and culture, books and reading, business, careers, consumer advice, crafts and leisure, education, genealogy, health, history, and on and on. Lo and behold: a big percentage of our Internet traffic does indeed revolve around those resources.

But there are other uses. Email. Chat rooms. Interactive games. Online auctions and dating services. And of course, there are the tasteless, pointless, tacky and seamy websites without number.

Here's one of the ironies of Internet use. Once part and parcel of the much heralded "paperless society" (you don't hear that much any more, do you?), the World Wide Web is perhaps most notable for how much paper it generates. People love to print things.

Of course, they often print way more than they really want. People see the single paragraph that has just what they're looking for. So they hit the print key. Then, it seemed like maybe it wasn't printing, so they hit it again.

And a few minutes later, the printer diligently spat out both copies of the 80 page document surrounding that paragraph.

Many patrons, embarrassed, quietly gathered up the one page they wanted and slunk out the door.

Nonetheless, Internet workstations are popular. So popular, that some people would gladly park themselves in front of a terminal all day long. So we had to work out some time limits.

Most people follow the rules -- common sense guidelines for sharing a public resource. A few people don't. So library staff wind up serving as enforcers, wandering judges of civility.

Well, all that's about to change.

First, we're rolling out some new computers, beginning at our Highlands Ranch Library. These are Dell PC's with 18" flat screen monitors. They will all be running a browser to begin with; beginning in 2004, they will also run the full StarOffice suite, offering word processing, spreadsheets, and drawing functions.

Second, these new PC's will be governed by something called "izz-mizz" -- which is the acronym for our Internet Station Management System.

One computer will allow you to type in your library barcode and queue up for the next PC available. When your time comes, you'll sit down at the assigned machine and a 30 minute count-down begins, as attested by a very visible onscreen clock. When you've got just 5 minutes left, you'll be prompted to save your work to a disk. If no one is waiting for your machine, the time limits can be extended automatically; if someone IS waiting, the machine will log you off and wait for the next person in line.

That takes care of the courtesy enforcement -- itself a worthwhile end. But ISMS also does print job management.

When you select something to be printed, the software tells you how many pages will be printed, and what it will cost. At that point, you can back out, and whittle things down. Once you work that out, you tell it to proceed. Then you head to the network printer.

There, you pay at a coin machine (first ten pages are still free, and after that, it depends on whether you're printing black and white, or color). Only then does the print job get released.

Some of our sister libraries have reported that the savings in paper costs alone have paid for the rest of the system.

After we work out the process at Highlands Ranch, we'll be installing the system all around the county. Here's hoping that you find it useful.