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, October 29, 2003

October 29, 2003 - new limit on renewals

When I was a kid, I used to go to a bookmobile.There I found a book called, "Me and Caleb."

I don't remember anymore what it was about (other than Caleb, which I thought then, and still think, is a cool name). But I do remember this: I loved that book, and two weeks later, I asked Mrs. Johnson, the twinkly-eyed bookmobile librarian, to let me renew it.

Two weeks later, I BEGGED her to let me renew it once more. It was against the rules, and I knew it. I told her that I read the book every single day, couldn't I please have it just one more time? Please?

I was young, I was (why deny it?) cute, and I was extravagantly earnest. She looked into my hangdog, baby blue eyes, and gave in.

She was a great librarian.

Unfortunately, and I'm not saying I'm proud of this, I was lying. Oh, I loved the book alright, but I wasn't reading it every day. Why?

Because I couldn't find it.

I'd looked everywhere. And my panic grew hourly. Mrs. Johnson, for all I knew, would lose her job over the sin of breaking sacred rules simply to accommodate a kid who had BETRAYED her. It made me feel sick.

Then there was the other possibility. I wasn't ever going to find it. My parents would have to pay for it. I would lose my library card!

Finally, miserably, I confessed to my mother. She said, after the smallest pause, "Oh, I know where that is," and in moments, set it in my hands.

A few days later, I solemnly handed it to Mrs. Johnson. "Thank you," I said. And I meant it.

My point, in case you're wondering, concerns an upcoming change in our rules. We've discovered that a good many of our materials go out to someone and stay out for a long time. Months. We now have literally thousands of books we haven't seen in half a year.

Nobody is breaking any rules. For years, we have let people renew their materials as many times as they want. After all, people are busy and may not get to something right away. Or they may be using it to teach a child, or take a class.

Sometimes people renew their books just as a matter of convenience -- finding it easier to renew everything all at once.

But here's the problem.

If one person keeps something out for months, then nobody else will stumble across it. Nobody else can fall in love with it.

It's true that people can place holds on long absent books, but that presumes that people find what they want through our computer catalog. We know from countless studies that that's not how it works. People may look up one title, but after that, they go to the shelves to see what's in.

So, effective December 1, 2003, I'll be imposing a limit of 5 renewals on our materials. If, on that day, you've already renewed something, you'll be automatically prevented from renewing it again. That means you have to bring it back.

That's not, I trust, an especially onerous restriction. But it will help us to ensure that more of our patrons have a chance to find the books truly destined for them.

Until then, start looking around for things. Oh, and if you get stuck, don't forget to ask your mom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

October 22, 2003 - Hennen American Public Library Ratings

All of us have done it. All of us have had it done TO us.

I'm talking about ratings.

The boys in my undergraduate dorm laughed at their ratings of the coeds in the cafeteria line -- placards held high with the numbers.

Those same boys cringed when the coeds rated THEM that evening at dinner. The women added ... comments. (Which just goes to show you, said the boys, how cruel and unfair women can be.)

It takes a while in life to learn important lessons. Here's one of them: Rate not, lest ye be rated.

Here's another. The rating is only as good as the people doing the rating -- and the standards they use to get there.

When I was young, I was often devastated by other people's negative judgments about me. These days, it only matters to me if I respect those people, and their knowledge. If I don't, who cares what they think?

Even if I do respect them, I've learned that nobody's judgment of my behavior is anywhere near as demanding as my own.

In the library world, there seem to be just a couple of ratings that matter. One of them is decidedly local: community support.

Community support for a library can be evaluated in several ways. The obvious one is use. Lots of people have library cards, or check things out, or attend library programs, or use the meeting rooms or Internet computers.

Another measure of community support is equally obvious: money. Some libraries win their bond or mill levy elections. They successfully lobby their cities or counties to get their annual appropriations. As a result, they have more books and buildings.

Yet another measure of community support might be the library's reputation. Do most people in the area respect the institution and its staff -- or hold them in disdain? Or worse, what if the community doesn't think of the library at all?

After the local community, the second big rater of public library service in the United States is something called the Hennen American Public Library Ratings.

If you've lived in Colorado for a year or more, you've probably heard of this. Denver Public has for a couple of years now been rated first in the nation for its population served (over 500,000).

Hennen, as it happens, is just some guy in Wisconsin (he does run a library system) with an interest in statistics. Almost as a hobby, he started using various stats on public libraries to come up with a list of libraries that were the "best."

Mostly, his ratings are based on a combination of things mentioned above: checkouts per capita, square feet of library space per capita, and expenditures (especially for books) per capita. It may not be complete, but it's all pretty reasonable.

Hennen has also been very successful in marketing his index in both the library world and the popular press.

There's about an 18 month lag in his ratings. So they are always a little behind the times.

For instance, he just published his latest index. Denver Public again won in its population category. The rating does not reflect the deep cuts Denver sustained the past two years. It won't win next year.

But guess what? Also appearing in this year's index of the top 100 is the Douglas County Libraries (still called Douglas Public Library District, since the data are based on two years ago).

In the 100,000 to 249,000 population category, your local library is rated number 3 in the whole United States. That's right. We're third best in the country.

I am, as all my friends will tell you, a truly gentle man, far more interested in collaboration than competition.

But let me say this.

Naperville Public, IL and Medina County District Library, OH -- watch your back! You're going down.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

October 15, 2003 - librarian action figure

I am very proud -- smug, even -- to report that I am the very first person in the whole state of Colorado to own the soon-to-be-famous "Librarian Action Figure." I got it on Monday, Sept. 28, two days before its general release.

Even better, I got it, autographed, from Nancy Pearl herself, the Seattle librarian upon whom the action figure was modeled.

It's a beaut. I'm especially taken with its "amazing push-button shushing action plus BONUS Trading Card and Bookmark."

Now, this might surprise you, but it turns out that some librarians are deeply incensed about this bemusing new icon of American librarianship.

Why? Because they fear that the blue-suited, bespectacled plastic figure, action finger to smiling action lips, perpetuates an outmoded stereotype.

I couldn't disagree more. For one thing, it clearly states that at least one librarian has a sense of humor -- perhaps the most potent and vital tool for survival in the modern age.

For another, Ms. Pearl is something of an action figure herself. Not only is she an avid bicyclist, she is author of a recent paperback entitled, "Book Lust." Director of Library Programming and the Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library, Pearl is the one who first came up with the widely imitated idea she called, "If all Seattle read the same book."

Even the packaging of this prime collectible is crammed with interesting information. You'll find a brief history of libraries, stretching from 2000 BCE to today (when there are 400,000 librarians operating over 124,000 libraries).

Again in the best tradition of the field, the packaging asks, "Want to find a library near you?" See Yahoo's online directory for public libraries.

"Want to find a book club near you?" bookclubpartner.com

There's also a list of some of the famous librarians in history: Casanova, Ben Franklin, Pope Pius XI, Mao Tse-tung, J. Edgar Hoover, Jorge Luis Borges, and even Batgirl (better known to us comic book aficionados as her latest incarnation: Oracle). That's quite a spread of philosophies and personalities, underscoring the uncommon breadth of the profession.

In short, the Librarian Action Figure is an absolutely charming product with a great back story.

And you know what? If it makes people smile, that's fine with me. They may buy it on a whim, as a lark, or for a laugh.

But I'm confident that the longer they have it, the more they'll come to appreciate just how cool librarians can be.

As Nancy Pearl put it, "The role of the librarian is to make sense of the world of information. If that's not a qualification for superhero-dom, what is?"

(The Librarian Action Figure is available from www.accoutrements.com, and all the better stores everywhere.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

October 8, 2003 - Castle Rock Charrette

A couple of weeks ago, I took a walk with Stevan Strain. Stevan is one of our Library Trustees, representing the Parker area. Stevan also runs the Warhorse Inn on Parker's Mainstreet.

We strolled down Wilcox, the historic Main Street of Castle Rock, then back north on Perry Street. I'd been thinking a lot about the downtown area, so I was all set to illustrate, tour guide fashion, all the touches I thought made downtown Castle Rock so successful, so pedestrian-friendly.

Well, it turns out that Stevan had been thinking about these things even longer than I had, and more deeply. Every time I pointed out something, he'd point out out two things.

I can't remember when I've had such an interesting time. I learned a lot. One thing I learned is that most of us don't pay very much attention to our surroundings. Until you're really thinking and talking about all these things, you don't notice the subtle effect of a curb cut on how fast the traffic flows. You don't understand why some storefronts invite you, and others disconnect.

Over the past 13 years, I've seen how new libraries change the way towns and neighborhoods work. I've watched the way downtowns have developed in Castle Rock, Parker, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Sedalia, and Larkspur. Each community is different; each conducts different kinds of experiments.

Most of us just inherit our surroundings. Nobody asks us, particularly, what kind of feel we want for either public or commercial spaces. We take what we get, and all too often, what we get is soulless, tacky, cheap, and surreal.

Yet the shape of our surroundings does have an effect on us. It determines how people connect to each other. It makes it easier, or harder, to do our work well. At a deeper level, it also affects how we feel as human beings -- sheltered, encouraged, welcomed; or exposed, frustrated, and rejected.

Here's what I've decided: I want to live in a place I like. I want to be part of making wherever I am a place that's good to live in.

Fortunately, the Town of Castle Rock is giving me -- and anybody else with an interest in such things -- an opportunity to do just that.

This weekend, the Town is hosting something called a "charrette." With the able assistance of some urban design specialists from the American Institute of Architects, the public is invited to participate in a two-day process with the following goal: to generate some great ideas about the direction of the town's development.

But don't expect a dry planning committee. While there will be some brief updates on current projects, most of the time will be spent on brainstorming. There just might be some wild ideas -- Denver's 16th Street Mall came out of a charrette process.

The event will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on October 10, followed by a social event until 6:30 p.m. On Saturday, October 11, the charrette will run from 8:30 to 5:30. The location is at the new Philip S. Miller Library, 100 S. Wilcox.

If you're interested, we do encourage you to RSVP -- that way we can more accurately provide for munchies. Please call Loretta Daniel, Senior Planner for the Town, at 720-733-2232.

The results of these two days of planning just might determine what happens in Castle Rock over the next 20 years. Make a difference.

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

October 1, 2003 - incomparable staff

I have now had the great good luck of opening several new libraries in Douglas County. Most recent has been our headquarters library, the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock.

Much of our public activity acknowledges the countless contributions of the general public -- our many donors, our artists, our colleagues in other branches of government.

This column, however, is about the folks who too often don't get acknowledged.

Let's begin at the beginning. The Trustees of the Douglas County Libraries are community volunteers. It is they who set the policies to make sure we had enough money on hand to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move back downtown. It is they who adopted the mission of the library, which directs us to "build community and improve lives in Douglas County."

Then there were our architects. We always aggressively bid out our architectural contracts. And Humphries Poli keeps winning them. Why? Because they have the ability, time after time, to "get" what we need, to imagine new buildings, and re-imagine old ones.

Our contractors, Cambria Construction, also worked hard for us -- bringing in the project on time and under budget.

To the public, one library closed down, and just a couple of weeks later, a new one opened. I hope I don't destroy any illusions for anybody, but behind the scenes, there has been a flurry of staff activity, at times indistinguishable from panic. (Graceful panic, to be sure, but ... panic.)

The new library houses not only the circulation, children's, and reference staff of the library; it is also home to our Technical Services department (the folks who order, catalog, and prepare our materials for checkout), the Computer and Network Support Staff (who keep all our systems running), our Training staff, our Facilities department, our Community Relations Department, our Business Office, and a handful of administrative staff (Human Relations, Volunteers, Adult Literacy, my assistant, and me).

Over the past couple of weeks, I've seen a wonderful "jump-in-and-do-it" attitude all over this place. Catalogers have been slapping books on shelves. Trainers have been plugging in computers. People have been stuffing packets and lugging equipment, practicing tours, and setting up tables and chairs. Even the staff at other branches have pitched in, in an unending demonstration of support (and sympathy, as many of them have gone through their own Grand Openings).

From the beginning of our whole design process, to the final snipping of the ribbon, this library is the product of many minds, many hearts, and many hands. Yes, we pay them -- but this staff gives us not just their time, but their deepest and most conscientious commitment.

Here's just one example: on one of our moving days, Lynn Unruh, our Circulation Supervisor, tripped on a wooden ramp and tumbled. She wound up with a dislocated and fractured shoulder that required surgery. Lynn's response? She was sorry; she APOLOGIZED for the trouble.

While Lynn did wind up missing most of the fun, her good planning helped the rest of us get things done efficiently.

I have the extraordinary privilege of working with an absolutely incomparable staff. Library buildings are wonderful places. Books and magazines and DVD's are magnificent resources. But the library is more than all that: it is the people whose passion and intelligence give those things meaning.

Thank you, the staff of the Douglas County Libraries. Well done!