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, November 26, 2003

November 26, 2003 - Traditions

I had, depending on your viewpoint, the good or the bad luck of being raised in something of a religious vacuum.

For one summer, I went with my neighbor to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Later, my family belonged for about a year to a United Methodist Church, whose new minister greatly appealed to young people. He was a compelling and intense speaker, with a fresh, contemporary take on Christianity.

Everybody else liked him, too. They actually had to knock out the back of the church to add more seats. Then, after about six months of delivering fascinating, entertaining, and often deeply moving insights into the life and mind of Christ, he abruptly shifted his ministry. He called upon his congregation not just to admire Jesus, but try to follow His lead. That proved, alas, less popular.

Throughout my life, I've known Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians and members of the Greek Orthodox Church. These are all people with a rich and complex tapestry not only of belief, but of something that was pretty much absent in my house: ritual.

Of course, ritual isn't the exclusive province of religion. It seems that almost any human institution develops patterns of behavior that tend to become very stylized.

Some people find deep comfort in such ritual. The idea seems to be that things change in life, too many things, maybe. You get older. People die. Good things come to an end.

Ritual is a bulwark against change. It says, "This is something you can count on."

Ritual also promotes both community and conformity. Whether it's a ritual of dress, or speech, or of more subtle behaviors, rituals say, "I belong to this group of people."

This week's holiday, certainly qualifying as a uniquely North American ritual, is Thanksgiving. While it began as an entirely religious observance (in 1619, near what is now Charles City, Virginia), it became a national holiday in 1789. Interestingly, President George Washington expressed strong misgivings about this merger of religion and politics.

These days, Thanksgiving is mostly a secular observance. It was nonetheless an enduring ritual even in my childhood home. There were some dishes we had that you just couldn't hold Thanksgiving without (turkey, of course) -- and some of them distinct to my family ("24 hour salad," mostly canned fruit and whipping cream).

And despite my stunted appreciation of ritual, I have held onto Thanksgiving. I not only like to eat, I like the whole idea behind Thanksgiving. That is, that we should give thanks, that most of us live lives of abundance, and that as the days shorten and the nights grow colder (finally!), that we can greet the winter with snug and well-provided homes.

It is my hope that among those provisions, you have laid in a healthy and diverse collection of books, music, and film, all supplied by your local library.

All Douglas County Libraries will be closed on Thanksgiving. In fact, we will also be closed on the evening before, the better to allow our staff to prepare feasts for their families.

From all of us to all of you, thank you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

November 19, 2003 - obsessions

I was taking the dogs for a walk with my 9-year old son, Perry. He was telling me that lately he is obsessed with Bionicles. These are snap-together toy models produced by Lego. Perry has a lot to say about them.

I didn't follow it all. It went something like this: in 2004, they're going to make a new Bionicle movie called "Metru Nui: City of Legends." It includes six heroes. Unlike the first six Toa, they're going to be more powerful Matoran.

See, the Toa's helpers, the Turaga, each have their own masks. The new Matoran will have the masks of the Turaga, but will have switched the COLORS of the masks. Perry thinks that the Matoran will be tossed into death by Makuta's Shadows, but the masks will stay behind and become the Turaga's. The Turaga, incidentally, are not powerful enough to help the Matoran villagers, so that's why the Toa washed up on shore.

Got that? Me, neither.Still, Perry thanked me for listening. He said that not everybody else takes the time. He did get his sister, Maddy, to admit that there are many similarities between Bionicles and her obsession, Lord of the Rings. For instance, both fictional universes are based on what Perry calls "imaginative legends." Both the universes have their own alphabets. In this world, each has books and movies and websites devoted to them.

Perry asked me what my obsession was. Then he answered himself. "Computers. Linux."

Well, that is so completely not true. Children may have their obsessions. Grown-ups have ... interests. Hobbies. Pursuits. We do research for important reasons.

I HAVE been spending a fair amount of time lately spelunking in the caverns of Open Source operating systems. But there really is a reason.

If you spend any time on computer newsgroups at all, you know that there are certain almost religious aspects to operating system brand loyalty. It's Windows versus Apple. It's Linux versus BSD. And it's one jihad after another, flamefests that go on for years.

But here's the bottom line. Most of us don't particularly care. All that matters is what we DO with a computer. And for most of us, that's a relatively short list. We write and answer email. We browse the World Wide Web. We write short documents. We work up an occasional spreadsheet. Sometimes, we draw a picture or work on a database.

I have decided that by moving to Open Source software, we can capture most of the computer services we provide to the public. We'll be using Mozilla (see www.mozilla.org) for browsing. We'll be using OpenOffice.org (www.openoffice.org) for most everything else. And all of it will be running on Linux.

Why? Because I believe Open Source software will make it easier for us to sustain our investment in public computing. Linux, Mozilla, and OpenOffice.org are all freely available at no cost. On a new computer, that could be a savings of about $250 per machine. We have a lot of computers, and hope to buy many more.

At some point, some months from now, we may well host some public workshops on Open Source. I'd like to show people just how powerful this stuff can be. I also want people to know how to find their way around on our news systems.

Incidentally, there are many flavors or "distributions" of Linux. I'm writing this column on a machine that runs four different varieties, just to poke around and figure out which one works the smoothest. At work, I use another one. I've also tested a sixth.

By contrast, Perry has collected nineteen of the total (at this writing) 36 Bionicles. Kids!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

November 12, 2003 - from print to AV

I need some advice.

For over a century, libraries have mostly focused on the purchase of print. And indeed, in libraries all across the country, we have stocked our shelves mainly with books and magazines.

These continue, of course, to be a significant part of our business. Adding up all the categories of things we check out, in 2002 a full 75 percent of what people took was print. Forty-one percent of our checkouts were children's and Young Adult books, which I find comforting.

But all that does is reflect what we offer. That is, about 75 percent of our collection is print. People check out the things we have, in roughly the percentage we supply them. (Actually, that's not quite accurate. Forty-one percent of our collection is not children's materials. I'm simplifying things by emphasizing the difference between print and non-.)

My aim is not to bat about statistics, however. My question is this: what's the RIGHT percentage of print versus "audiovisual" materials? Here, audiovisual means Books on Tape, Books on CD, music CDs, and VHS videos and DVDs.

To be even more pointed, what do YOU, the library patron, actually want from us as far as preferred formats for bestsellers? Here's what we'd like to know from you:

1. In general, with respect to your personal use of library materials, do you read printed library materials (limit your responses to fiction and non-fiction books - don't count periodicals) or do you listen to recorded materials (again, limited to fiction and non-fiction tapes and/or CDs)?

2. Can you quantify your response (such as for example 95% audio v. 5% print)?

3. If you are a listener, do you prefer CDs or tapes, or doesn't it matter?

The answers to these questions could have some big consequences for the future of your local library. The first consequence concerns our buying decisions.

Right now, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the cost of books on tape and CDs is significantly greater than books. (The cost for producing CD's has to be cheaper, but there we have the mysterious forces of the marketplace.)

For example, consider "The Da Vinci Code." These are the retail costs of this book in the four different formats we bought:

Hardback: $24.95
Large Print: $26.95
Book on tape: $80.00
CD: $117.00

But the Douglas County Libraries has negotiated some remarkable discounts. For most hardbacks, we get a 43 percent discount (although that doesn't include our costs for cataloging and processing). But for audiotapes and CD's, the best we can do is about a 10 percent discount. That's true for all libraries. Again, we see the wisdom of the marketplace, meaning that so far the producers can get away with charging more.

Right now, when we get four requests for something (reserves or "holds"), we buy an extra copy. But we don't necessarily do that for the books on tape or CD. Why? Because of the difference in cost. (And also because we've noticed a pattern -- some people put holds on both the audiotape and CD versions to see which one they get first, which skews the demand.)

I've already directed staff to head in the direction of building a collection that is one third print children's materials, one third adult print, and one third audiovisual. But it will take us awhile to get there. Meanwhile, we'd like to know if the public would like us to apply similar standards for reserves to non-print materials as we do to print.

To weigh in on this issue, just leave me a message at 303-688-7654 or email me at jlarue@dclibraries.org. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 5, 2003

November 5, 2003 - library contribution to economic development

On occasion, I get glum about American culture. But then I remember some facts that make me feel better.

Here's my favorite: There are more public library branches in America than McDonald's. Truly -- we have over 16,000 service locations; they have fewer than 15,000.

Here's another: in a given year, there are more visits to the local library (Denver, for instance) than there are to all city sporting events combined. In fact, last year, there were over 1.1 billion library visits, or 4.3 visits per capita nationwide.

Don't you feel better now?

What do people come to us for? Some people think the Internet is our competition. But it could be part of our draw. As of 2002, some 92 percent of public libraries had access, and 83 percent made that access available directly to their patrons.

It might be the collections. Here's the order of subjects that have proven to be both the most popular, and generally account for the greatest number of public library purchases: Medicine/Health, How-To/"Home Arts," Biography, Arts/Crafts, Cookbooks, Travel, History, Computers, Business, and Self-Help/Psychology.

Across the country, children's materials, all by themselves, account for some 612 million items, or about 36 percent of total checkouts. (At the Douglas County Libraries, it's closer to 42 percent.)

Or maybe people go to libraries for the programs. Over 48 million children did, last year.

Or it might be that people come simply to meet each other. I'm convinced that the real story of public libraries over the past 10 years is that communities are rediscovering us as the long lost "commons," the public gathering place that doesn't charge a toll at the gate. You see this change in the explosive growth of public meetings, the quest for virtual offices, or even the casual conversations struck up over the new magazines.

And of course, some people just go to the library because they like the people who work there. In happens that in 2002, over 390,000 people worked in libraries across the country.

I've gotten interested in the economic development side of libraries. Some of our contributions to the local economy are obvious. Busy public libraries serve as anchor stores, generating a steady flow of traffic even when times are tough. In fact, the worse the business climate, the more traffic we get, which is undoubtedly a shot in the arm for our neighbors.

There are three kinds of publicly funded libraries in Colorado: academic, public, and school. As of last year, there were 57 academic library buildings, employing 1,340 people, and returning over $79.4 million to the economy.

There were 243 public library buildings, employing 2,489 people, and spending some $163.7 million on various services.

School libraries could be found in 1,437 buildings, providing work for 2,538 people, and investing $55.8 million in the education of our children.

Add it all up, and more than 1700 libraries employ almost 6,400 Coloradans and spend nearly $300 million annually.

Some would have it that government employees do nothing more than take your money. But that's not how it works for library workers. We spend most of our time adding value to those dollars, then pumping them right back into the communities where we live.

Libraries are good business.