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, January 28, 2004

January 21, 2004 - theft

Years ago, I was working my very first job as a professional librarian. I was an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University. Among my responsibilities was to work the general reference desk, not too far from the main entrance to the library.

Shortly after I arrived, the library installed a new security system. Staff had already inserted tags in all the books. The new system made a loud, obnoxious noise when somebody tried to slip out with an item that hadn't been "desensitized." A detection also blocked the big aluminum gate between the checkout desk and the outside.

The new system was widely publicized through campus media, but apparently not that many people paid attention to it. The first day of operation, it went off at least 30 times.

And every time, it was a professor. Not a single student.

Every time, the professors said, "But I need this book for my research!" Staff pointed out that no one was denying them access to the materials. We were just requiring that they be checked out first.

You may have noticed that most public libraries use security systems now. They're expensive -- the hardware alone (not counting the tags and staff time) -- cost about $30,000 per location.

To figure out if such a cost were necessary for us, the staff of the Douglas County Libraries conducted a couple of inventories. What we found was heartening: our loss rate was surprisingly low, less than 2 percent.

We have an honest community, that does not feel compelled to steal what it may freely borrow.

Um, until recently. At most of our libraries, we've tracked a big jump in the disappearance of two classes of library materials: CDs and DVDs. And this is happening just as we've just started to build useful collections. Particularly saddening is the devastation of a brand new foreign film collection -- something truly unique in the area.

I have to admit that I don't get it. The whole purpose of libraries is to allow MANY people to have access to things they simply would not be able to buy. The implied social contract is that this cooperative purchasing agreement offers to all a great benefit at a relatively low cost.

At home, I have my own collection of CDs and DVDs, and have noticed something else: I don't use them all of the time. Much of the time, they sit idle in bookcases and trays. There's another library benefit: I can return what I don't really need lying around all the time to some place that will keep it in order for me, as well as allowing others to enjoy it.

But I don't expect this public declaration of indignation to have any affect whatsoever on our problem. To preserve our collection, we'll have to pursue the same costly solutions adopted by our colleagues in the retail world.

First will come the new procedures. Expect some inconvenience in the process of checking out these materials.

Second will come the gates and tags. The good news is, this problem has emerged at the same time as new technological solutions. Nowadays, the "tags" can do more than beep at the gate -- they can actually identify their contents and whereabouts. In the future, we may be able to hold up a device in the middle of the library that in essence, asks, "everybody here?" and every item answers.

The same technology might save some of the time we'll lose elsewhere; such tags would let the items check themselves back in just by sliding through a bookdrop.

But it won't be cheap. The small minority of petty thieves will rob their communities thrice: by stealing what they may already borrow for free, by forcing new inconvenience on their neighbors and public employees, and by diverting money that could have been used for more new materials and services.

On behalf of the vast majority of people who have been so righteous for so long, I am truly sorry.

January 28, 2004 - loss of state funding

There's a story told about George Bernard Shaw. He was sitting next to a well-dressed woman at a fancy dinner party. "Madam," he said, "would you sleep with me for one million pounds?"

The woman smiled wickedly. "I most certainly would!"

"Would you sleep with me for one pound?" Shaw asked.

"What sort of woman do you take me for?" she sputtered.

"We've settled that," said Shaw. "Now we're just dickering over the price."

Well, the Colorado legislature is in session, and Colorado librarians are trying to decide just what our price is.

Three years ago, Colorado libraries received about $6 million annually from the State. The first $2 million was something called "State Grants to Libraries." Qualifying libraries got a minimum of $3,000 each. In the two years this program was in operation, an estimated 200,000 books were purchased, and under the terms of the money, they were all fair game to be borrowed by anybody in the state.

The second $2 million went to the Denver Public Library, for serving as our State Library, and providing walk-in circulation and reference services for the readers far beyond the Denver city limits. They also lent many items through the same statewide Interlibrary Loan program.

The final $2 million went to 7 regional "systems." The systems weren't very well understood by, or visible to, the public. While the libraries in the metropolitan area tend to be pretty good, staffed with trained librarians, mostly housed in good buildings, that's not true elsewhere in Colorado. The systems have provided basic training for library staff, assistance in applying for grants, cooperative networks to help libraries get their materials on line, and much more.

The systems were also responsible for coordinating all kinds of inter-library cooperation, including our statewide courier -- the means through which we have been able to DELIVER books from one library to the patron of another.

Governor Owens used his line item veto to zero out the state grants to libraries two years ago.

Next to go was the Denver Public Library funding. The same year, Denver got hit again by city cuts, and has now slashed its book budget, laid off staff, and reduced the hours of its Main Library.

System budgets were the last to go - zeroed out last year. But a few hardy legislators managed to scrape up $600,000 to keep it alive for another year. Since then, we've done a lot of restructuring. We've whittled the 7 systems down to just one. Only a handful of system employees remain.

Naturally, the reduced system won't do nearly as much as it did before. But the $600,000 would at least keep the courier service afloat, and provide for some basic statewide cooperation.

But of course, there is no budget for systems this year, either.

As one of my colleagues put it, "This breaks my heart." It took 30 years to put together a system that not only was remarkably inexpensive, but truly served as a model for the nation. It took just three years to rip it to shreds.

But the state doesn't seem to be through with us. After an 87% cut in the state's commitment to our funding, it has come up with a way for us to SPEND money -- a true unfunded mandate that also has the by-product of making the things we can still afford, almost useless.

And all we have to do is to put our virtue on the auction block.

But that's next week's topic.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

January 14, 2004 – Dear Mr. LaRue 2

Dear readers,

Here’s another letter I received from our unofficial, self-proclaimed ombudsman, Ms. Featheruffle. Incidentally, I'm closing in on the clues. The letters are arriving from the email of one Missy Hess, a shelver at the Parker Library. At any rate, Ms. Featheruffle seems to have gotten her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek. I think. - Jamie LaRue

Dear Mr. LaRue:

I'm a Shelver. I think you should know how stressed my job is becoming nowadays because of all the new programs for children. My gray hair is not a fluke.

I had the system down at first. There are three reading times for small children at my library every weekday morning. So I’d go in at the beginning of the first story; shelve videos, DVDs and board books quickly (that’s the most popular area nowadays –"Arthur," "Sesame Street," and "Mary Kate and Ashley" videos fly off the shelves just as quickly as the board books) and then I’d exit quickly when the kids streamed out of the story room. Fortunately the book drops need to be emptied regularly.

Then when the next story time started, I’d saunter back in and shelve another section.

I had the mornings figured out perfectly.

On my afternoon and night time shifts I was okay. There’s always a steady flow of kids, but not the large groups who toddle in for the stories in the morning. (By the way, did you know they actually sing songs and do finger plays too at these story times? Not the library I grew up with.)

But the good times have ended. Somebody had the bright idea to institute an afternoon story time. And a lot of your libraries even have a Saturday story time.

And kids come! They come in droves!

Mr. LaRue. I like kids. I respect the moms who come in and sit in a chair with their kids on their laps and read them stories. I’m awed by moms who sit next to strollers and help their babies clap their hands. And I even tolerate the moms who somehow don’t smell their kids’ stinky diapers. (Well, maybe I move to the other side of the room till they leave.)

But really, Mr. LaRue. There are tons of kids in the library at all hours of the day now. When’s a poor Shelver to do her work?

Tess T. Featheruffle

Dear Ms. Featheruffle:

I will certainly look into the matter. Too Many Children at the Library is certainly a serious matter. You know, different libraries have different story times. Perhaps we can adjust your schedule. Meanwhile, you might comfort yourself that if weren't for all those kids and parents, we really wouldn't have anything that needed putting away. Think of it as job security. Thank you for your comments.

Jamie LaRue

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

January 7, 2004 - Dear Mr. LaRue 1

Dear Readers:

I've always encouraged feedback from our library patrons and my staff. Recently, one staffer sent me a number of interesting letters, and I thought you might enjoy them as much as I did.

I haven't had the, er, pleasure of meeting Ms. Tess T. Featheruffle yet, but I don't see her name in our staff directory. Hence, she must be using a pseudonym. I’m told she has gray hair, wears glasses, and is a Shelver. She's feisty, and occasionally, as you'll see, she has very strong opinions. Jamie LaRue

Dear Mr. LaRue:

I'm completing a year at a Douglas County Libraries and, since you're the Director, I think you should hear some of my observations.

I noticed early on, when I was checking my e-mail, that one staffer seemed to get sick a lot. Still she would cheerfully announce the hours she was going to come in anyways. She always said she was ILL in capital letters, so I thought it must be a terribly serious illness. After a couple of months of these messages, I began to think you were an awfully magnanimous manager to enable an employee with a chronic illness to continue working.

Curious, but not worth mentioning to anyone at the time. I guessed she probably did a lot of work via computer. In a library system, it's pretty much all on computer nowadays. Hey, even before I started working at the library I knew I could browse the whole catalog from my home computer. Beats leaving the house when there’s a hailstorm outside.

Then one day I wanted a book and couldn't find it in our library system. I saw a heading on the library's main web page that said Research Tools. I clicked on it.

Guess what? There are databases galore. You can even find out what every library in the whole state owns, and probably even borrow what you need from them. And you don’t even need to make a long car ride. The library does it for you.

So, Douglas County got my book for me, in just one week. On Interlibrary Loan.


Get it? ILL?

Yeah, yeah, I know now. The woman wasn't sick; she was just letting everybody know her hours in case they had questions about Interlibrary Loans.

So, Mr. LaRue, you've got a good system, for people who are having a bad time when they can’t find their books.

Oh. The ugly? Nobody wants to visit the library in ugly weather – so they use their home computers.

I've run out of time today, but I do have some strong comments on the children's room. I’ll send them to you shortly.

Tess T. Featheruffle

P.S. You really ought to publicize the ILL system.

Dear Ms. Featheruffle:

Consider it done. Looking forward to your future letters, I’m sure.

Sincerely, Jamie LaRue