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, February 25, 2004

February 25, 2004 - trustee training workshoip

0225 - trustee training workshop

I just returned from a "Trustee Training" workshop in Pueblo. Some 100 or so board members of public libraries showed up -- representing libraries stretching from north of Denver to the southeast corner of the state.

This may well be one of the last such programs for a while. The sponsors of the two day event were two of the remaining library "systems" in the state. Our legislature has all but eliminated system funding. Two years ago, 50 people made up the staff of these 7 regional support systems. Now there are just a handful. By the end of this year, there will be none.

There are some lessons in all this. First, it has become abundantly clear that the state neither understands nor supports local libraries. In fact, it goes out of its way to punish them. I got a look at the final figures: our 79% reduction of state support far exceeds that of any other state in the union. The next biggest hit after Colorado was a state that lost about 25 percent of their state funding.

Is the state facing a funding crisis? Sure, and one largely of its own making. But that doesn't explain why libraries are first on the hit list.

Second, it's also clear that the hundreds of local people who volunteer their time to serve on the library board -- the business people, the seniors, the moms, the folks from all walks of life and, yes, BOTH political parties -- have a keen appreciation for the role of the library in their towns.

I heard a most inspiring tale from Woodland Park. The library passed a bond issue for a much needed new building -- which wound up being constructed smack in the middle of everything.

When the Hayman Fire raged nearby, ham radio operators approached the library board to ask if they could put a tower on what was now the highest building around to help coordinate rescue and emergency operations. The library immediately agreed. Now, there's a permanent ham radio station operating from the basement of the building.

I heard about the new library in Louisville, a rallying cry for people who want to hang onto the vibrant downtown in an age of malls.

I toured the new Pueblo Library, an altogether remarkable building, part of Pueblo’s surprising level of investment in public art in their downtown, joining the river walk, a new museum, and even a working historical excavation, right across from the conference center.

I'm puzzled by the disconnect between what some of our legislators think about libraries (we're hotbeds of liberal pornography, apparently), and what is absolutely plain in the 135 or so towns and cities that host public libraries.

Colorado's libraries are directed by governing boards that are deeply involved in, deeply committed to, the social, economic, and intellectual well-being of their communities. Libraries are not entities pushing some arrogant agenda of their own. Instead, they are tools communities use to solve a host of local problems, from teen drop-outs to emergency services to homeschooling support to the provision of venues for public meetings and artistic performances.

And we do it using the tools we've always used: collections of staff, materials, and true public space.

Aside from the baffling hostility of the state, this is actually a very exciting time to be working in public libraries. The trend in Colorado is that the public library is moving closer to the heart of community planning, one more local asset to bring to the table.

I'm struck by an interesting dichotomy. Much is made of the physical infrastructure of government -- a code word for highways. Colorado also has, and needs, an intellectual infrastructure, and that means more than the blather of talk radio. (I guess that does give people something to do on the highway, although may I recommend one of our books on tape or CD instead?)

I take some comfort in the fact that although the state is eagerly dismantling our intellectual freeways, our local communities are still building and driving on them. The fact that these roads will soon stop at the edge of town is something the state doesn't seem to know, or care, about.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

February 19, 2004 - Dear Mr. LaRue 3

Dear readers,

I received another letter from Ms. Featheruffle, a library shelver. Her topic: there's Too Much Pressure at the Library. Jamie LaRue

Dear Mr. LaRue:

Last month I said something nice about library patrons, and the other shelvers all ganged up on me. They said since I occasionally criticize the Douglas County Libraries, it would only be fair to tell you something good too.

So, under duress, I’m going to tell you what I said.

You should know, however, that shelvers are absolutely critical to the overall functioning of the library. We’re the ones who get down on the floor to shelve the children’s books. ( I have BIG, ROUND, FADED patches on the knees of my pants from doing this, by the way. I don’t suppose there’s any reimbursement for wear and tear on clothes? Just thought I’d ask.)

We shelvers do a pretty darn good job overall. I’ve never heard any complaints about how messy the stacks are (except for the children’s room where a single kid can wreak havoc in one minute flat, but that’s another story.) Shelvers consider it a matter of honor to place book RIGHT WHERE IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE.

During the summer, it’s all in a day’s work when we open the book drop and find a ton of books. We duly stack them on carts, and go back to shelving.

We might go back and check the book drops 10 minutes later. There aren’t supposed to be a lot of books after ten minutes. But during the summer, when people are heading off on vacation, another ton of books can appear miraculously.

It’s okay. We can manage. It’s our job, after all, we say. Job security.

But then, just to be safe, we might go back 5 minutes later and find there’s ANOTHER ton of books waiting.

At this point you might find us just a little tense. We do have other things to do besides emptying the book drops. And all those returned books are gonna have to be shelved… There’s a lot of work ahead of us.

Well, something occurred to me one day when I emptied a bulging book drop. For the fourth time in five minutes, mind you. Anyway, I sort of said something nice about library patrons. I swear it just slipped out. Accidentally.

I said that we must have pretty good patrons because they return books. Lots of books. Books that can be recycled and lent out again and again and again so other people can read them too. A library could not exist if it weren’t for honorable patrons who return books regularly. The best people in the world use libraries.

Ok. Enough. I’ll have something more sensible to say in my next letter. Count on it.
Tess T. Featheruffle

Dear Ms. Featheruffle:
I can't wait.
Jamie LaRue

[P.S. Missy Hess is the Parker shelver who actually wrote this. Isn't she a stitch?]

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

February 11, 2004 - Roxborough bookmobile

It's been bothering me for some time. The last time the library district went back to the voters (1996), we promised a series of projects. All of those projects we completed -- and in most cases, greatly exceeded our promises.

But there was one promise we didn't fulfill: a library in the Roxborough area. We started out OK. We invested in an older bookmobile, which we parked (permanently) by the elementary school. Then, through the years, we kept trying to partner with various commercial ventures.

In my twenty-odd years of public librarianship (some of them odder than others) I have learned this vital lesson: libraries do not exist in isolation.

The Board and I hoped to create or join some synergistic arrangement with other players in the community. The advantages are many. Our libraries touch a solid 75% of all the households in the county, and the demographics of our users closely match the county in every category.

In short, the library is a powerful generator of traffic, infusing a regular, predictable pattern of bodies through an area. When we team up with others for parking, for landscaping, joining coffee shops and book stores and many other kinds of enterprises, that partnership helps not only to support a host of business ventures, but to make for a place that's more interesting.

Besides all that, Roxborough was clearly growing. It was obviously only a matter of time before commercial interests took off.

Only they didn't. The library negotiated with at least three developers for a commercial pad. The projects kept falling through. Another lesson I've learned is that whatever the challenges of public administration, they are more than matched by the travails of the entrepreneur.

We thought we had a deal last year. The lease had been signed. The developer had asked us to move our bookmobile because the dirt was about to fly. So we did, and it didn't.

I don't blame the developer. Sudden reversals of fortune are the name of the game in business. But our bookmobile wasn't really in much condition to be moved; we sold it. And when the developer discovered that finances and general business conditions wouldn't support the project, we -- and the residents of the Roxborough area -- were out of a library.

I'm pleased to report that that's about to change. On Thursday, February 12, 2004, we're going to roll a new bookmobile back into Roxborough. It will be back near the Roxborough Elementary School. It will be open Thursdays from 3 to 8:30 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The phone number for the new bookmobile will be 303-886-6488.

This one is quite a bit larger and newer than the old one. That means it holds more items.

It also means that this one is designed to move. At this writing, we are in negotiations to establish a new service in another fast-growing area: Castle Pines North. If we are successful, we'll offer three day a week service there, too.

The bookmobile is a story in itself. I mentioned business reversals. Government has them, too. Our sister library to the north, Englewood Public, has recently suffered some extreme budget cuts. As a result, they were going to put their bookmobile in a garage for a year. We offered to rent it -- a good thing for both of us.

Meanwhile, we are now working with yet another developer in Roxborough to find a long term home as part of a new Safeway complex. This one looks pretty good.

I'll feel better when we get that promise fulfilled. Meanwhile, as Winston Churchill once put it, "My views are a harmonious process which keeps them in relation to the current movement of events."

Thursday, February 5, 2004

February 4, 2004 - HB 1004

Ayn Rand, author of "The Fountainhead," and "Atlas Shrugged," eloquent spokesperson and passionate defender of laissez faire capitalism, once made a provocative statement about government.

The paraphrased version is this: Liberals view government as a tool to regulate business; conservatives as a tool to regulate private behavior. Why? Because each of them is seeking to control the activity they think is most important.

Isn't that fascinating? First, it turns the usual liberal/conservative contrast on its head. We think of conservatives as the party of business; liberals as the party of the people. Rand illuminates the nasty little truth in the middle: both sides want their hands on governmental control to keep the other side in line.

One way to size up what YOU think is important is to admit which one scares you the most. Are you more afraid of a company dumping various poisons into the air or water, or what your neighbors might be doing in their homes when they think nobody is looking?

On the one hand, you may feel that pollution is the more objective, measurable danger.

On the other hand, you may feel that your neighbors, indulging in something morally suspect, pose the greater threat to society.

Then there's all the messy ground in the middle. I'm thinking about proposed Colorado House Bill 1004, an attempt to use the force of government to compel public libraries to filter any library terminal that a child (under 17) might have access to. Of course, those are the same terminals that adults use.

The irony in this attempt is that a recent Supreme Court decision found that recipients of federal funds may be required to filter library terminals; accept the money, you accept the conditions attached to it.

But the State of Colorado provides no direct money to public libraries. As I noted last week, in the past 3 years it has cut 87% of the modest library programs it did provide.

Placing a condition on libraries after REDUCING their funding is one step worse than what used to be called "an unfunded mandate." Library computers were purchased with local funds, installed with local funds, and their use is governed by local policy, set by local laypeople. But that doesn't suit the State.

Incidentally, this is the third Internet filtering bill to be imposed on libraries in as many years. Let's review: in 3 years, a drastic cut of library funding, and a sharp increase in attempts to control public content. It's a worrisome pattern.

A second irony involves how the filters will work. It's certainly true that there is a lot of unsavory stuff on the Internet. But it's also true that libraries have spent a great deal of time and money addressing that problem. How? By ADDING value.

You've surely Googled up some data on a legitimate topic, only to find that you got a useless hodgepodge of ill-focused advertisements. So you asked a librarian for help.

And we showed you how to call up one of our many commercial databases, featuring top-of-the-line indexes and full text from a host of well-written, well-researched sources that have been thoroughly reviewed and vetted by experts. That's librarianship at work: helping you find the good stuff by pointing to it, not by trying to squelch everything else.

But guess what? The filters the state wants us to use would apply to THOSE materials, too. If the filter blocks the word "pot," for instance, then you can no longer look up information on Indian pottery. If the word is "gay," then farewell Gay 'Nineties. And of course, with filtering products, you have no idea which terms are blocked, or why, or who picked them.

So first we spend your money on top-quality information. Then we're supposed to spend more of your money to prevent you from seeing that information.

Technically, of course, filtering only applies to minors. If you're an adult, you can ask us to turn it off. But the default is "on." For everybody.

I should say that the bill is still being reworked. The House sponsor has shown some sensitivity to both library concerns and those of sexual victims (public libraries are one of the few public conduits to Internet-based resources for rape and incest victims -- resources often blocked by filters).

I've never much cared for the terms liberal or conservative. Too often, adopting these labels is just an excuse to avoid thinking about the specifics of an issue. But I do have a definite opinion about this topic.

I am NOT afraid of information. That's the whole point to a library. I AM afraid of people who want to tell us how we should spend our own money, the better to remain ignorant.