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, March 31, 2004

March 31, 2004 - wanted: old folks

While driving into work the other day, I was listening to NPR. There was a story about trend-setting rural Minnesota. That's not usually how we think about Minnesota.

In brief, the disproportion of generational populations was a big problem. Following a wave of retirements, many local government agencies and businesses simply didn't have enough people to keep the doors open.

So they tried what organizations in similar situations have tried before. Recruit young people!

But it wasn't working. Or it wasn't working fast enough. So they tried something else: hire back the retirees.

And that's where the story got interesting. The effect on the retirees was wholly positive. Combined with various other advances in medical technology, people were suddenly living a whole lot longer. Workers in their eighties and nineties were leading vigorous lives.

The effect of work clearly had something to do with it. People need to feel useful. And these folks were not just useful, they were desperately needed.

Some adjustments were necessary on the employer side. There were limits on the number of hours seniors were willing to work. Benefits were very important. It's possible, too, that the pace of the work might have ratcheted back.

On the other hand, I'm guessing that the agencies and businesses found plenty of happy tradeoffs. People returning to the work force need some update training, but not core training. They already know all about customer service, and how the world works.

Such employees don't have some of the attitude or performance problems that young workers may have, who are trying to work out precedents for a lot of other life issues at the same time.

Older employees may have something else we don't usually associate with government agencies and businesses -- wisdom.

One of the things age brings is some skill in greasing social situations. Today, when our national politics are bitterly divided, our state legislature is term limited, and business leaders either make short term profits, or are shown the door, the perspective of age might be transformative. When you're trying to build relationships that will last, patience is a virtue. So is humor, and tolerance.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about what is shaping up as a recruitment crisis in librarianship.

Some pundits are saying that a piece of that will be addressed by new technologies. A second round of automation, far more capable than the first, may enable libraries to handle more routine, clerical tasks with software and new machines.

But that just underscores the fact that what's left in the library requires more education, more training, more good judgment, than what the technology took over.

It just might be that one of the answers to recruitment is retention -- finding a way not only to appeal to the brightest of the new folks, but the wisest and most capable of the old folks.

Statistically speaking, the senior population in Douglas County is very small, far overshadowed by people in the 35-55 age group. But if time teaches us anything, it is that time picks up speed. In just a little while, that generational bubble will find itself on the other side of 65.

That will be a good thing, not only for the rest of the county (Douglas County is a wonderful place; a showcase of diversity it is not), but also for the many organizations that will be looking for some good help.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

March 24, 2004 - library futures

For the past year or so, I've been subscribing to something called "Library Futures Quarterly." It's put out by one John Guscott, who combs all kinds of literature looking for trends affecting my business. You can find his website at www.libraryfutures.com.

Guscott does a good job of throwing some truly arresting statements and observations into each issue. Here's a sample from the Spring 2004 publication:

* "...an article in Searcher Magazine underscores the growing reliance on Google, pointing out that it now gets more searches in three days than libraries get worldwide in a full year."

* However, "these popular search engines are increasingly designed for online shopping, marketing and branding, not to conduct in-depth research."

* Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked information, said, "there's still a place for place."

* "The e-book market continues to struggle for a foot-hold."

* There are now book-scanning robots -- devices that go through books and make digital images of each page.

* There are variety of products making their way to the market designed to produce "ultra-short runs." This is also called "print on demand." These products churn out 1 to 20 library quality paperbacks per hour. They are under consideration for use, at least to start with, in third world countries.

* "The BBC reports in the past five years, more information was created and stored than all that in previous history." (Yeah, maybe, but I'm guessing that 50% of it related to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. It's not information, exactly.)

* Open Source tools seem to be finding some "traction," as they say. Check out the Internet Archive's free web crawler tool, Heretrix.

* "Recent legal developments in Wisconsin now require libraries to release information to parents about what kids under 16 years of age have on their card." Note to parents: I realize this is a radical suggestion, but has anybody tried TALKING to their kids? Or see the next two items.

* "To combat the tendency among adolescent boys to abandon reading, more libraries are attempting all-male book clubs between young boys and father/grandfathers/uncles, etc."

* "Intergenerational reading clubs ... that pair seniors and students for discussion around classics or today's bestsellers."

* "Jimmy Wales' endeavor of providing an open source online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. Anybody can write an article and anyone can review it .... It has amassed over 150,000 entries since its start in 2001. .... It has become a major competitor of Britannica, a 235-year-old institution."

* "...in the U.K., 400,000 kids under age 10 have a cell phone, up from 80,000 three years ago."

* "Music insiders at Billboard Europe predict the death of the CD single by 2007 (the sales of online music have already eclipsed singles sales almost 2 to 1 since June 2003)."

* "The US is facing its deepest library budget cuts in history (only 15 states did not cut funding for libraries)."

* "We are becoming communication autists, alone in front of a computer screen, receiving a transmission but losing the message."

One of the key points, at least in the latest issue, is clearly that technology continues to be a tail that wags the dog.

But what I have been seeing in public libraries all across the country is something that doesn't seem to get much press. Today's libraries are the seeds of a rediscovered sense of community, of true public space where people gather not just to hunt down a bewildering collection of information snippets, but where they connect for the first time in a generation to a larger social, cultural, and political network.

And that's very good news indeed. In fact, there's a real future in it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

March 17, 2004 - life lessons

There are a handful of life lessons that I seem to need to learn over and over again.

One of them is that I am most fully alive when I'm learning something new. I just signed up for a small part in Castle Rock Player's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat." I'm the oldest guy in the cast, and have been struggling to learn about 100 dance moves for the show-stopping "megamix" number.

I get the individual moves (and they are very cool moves), but have been having trouble remembering how they all connect. By contrast, many of the dancers around me would run through a sequence just a couple of times, and you could almost SEE their muscles remembering.

My muscles, apparently, are amnesiac.

Another example: I've been playing the piano for about 10 years now, only to realize recently that without the music in front of me, I couldn't play anything. It didn't make that much difference how many times I practiced something. When I stopped practicing it, it faded away from me.

So along with signing up for a musical, I've also started taking piano lessons. My teacher, a retired pastor named John Gorklo, doesn't use scales or exercise books. He's teaching me, in a marvelously efficient way, all about chords.

There are twelve keys on the keyboard. Each key has 10 commonly used chords that pretty well cover the whole gamut of popular music. Moreover, there are chord patterns, predictable sequences of keys.

Suddenly, I can figure things out, live, without sheet music. And they stick with me. It's exhilarating.

A second life lesson is that the more senses a learning experience engages, the more interesting it is. Going to a new city, for instance, is more piquant and intriguing if you get to take long walks through the rain, sniff some kind of unique flower in bloom there, and discover a whole new cuisine. Similarly, I'm finding that playing several different pianos has been good for me.

A third life lesson: I learn BEST when there's also some kind of visual aid. So after my piano lessons, I come home and draw diagrams and build spreadsheets. These things give me mental tools -- establishing models that my muscles don't remember but my eyes do.

I'm going to try to do exactly the same thing with those dance moves. Once I get all the pieces down, I'm going to construct what's known as a mind map -- a method of visual outlining I've found useful for all kinds of things.

Finally, you won't be surprised to find that most of the above also applies to the library. A library is most alive when the people in it have the opportunity to explore, discover, try, and grow.

The richer and more varied we make our environment, the more we incorporate a range of bodily, emotional, social, and intellectual tasks and settings, then the more involved, and better balanced our staff will be. Inevitably, that translates to better service.

Finally, as we do our internal teaching, we need to thoughtfully develop a mix of tools and visual aids to teach our staff, and to help our patrons find their way around our facilities, collections, and services.

My goal: a library you can dance to.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

March 10, 2004 - consider library profession

As a teenager, embroiled in my own family conflicts, I swore I was never going to have children. I was going straight to grandchildren.

In a way, that's just what I did. I am part of the second wave of Baby Boomers. When my wife and I got around to having kids, they were in the first wave of the Millennial generation. A combination of the perspective of our own advancing age, and the character of this new generation has meant (so far!) pretty smooth sailing.

Rather than feeling a lot of flash points of conflict between them and us, I admire my children. My daughter is now 16, and I find both her, and her friends, delightful. They're smart, funny, and conscientious.

Beyond that, I've started to realize something important: my profession is going to need them.

I mentioned last week that I attended a national public library conference. At one of those sessions, the speaker asked, first, for all librarians born before 1946 to stand. In a roomful of over 500 people, there were 4.

Then she asked for the Baby Boomers to stand (born between 1946 and 1964). Whoomf -- the room rose.

Finally, she asked for the Gen X-ers to stand (born between 1965 and 1980). Six. The Millennials (born from 1981 to 1999) haven't hit any job market yet in significant numbers.

Then she splashed this statistic on her PowerPoint screen -- by 2019, 68 percent of today's librarians will be retired. Who will replace us?

The profession of librarianship, of course, isn't the only one facing this dilemma. There are twice as many Baby Boomers as Gen-Xers. The retirement crunch might transform a lot of fields.

In the library world, automation will replace some jobs. But the truth is, automation also creates new kinds of jobs, and generally speaking, better paying ones than the ones it replaced.

Librarians haven't done a good job of recruiting. As I often say, most of those now practicing in the field came to us for their third profession. The first was an accident, the second for money, and the third for love. We also, at least for the Boomers, often attract the people who discovered (after their third or fourth layoff or merger) that they wanted more than the illusory cheese at the end of rat race. They wanted to do some real good for their communities.

So consider this an invitation, especially to you Gen-Xers and parents of Millennials. Consider librarianship as a career.

Do you want to be in the swing of things technologically? Today's libraries are hotbeds of web design, content management and delivery.

Are you interested in the planning and creation of interesting public space? Libraries, especially in Douglas County, serve every demographic around. We need rooms for small kids, teens, business people, housewives, and seniors. I would submit that libraries are some of the most interesting buildings you'll find anywhere.

Are you a trivia junkie, fascinated by the endless turns and twists of the culture? Track it at the library.

Or are you interested in the sheer power of literature? Whether it's inculcating a love of books in preschoolers (a chance to show off some dramatic talents, here!), or in steering somebody toward a new favorite author, we offer the chance to change lives.

Are you interested in management, and working with the larger community? Libraries, traditionally, have been remarkably open and collaborative institutions, strongly driven by principle. To those of you coming from bottom line organizations where pointy-haired bosses call the shots, this can be a refreshing change.

Right now, most of the better, higher paying jobs in libraries do require a Master's degree. But most libraries these days will help you pay for it -- part of that dawning awareness of our recruitment issue. Certainly ask that question at an interview!

Parents, those young Millennials will be coming back to you in the coming years baffled, uncertain about their futures. Gently suggest this option: why not look into librarianship? Quite aside from offering work that they can genuinely love, that helps knit together a community, it's also a safe bet.

Bright young people will rise fast in this field. If we can find them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

March 3, 2004 - Seattle conference

Along with Mark Weston (past-president of the Douglas County Libraries' Board of Trustees), and Eloise May (director of the Arapahoe Library District), I have just returned from the biannual (every other year, not twice a year) conference of the Public Library Association.

The three of us presented there. The conference, held in Seattle, drew over 5,000 attendees. Our session pulled in almost 400 of them, about evenly divided into trustees, directors, and other staff. Our topic was "board self-assessment."

It's easy to see that the library has buildings, and books, and all the other stuff that people check out or use.

It doesn't take much work to see that the library has another asset: the people who work here. For most libraries, that's our biggest expense.

It isn't quite as obvious to say that the Board of Trustees is also an asset. Just like the building, the books, and the staff, however, it's only as good as we make it. It needs the same kind of thoughtful management.

Douglas and Arapahoe County are fortunate in that we have attracted highly qualified people. I've learned that the best single question to ask an incoming board member, incidentally, is "how many community groups do you regularly connect with?"

Our interest, of course, is not only to represent the library to them, but to represent them to us. The library that is most vital is the one that is most connected to its community.

But even a well-connected board needs all the things that staff need. That is, it needs clear expectations, as documented by job descriptions. It needs orientation up front, and continuing training throughout.

And it also needs feedback -- an at least annual evaluation, beginning with a self-evaluation, and formal enough to cover the bases.

But evaluating volunteers is different than paid staff, right? Our response: "Wrong."

Sure, good board members may not get raises, or benefits, but they can get the intelligent praise of their peers, and the public recognition their many hours have earned. They can have the knowledge that they have made their local library institution more effective, more useful to their communities.

We were asked, "What about bad board members?"

Well, what about bad staff? If we make a bad hiring decision, and we can't train or coach people into competence, then we let them go. But our PURPOSE isn't to seek out bad people and punish them. Our purpose is to help good people do good jobs. That applies to Board members, too.

At the end of our session, we learned that several libraries are out there working on this subject. Many more expressed the intent to adopt our forms and process. Colorado libraries, our boards, are leaders of a national trend. That's a good thing for libraries.


I have to pass on a good quote. One of our conference keynote speakers was Bill Gates, Sr., father of the richest man in the world, and a successful lawyer in his own right. I found him to be wise.

Many libraries in the United States, Seattle Public among them, have been hit by city budget cuts, resulting in severe cutbacks of hours. Gates talked briefly about the important, now almost forgotten, role of libraries during the Depression. Then Mr. Gates said this: "It doesn't make sense to close hospitals in the middle of an epidemic. And it doesn't make sense to close libraries in the middle of an economic downturn."