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 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."

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