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, April 28, 2004

April 28, 2004 - what does the library buy, and why?

What is the public library?

I think I can boil it down to this: we are a cooperative purchasing agreement. By pooling relatively small amounts of money from many people, we can buy and maintain buildings, collections, and services that none of us could afford individually.

But every now and then, someone asks me, "How do you decide what to buy?" That is, how do library staff figure out precisely which titles of fiction, non-fiction, magazines, movies, and music should be added to our collections?

First, let's consider a few significant trends.

* Fewer but bigger publishers. What winds up on our shelves begins with the decisions of publishers. And over the past 25 years or so, the publishing business has mirrored every other big business in America. The big ones bought the little ones.

There used to be a lot of "gentleman publishers." These were genteel houses with pride in their literary reputation. They spoke eagerly of finding the next John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But the genteel publishers died off. They were replaced with brash young men (and even a few women) with MBAs. What mattered wasn't the literary quality of their listings. What mattered was how much money they made.

* More formats. Publishing used to mean books, magazines, and records. But now it includes books on tape, books on CD, music CD's, MP3's, movies on DVD and VHS. This doesn't necessarily mean that we now have many more new items, in multiple formats. It means that we buy the same book as a hardback, as a paperback, as a large print, as a book on tape, as a book on CD. And when the movie comes out (and it will!), we buy it in DVD and VHS.

* Fewer but bigger media outlets. The same pattern of conglomeration that happened in publishing also happened among media companies. In fact, often the publishing houses and the media were one and the same, tying together the production and the advertising channels in another trend called "vertical integration."

The combination of these three trends accounts for the vast majority of both the supply and demand for library materials.

It's a point of pride and principle for the Douglas County Libraries that we buy almost everything our patrons ask for (unless it's either unusually expensive, or on some very specialized topic). After all, it's their money. In a year, that adds up to a good 20 percent of every thing we purchase.

But you know what? Almost all of the time, we would have bought the same things anyhow. It's just that the requests came in at the early stages of the advertising. Some folks pay closer attention to that than others. So they request something that has been ANNOUNCED for publication, even if it hasn't actually been produced yet.

In general, what people ask for, what they want, is the result of "mainstream publishing" -- the commercial products of industry leaders, who push these products through their newspapers, magazines, radios, TV stations and movie houses.

A debate used to rage in librarianship: should we give the public what it wants, or what it needs? That is, should we bow to popular prejudice, or hold out for higher standards?

But that, of course, posits that (a) mainstream publishing lacks value, and (b) that librarians have better taste than everybody else.

Here's what I believe. Libraries, too, are part of our culture. We are a mainstream institution whose holdings reflect the output of the mainstream culture, both good and bad. That's as it should be.

But we also have an obligation to buy some percentage of materials from the "fringe." Why?

That's next week's topic.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

April 21, 2004 - Big Bang

It was once thought that the Big Bang -- that moment some 80 billion years ago when all the matter of the universe exploded from an unthinkably dense Cosmic Egg -- would eventually play itself out. Then, slowly, a universe of cold dust would tug itself back home.

So the universe might have a rhythm, like the breath of a baby: out, then in.

More recent cosmological theories aren't quite so homely. Right now, it seems that universal expansion isn't even slowing down. In fact, it may be picking up speed. There might be some fundamental force or principle of space that drives all matter further and further apart, faster and faster, and this might just go on forever. Einstein thought so, then didn't.

Sometimes I think that human beings follow similar cosmic universals. Nations expand, contract. Businesses decentralize, then, when communications break down, pull back in and solidify the core.

Lately, I've been noticing a trend in cities. Something like the development of LoDo, the reinvestment of public and private dollars in a city's heart, may signal the turning of the tide.

Demographically, Douglas County is its own Big Bang. We are still in the outward phase -- new strip centers, new shopping malls, new "town centers" that aren't, really, instead bent to the service of a neighborhood or development.

But even those town centers may reveal a change. People want to cluster. There's a difference between racing in a car from one strip mall to another, and spending some time strolling along an artfully designed space that encourages you to stay awhile, a place where the measuring stick is the human stride, instead of the length of an SUV.

One example is Castle Rock. There's a lot of new construction to the north of town -- if the round of Wal-Marts, Kohls, Wendy's, Office Depots, and Targets can be called "new." (More and more lately, I find myself in places that could be any place at all, if you know what I mean.)

But then there's our gazebo: a bandstand on Wilcox, Castle Rock's main street, right outside the library. This charming, 23X24 foot Victorian recreation, is sized to host the Castle Rock Band -- a brass band that plays music from a century ago. The gazebo also has sufficient power (for sound and lights) to highlight the performances of more modern bands.

The heartening thing, to me, are all the people who have come forward to help make this modest structure a reality.

The White Construction Group has donated labor, and is negotiating numerous gifts and donations of materials. MW Golden Construction donated many man-days of carpentry work. The Rotary Clubs of Castle Rock have made the gazebo their Centennial Project. Members of the Castle Rock Band -- itself a non-profit organization -- have donated thousands of dollars.

In Highlands Ranch, work is now moving forward on the Civic Green Park. A joint fundraising effort -- stimulated by the promise of matching funds from Shea Homes (up to $717,000 dollars) is pulling together many community, and even county-wide groups (Shea Homes, Highlands Ranch Park and Recreation Foundation, Douglas County, DC8, the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Highlands Ranch Cultural Affairs Association, the library, and many others).

For more on this effort, contact Mary Colton of the Highlands Ranch Metro Districts (303-791-2710), and watch for Channel 8, Douglas County Television's special "Civic Green Park: You Can Make It Happen."

People are talking about similar re-imaginings of shared public space, in the heart of town, in Parker and Lone Tree -- efforts I'll try to highlight in future columns.

Whatever the fate of the universe, people are not rogue asteroids. We need, from time to time, to look inward, to draw together, to breathe in.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

April 14, 2004 - little black sambo

A friend of mine recently lent me a copy - published in 1908 - of "The Story of Little Black Sambo."

As an artifact, it's beautiful. The binding is still snug, the cover illustrations still bright and appealing. The paper has hardly faded. The illustrations are for the most part whimsical, clever, and finely drawn. The print is large and handsome. They don't make books like that anymore.

As a story, this version is unusually good. Since many children today have never heard it, I'll summarize. Little Black Sambo acquires "a beautiful Green Umbrella and a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. And then wasn't Little Black Sambo grand?" While strolling through the jungle, he meets a series of tigers. He trades his beautiful clothes, piece by piece, in exchange for his life. But he gets them back. The tigers get so jealous of each other's finery that they chase each other around a tree, going faster and faster until they turn into butter. Delighted, Little Black Sambo's mother makes pancakes, and "Little Black Sambo ate a Hundred and Sixty-nine, because he was so hungry." Charming.

But there is a problem with the book. The illustrations in Little Black Sambo are about as racist as you can get. At first you don't notice that - you just think the illustrator can't draw people as well as he draws those wonderful tigers. But another story in the book shows beautiful little white children and yet another grotesque black child. In other words, the depictions of black children are deliberately ugly. That's racist.

So here's a good question for librarians. Should we buy books that promulgate racial - or sexual, for that matter - stereotypes?

Such books do exist. In most cases, I doubt that the racism (or sexism) is consciously intended. But authors are people. They soak up the full range of the attitudes and opinions of their cultures.

In one sense, it is the duty of librarians to preserve cultural evidence. Right now, Little Black Sambo isn't even in print. Enough people have called the story itself racist that few publishers are willing to risk its republication. This seems a tad revisionist to me. Children's literature hasn't always been enlightened. It isn't enlightened yet. We need to remember that.

There's another problem: who decides what's racist? What's sexist? It worries me when well-intentioned people want to clean up the world's classics because this year they happen to be politically incorrect. Some feminists would toss out Cinderella on the grounds that it's sexist. It is, too. Some mothers want to protect their children from the Grimm Brothers' tales by writing out all the spooky parts that make them so gripping. What do we replace them with?

I don't have any easy answers. But I do have an opinion, and it applies to all of next week, which just happens to be National Library Week. If you hear about a book that disturbs you, read it! Then talk about it. Books aren't supposed to make your life easy. They're supposed to make you think. That goes double for the classics.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

April 7, 2004 - daylight savings

While we were having dinner last Saturday, the family was talking about the need to adjust our clocks for Daylight Savings Time (or as they say in England, "Summer Time"). My 10 year old son, Perry, asked, "Why do we do that?"

I shrugged. But then I remembered something else, I think from Ayn Rand. "A frown is the beginning of intelligence."

A shrug says, "Beats me," and lets it go. A frown says, "I ... don't know. And it bothers me."

Since then, I've been pondering the nature of learning itself. Over a decade ago now, I remember calling an all staff meeting. I asked them to list -- on flip charts scattered all around the room -- the things they thought we HAD to get right the next year. This is a planning method that does tend to get at the real problems of an organization.

A lot of bright people work for the library, and they came up with many good ideas. But the overwhelming consensus was that we really needed to do something about our staff training. The computer systems that manage the inventory of the library can be fiendishly complex. This item is checked in on time, this one is late, this one is on hold, this one is in transit, this one is in processing, this one is damaged, and so on.

Please, said the staff, hire somebody to be in charge of staff training. So we did. Missy Shock came to us from the school district, and before long, while still working for us, charged off to get her Masters in Instructional Technology.

Good training is a huge piece of the reason our staff is so competent today. And good training is in large part due to Missy's thoughtful planning and management.

One of the things Missy said to me early on was that learning goes through four stages. The first is unconscious incompetence. You don't know that you don't know. The second is conscious incompetence. You know that you don't know. The third stage is conscious competence. You know that you know. The fourth stage is unconscious competence. You know, but you don't really remember how you know.

A good example of this is learning to drive. When you're a kid, your parents shlep you around. Driving is just a given. Then, when you're fifteen, you're behind the wheel of a car, and things change. I remember discovering, to my shock, that when I was driving, it didn't seem possible to fit the width of a car (a Ford Fairlane 500) onto a standard highway lane.

Now, as I discover while sitting next to my daughter, herself behind the wheel, I have no idea how I know how to back out of a slanted parking space. I just ... know.

But all learning begins with that first admission of ignorance, and the unwillingness to just let something go.

And that brings us full circle. The REASON we have daylight savings time is to reduce evening use of lighting. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, "countries often first adopt daylight time during a war or other crisis."

So it was for us. We used daylight savings time from 1918-1919 (the early days of World War I), and again from 1942 to 1945 (World War II). Since then, many states adopted the plan, including Colorado. Beginning in 1967, the federal government adopted the plan, largely in response to the Arab oil export crisis. (Some states, of course, exempt themselves.)

Does it work? Yes. Daylight savings time reduces our dependence on oil, and saves money.

And now you know.