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, June 30, 2004

June 30, 2004 - adware, spyware

It's been a long time since I've used a Windows machine. At the dawn of the World Wide Web, I used a Macintosh (pre-OSX), and for the past two years, I use Linux. So I missed out on something my friends have begun to complain about: trying to fight off the onslaught of adware and spyware.

It seems to start innocently enough. You click on some kind of pop up ad, and suddenly, windows are flying open all over the place. After that, every time you use the browser, you get a flood of advertising. Sometimes it's just junk. Sometimes, it's pornography. Sometimes, everything you type -- including passwords to your bank accounts -- gets gathered up and passed along to strangers.

There are various free tools to help you scrub all this out: Spybot Search and Destroy, (available at www.spybot.info) and something called Ad-aware (www.lavasoft.de). They track down all the intrusive entries in the Windows Registry, cookies, file shares, etc., and wipe them out.

Except they don't. The ads get hooked into new computer crannies all the time, and even the most current versions of the anti-spyware can't catch them all. So you think you've got yourself all cleaned out, and the first time you browse, back it all comes. I've talked to several computer professionals who have spent hours on machines both at work and at home, trying to disinfect them.

Library machines have been afflicted, too.

The growth of this phenomenon, along with viruses and spam, is the tragedy of the commons all over again. Offer the wonderful medium of the World Wide Web, and what do we make of it? A commercial. All the wonderful efficiencies get eaten up in shoveling through the garbage.

It's like going to the movies. I'm old enough to remember when you got two cartoons before the main attraction, and the occasional double-feature. Now, I seem to have to pay for the privilege of watching advertisements. Sometimes, I have to endure watching the SAME commercial twice in a row. Note to Hershey: Your commercial succeeded in making me remember your product (Hershey's kisses). I used to LIKE your product; now it just makes me mad. Happy?

Thus far, I've been spared the problem of adware. For one thing, I use Mozilla, the Open Source browser. BY DEFAULT, pop-up browsing is turned off. Mozilla also has an email client that you can teach to identify spam -- greatly reducing the drag on your time.

But the issue here isn't just an operating system that is both ubiquitous and ridiculously vulnerable (Microsoft). I can, and I do, advise people to move to Linux -- I particularly recommend downloading either Knoppix or PCLinuxOS Preview 7 to a CD. You can run the whole operating system and applications from the CD. If you like it, overwrite the whole computer with something that the spyware and adware can't touch. Moreover, Linux applications aren't always urging you to upgrade. You can use your computer in relative peace.

But I suspect even this is only a holding action. Lately, for instance, more and more spam is slipping through my defenses. I am not a cynical person, but this isn't a technical problem, finally. It's psychological and moral.

So long as people believe their abuse of a shared resource is acceptable -- whether that resource is the World Wide Web, the telephone network, our national parks, the environment generally, or even a public library -- the quality of that resource will diminish.

But that reminds me of the words of novelist Elizabeth Gaskell: “I'll not listen to reason . . . . Reason always means what someone else has got to say.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

June 23, 2004 - computers and kids, part 2

Last week, I asked people to let me know what they thought about spending library dollars to stock up on computers in the children's rooms. This was in light of some research that suggested too much exposure to TV and computers before the age of 8 probably wasn't good for anybody.

I got an early surge of folks who strongly argued that computers should be eliminated. But by the end of the week, things had evened out. The general consensus: do what the public wants. And that probably meant, "offer lots of technology."

Once before, I took a stand against public word processing stations. "What does that have to do with our mission?" I asked. Eventually, the repeated demands of the public, and my own staff, persuaded me to change my mind.

It seems that one of the roles public libraries have come to fill is a location where consumers can try-before-they-buy both computer equipment and software. The library is also a place -- although not overwhelmingly so in Douglas County -- for people who don't have access to computers at home.

Some of my correspondents thought there was another point. The computers served as bait. Get the kids in to play some games, and hook them on books!

Research done right here in Colorado (by the state's Library Research Service) suggests that there may be some truth to that. It certainly worked for adults. When Colorado public libraries added Internet stations, every other kind of library use went up sharply: reference questions, browsing of magazines, and checkouts generally. Libraries are cool places, with a lot to offer. The trick is getting people in the door that first time.

But there's a deeper point. It will come as a surprise to no one that the best way parents can help their children grow into strong, smart, healthy grown-ups is to spend a lot of time with them. Talk to them. Listen. Do things together. Engage.

Instead, we fall prey to the American madness. We buy more stuff for them: Game Boys, PlayStations, CD players with headphones, computers, etc. All of these technologies tend to isolate people, even if they are in the same house.

In some ways, I'm hardly one to talk. I spent the last week putting together a wireless home network. I've got one old Mac and two cheap Linux machines all on the World Wide Web. Next week, I'm going to try to hook up a network printer, accessible to all of them.

I tell myself that this is a learning experience. And it is. But a lot of the time I've spent on it, I might have spent playing catch with my son, or walked the dogs with him.

In the long run, what the library does is offer choices. But parents, and their children, are still the ones that make those choices. Let us hope they are thoughtful ones.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

June 16, 2004 - the endangered mind

I spent a lot of time watching TV as a kid. I mean a LOT of time.

I was the eldest of five kids, and both my parents worked. Our black and white TV, I now understand, was a strategy that succeeded in getting all five of us corralled in the living room for hours at a stretch.

I remember getting up on a Saturday morning at about 5:30, which was when broadcasting began. The show was "The World at War," World War II newsclips. Then, chomping on sugarcoated cereal and cinnamon toast, I stayed glued to the tube till about noon.

Sundays weren't quite as bad, but I did watch Jubilee Showcase, live from Chicago's black churches. This gave me a lifelong love of gospel and soul music.

As I got older, I watched TV less and less. Today, there isn't a single program I watch. Not one.

On the other hand, I now spend many hours a day in front of a computer, whether at work or at home. The difference, I like to think, is that on the computer, I'm in charge. I'm searching, thinking, following links, writing to friends, working on columns and articles, and in general, DOING something. I am active, rather than passive.

So it makes a kind of intuitive sense to me that children should get more out of computer games, for instance, than they do from TV.

But now comes Jane Healey, author of "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think," and "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It." She argues, mostly on the basis of brain development research, that between TV and computers, it's a wonder our children can think at all.

Her particular concern is the estimated $4 billion a year the federal government pumps into the purchase of "computer laboratories" throughout the nation. As an Amazon.com review puts it, "... there is scant evidence that computers teach basic skills any better than traditional methods, or that children who don't have computers are somehow 'left behind.' Conversely, there is abundant evidence that an uncritical infatuation with computers as an educational panacea is replacing skill building and learning with formless play while forcing art and music lessons, and in some cases math textbooks, off many school budgets."

I have to say, I've been to several school libraries, some in Douglas County, and have been impressed by their computer labs -- only to be utterly dismayed by the school libraries. One computer buys a lot of books, and many school libraries have science books with an average copyright date of 1970. That's not an exaggeration, and it applies to more than science.

Clearly, there HAS been a shift in educational funding priorities, away from text, and toward sexier technologies.

This issue has importance not only to parents (buy the Game Boy or not? put limits on TV time or not?) but to your humble library director.

We are now going through the process of defining various specifications for computers throughout the library. We were about to say, "let's make sure we have new machines, and a good mix of educational software, in the children's room."

But now I wonder: why? Some children's librarians have noted, wryly, that the future of children's librarianship may be to babysit Internet orphans. Just possibly, the things we've done more traditionally -- live story times, presenting deep collections of print, guiding children to new favorites -- is way more important, and more educationally defensible besides.

I'd like to hear from you. Should we be using your money to pay for children's computers? Or should our children's rooms have just enough technology to help us find good books?

Feel free to call me at 303-688-7656, or email me at jlarue@dclibraries.org. I'll let you know the results.

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

June 9, 2004 - the public good

Recently, I attended a workshop entitled "W(h)ither the public good?" As I have noted several times in this space, many Colorado libraries (particularly municipal libraries) are in trouble, caught between the pincers of declining sales tax revenue, and a surge in public demand.

Among our speakers were Senator John Evans and Susan Thornton, 8-year mayor of Littleton. The question before them was "what IS the 'public good'?"

Thornton was clearly a library booster. She spoke of the importance of public libraries in the maintenance of an informed electorate.

Evans, who has generally been a strong library supporter in the legislature, was less positive and more blunt. He didn't believe, given the fiscal constraints of Colorado State Government, that we were ever going to see any library funding again.

He also had this message: "find your niche," he said, "and fill it." His theme was very much of a piece with the philosophy of the dominant Republican party. (That's not surprising, as he is Assistant Majority Leader.)

He underscored the importance of competition. He seemed to be saying that there is no difference between public and private entities. They both compete in the local market for support. The proper role of government was to remove burdensome regulations from the public sector to enable it to compete more effectively.

(That's a little ironic. To date, this legislature has both eliminated 79% of library funding, AND imposed an unfunded mandate on Colorado libraries in its recent filtering legislation.)

His observations were leavened with comments about the tax burden on the average family.

I do understand the perspective. But I think it's time to challenge the underlying premise. In brief, that premise is that there IS no public good; there is only the market place. Moreover, many prominent Colorado legislators seem to believe that taxation is theft, pure and simple.

I have a different view. And that's not because I work in the public sector -- rather, I work in the public sector because my views are different.

Taxation is a cooperative purchasing agreement. It is the means through which we buy things we cannot afford individually. Moreover, it is often the means by which a community pays for things no business can make money on.

I used to wonder at the fact that public mass transit systems always had to be subsidized. But then I realized that ALL public transportation systems, most obviously roads, also have to be subsidized. Yes, there are tollways, but they are built with public bonds.

I believe that there IS such a thing as the public good. I believe that some kinds of taxation buy me and my community things that we need and would otherwise do without. I believe that government, and the people in it, provide services that both add value, and are invaluable.

Consider the bombing of the Twin Towers. You didn't see stock brokers and insurance sales people running into the buildings to save lives. You saw firefighters and police. Public servants.

On a more homely level, I can assure you that if my parents had had to independently purchase a library card for me when I was a child, it wouldn't have happened. But because the cost was spread among so many, that institution, offering a broad range of services, was available not only to me, but to many other blue collar children. Many lives were changed, enriched, even saved.

Tax dollars aren't stolen goods. They are investments. It doesn't make sense to me to cut my tax burden by $25 a year, if it increases my direct costs by $150, and I have to borrow $50 to meet the bill.

That isn't to say that any tax is a good one, or that government always uses my money wisely. In that respect, the public sector is much like the private (Enron, Qwest, etc.). Human institutions are only as good as the people in them.

My point is this: there comes a point where the rhetoric of smaller government becomes a kind of social suicide.

The right question isn't, "Who needs government?" The question is, "Are we getting our money's worth?"

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

June 2, 2004 - in defense of the public sector, part one

In the past couple of weeks I attended two workshops that stay with me.

The first involved a gathering of visiting librarians from Bulgaria. Largely through the efforts of Nancy Bolt, our State Librarian, some seven libraries in Colorado have formed "sister library" partnerships with Bulgarian public libraries.

The Douglas County Libraries are partnered with the Dora Gabe Library in Dobrich. Our visitor was a very bright young man named Ertan. He is the technology manager and webmaster for his library. While English was the first language of none of our visitors, all of them spoke it well, and understood a good deal more.

Bulgaria has a troubled past. Formerly a member of the Soviet Union, today's nation is riddled with economic depression and organized crime. But there is much to be proud of as well, and I found the Bulgarians librarians delightful.

At this gathering, my presentation focused on library funding. I emphasized several points: in a library district, our money comes directly from the people we serve. In general, we get no money from the federal government, and no money from the state. Virtually all of our funding comes to us, and only after a positive vote, from the residents of Douglas County.

That's very different from the situation in Bulgaria. There, most of the money comes from the Bulgarian government -- and there isn't much money to spare.

The rest of my presentation focused on the strong incentive of the library district to reach out to all its many constituencies. There are two reasons. First, people become librarians in the first place because they have a deeply held ethic of service. Second, if you only appeal to some small elite group, then you can't win an election.

After hearing the discussion about demographic analysis, about the difference between public relations and marketing, and the importance of being a deep part of the culture and civic infrastructure of a community, Ertan made a profound observation.

"In my country," he said, "we practiced socialism, and it failed. Here, you have succeeded in what we were TRYING to do."

Some thought that it was because our outreach worked from the bottom up; Soviet-style socialism was imposed from above.

But I believe that it goes back to the heart of our incentive. Our very livelihood depends upon our ability to demonstrate that we add value to our community. Public service isn't just a mandate from above, it's the essential strategy to our survival.

The Bulgarians expressed surprise, even astonishment, at our beautiful and spacious buildings, our well-stocked collections, our rows of public computers. They were intrigued by our bustling activity as hubs of community meetings. They shook their heads over the frequent collaboration of Colorado newspapers and libraries.

Just before he returned to Bulgaria, Ertan shook my hand and said, "You have a good system here in America for libraries."

And we do. It is, however, by no means guaranteed. That's next week's topic: the attack on the whole idea of the "public good."