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, July 28, 2004

July 28, 2004 - principles of decision-making

Every now and then people complain to me about the problems of growth. Sometimes they're talking about the county. Sometimes, they're talking about the library. Here's what I think. There are only two problems in life: the problems of growth, and the problems of decline. Pick one.

But that isn't to say that the problems of growth aren't real. I've been giving a lot of thought lately to a straightforward question asked by one of our new managers. "How," he said, "do I get something done here?" He meant, what's the process through which a decision is made?

That question ultimately caused me to rethink the library's whole organization chart. I realized that I was trying to maintain two decision-making processes -- the one that used to work when we were smaller, and the one that works now. The two processes were fighting each other. It was time to let the first one go.

I also came up with something called "the Principles of Decision-Making at Douglas County Libraries." They might even be applicable to other organizations. So just in case anybody is wondering: this is how I try to manage your library. Comments are welcome.

I. Decisions should be made at the lowest level possible. This keeps an organization responsive, and backs up the people at the front lines. We hire people for their judgment. We'd be fools not to let them use it.

II. Decisions should be efficient -- taking the fewest steps necessary to make good ones. Sometimes problems do have to be referred upwards, but then we should have a system that doesn't keep everybody twiddling their thumbs waiting for an answer.

III. Decisions should be consistent.

a. With procedures. Our procedures are set up to handle the majority of cases. Consistency makes it easier to train people, and maintain high standards of service.

b. With policy. But sometimes, the procedure doesn't fit. Then, we should make decisions in light of our policies. Those policies are based on our governing board's decisions of things that most matter to us.

c. With core values. On occasion, the policy doesn't cover things, either. In that case, our decisions should reflect the core purposes of our institution: public service, intellectual freedom, confidentiality.

d. With fiscal constraints. Decisions should be affordable!

IV. Decisions should be honored. That means two things: first, supervisors should respect and adhere to the decisions of the people they supervise; and second, that people should also respect and adhere to the decisions of their supervisors. This implies, of course, that authority is worthy of respect. That's only happens after a pattern of thoughtful action, and demonstrated openness to new ideas and criticism.

V. Decisions should be revisited when...

a. They significantly contradict procedure/policy. Not just “contradict,” but “significantly contradict.”

b. They highlight important new trends. For instance, if staff keep granting exceptions to the rules because of some repeating request, it might be time to change the rules.

c. They have severe or unexpected negative consequences. In a complex system, everything is connected. Sometimes, a good solution in one area causes trouble somewhere else.

VI. Decisions should be communicated. Again, in a healthy organization, communication should flow freely, both up and down. Our assumption is that our staff are making good decisions. To understand what those decisions are telling us about our community, we have to talk about them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

July 21, 2004 - Taming of the Shrew

When I was growing up, my mother had two beautiful sets of books. One of them was lassics of science. I think there were pieces by Aristotle, by Newton, by somebody I've now forgotten, and by Einstein.

The other was a selection of Shakespeare plays: the comedies, the dramas, and the sonnets.

I loved the look of those books. I was 11 when I decided to try Shakespeare. So I'd take those gorgeous volumes up to my room and try to puzzle them out.

I'll be honest. I didn't have a CLUE what was going on. First, there was the matter of the thees and thous. Then there were the odd line breaks. Finally, the actions of people themselves were bewildering. Eventually, I gave up.

It wasn't until much later that I learned Shakespeare has to be performed. What is mysterious in print is plain in person. The verse form is still an astonishing accomplishment -- try writing a play in rhyming iambic pentameter and see how far YOU get.

The language of Shakespeare, the Elizabethan foment that also gave us the King James Bible, does take a little getting used to. But suddenly, it just comes clear, and you understand. Trust me.

And the people. Suffice it to say that Shakespeare understands the human heart.

Well, once again, the Douglas County Libraries are pleased to announce our annual Shakespeare festival. Once again, TheatreWorks, from Colorado Springs, will bring Shakespeare to vivid life. Our first festival, featuring "King Lear," was in Castle Rock. Last year, "Romeo and Juliet" came to Highlands Ranch. This year, Parker will be witness to "The Taming of the Shrew." Thus, "Shakespeare in the Park."

Let me put my cards on the table, here. Like most Shakespeare plays, "Taming of the Shrew" is about adult life. Please don't take a five year old, or even a young teen, to the show thinking you're getting a bit of innocuous family entertainment, only to be shocked by bawdy language and staging. This is not children's theater. If you find yourself easily offended by Shakespeare's astonishing lack of early 21st century sensibilities, rent a Disney film. (Or check them out from the library!)

On the other hand, my wife and I have exposed our children to Shakespeare every chance we get, and it hasn't harmed them one bit. It stretches their linguistic muscles. It challenges their attention span. Besides, Shakespeare is often hilarious. And the pageantry of these plays must be seen to be believed.

It's possible that you'll find this particular story offensive for another reason. Kate, a strong-willed woman, is finally forced into docile submission by a more masterful man. Maybe. So if you, too, believe that public institutions must never have anything to do with something that might be politically incorrect, then stay away!

I recognize, of course, that the surest way to get people interested in a classic that has endured for more than 400 years is to tell them that they just can't handle it. Not that I would stoop to such an obvious tactic.

At any rate, we are grateful for the many sponsors whose donations made it possible for us to offer this play at no charge to our patrons. Our title sponsors were the Town of Parker, the Parker Cultural Community, Colorado Community newspapers, and the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado. Scholar sponsors include IREA, Theatrix Inc., Wells Fargo Bank, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and Hampden Press. Poet sponsors include Roper Insurance and Financial Services, Friends of the Parker library and Whole Foods Market of Highlands Ranch. Apprentice sponsors include American Art West, Bradford Auto Body, and Cindy Rose's Edward Jones office in Franktown.

To get your free tickets, you just have to show up at 6:30 p.m. the evening of each performance, July 21-24. The shows start at 7:30 p.m. There is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, July 24; tickets will be distributed at 1:30 p.m. First come, first served. The performances will be at the Parker Mainstreet Center, on Mainstreet.

And now it's back to those books. Maybe if I could find a theatrical version of Einstein...

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

July 14, 2004 - the books must go through

Douglas County's first bookmobile, featuring 8 stops, was provided by the now defunct Plains and Peaks Library System, headquartered in Colorado Springs. These days, we again have a bookmobile, shuttling back and forth between Roxborough and Castle Pines North.

But bookmobiles aren't the only way to get books into people's hands. As told on the thoroughly charming website www.bookboat.com, countries around the world have found a host of innovative solutions to various topographic and social barriers.

* Bookboats. You'll find them in Florida, Alaska, Argentina, Venezuela, Norway, Sweden, Thailand -- and even in a couple of independent international floating libraries. In Florida, the Amorys of Boca Grande "endowed and built the Johann Fust Community Library" in 1959, and later brought their boat, Papyrus II, to Captiva "loaded with books to be borrowed by islanders."

In Alaska, bookboats (two skiffs traveling the rivers to fishing camps) supply books to the children. "The books are kept in plastic containers marked with the appropriate grade levels. Along with the books, the children may also choose to take a plastic Ziploc bag containing a note pad, workbook, pencil, crayons and a prize, such as a beach ball. To promote reading among the children’s parents, the organizers bring them newspapers."

In Argentina, there's the "biobliolancha," boasting 1500 books, 300 videos and CD-ROMS, a computer, a television, a video cassette player, audio equipment with outside loudspeakers, equipment to measure the depth of the water, VHF radio, an electricity-generating group of 220 Volts, cooks, and "a complementary bath."

In Norway, the private boat "Epos" is chartered during the winter months, where it braves rough seas to float its "6,000 books, the skipper, one able seaman and two or three librarians" in and out of the fjords. In the evenings, the Epos shows films, and offers lectures and other programs.

* Book trains. in Bangkok, a train (one car with books, one with a classroom, and one with computers and music) is used to divert homeless children from crime.

* Book bikes. In Chile, Horacio Ogaz rides a tricycle that functions as a traveling library. Every day, he "travels the streets of the remote and marginal districts of the city, offering door-to-door service and free loan of the books. Books about cooking, history, medicine and classic literature form just a part of the collection of 400 titles. Horacio's goal is to promote reading to the population of more than 1600 inhabitants in the sectors of Yungay and Cerro Alto who have little or no opportunity to access the urban centers of reading."

* Book packpacks. Also in Chile, in the commune of Olivar Alto, 25 children between the ages of 8-12 are provided with books of poetry and fiction. They backpack them to the homes of people who "for health reasons" cannot visit the library. The children also get to participate in public square readings, and have met many famous authors.

* Camel-drawn libraries. In Kenya, the fleet of 3 camels has grown to six since 1996. (We don't know whether that's through additional purchases, or natural reproduction -- which is something your average bookmobile can't do!) The camels serve over one million people within a 20 kilometer area. Vehicles, it seems, keep getting stuck in the sand. "The first camel carries five hundred books in wooden boxes. The second camel, which is tied to the tail of the first camel, carries a tent, steel poles and a blue tarp. The last camel does not carry anything and is generally used as a spare."

* Donkey libraries. In Zimbabwe, donkeys, equipped with electro-communication carts, which have solar units on the roof, bring more than books. The solar-generated electricity allows them to deliver radio, telephone, fax, e-mail and the Internet.

The thirst for literacy, and the dedication of librarians the world over adds up to a simple message: the books must go through.

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

July 7, 2004 - life liberty and the pursuit of happiness

I suppose it's my background in philosophy: I enjoy a good argument every now and then. But a "good" argument isn't just disagreeing with somebody. It's trying on a perspective for size, seeing how easy or difficult something is to defend or critique.

The object isn't to defeat the opponent. The object is to learn something.

This, of course, is hardly what passes for argument these days. Most of the political or religious discourse I run across is riddled with ad hominem attacks. People don't argue to understand their own, or other, positions better; they argue to belittle and cow their enemies into silence.

Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

Some years ago I was involved in friendly debate about "the best country in the world." The person with whom I was arguing had made some telling, and negative points, about the United States. That got me interested.

The library has many, many books that compare international statistics -- everything from the World Almanac to the reports of various agencies and organizations. I asked myself: so which country IS the best?

I regret that I no longer have the final spreadsheet I produced. But I rated some 25 countries (mostly Western or European, but a few Asian nations, just to see how they did) according to a highly subjective list of qualifications.

You might think about this: of the measurable things that determine how good a place is to live, which things matter most to you? These are some of the things I tried to track:

* health. What was the percentage of live births? Infant mortality? Life expectancy? What was the leading cause of death?

* income. What was the average household income compared to the cost of a house, or a loaf of bread? What was the annual inflation rate? What percentage of people were unemployed? What was the discrepancy between the wealthiest and the poorest? What percentage of personal income went to taxes? What percentage of national spending went to the military?

* crime. How much, and what kind? What percentage of the populace was behind bars?

* literacy. What percentage of the population could read? How many newspapers were available, and how many newspaper subscriptions? How many public libraries?

* social factors. What was the average educational level? How many teen pregnancies? How many abortions? How many political parties actually elected candidates to federal office? What was the average population density? How many museums of art? How many universities?

Sometimes, I found that the pieces of information I was looking for couldn't be readily obtained. And some countries, you may be surprised to learn, lie about themselves in reference books.

What I was after, finally, was some objective data about where in the world a human being might expect to live a long and reasonably healthy life, and pursue a variety of cultural interests, without being gunned down in the streets, jailed and tortured, or forced into abject poverty?

I should point out that the results are now probably five years old. But I'd be willing to bet that the general rankings, for me, won't have changed much.

In rough order, the top countries that I would probably do well in include: the United States of America, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, England, and New Zealand.

No country scored well on everything. The United States has a variety of troubling statistics -- our incarceration rate is the one that bears the closest watching, I think.

But my analysis not only gave me a better handle on what was going on around the world, it also made me think more intelligently about the intent of our founders: to secure our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

A perfect government requires, alas, a perfect people. But I was comforted, around our Independence Day, to learn that on the whole, there's good reason to be a patriot.