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, August 25, 2004

August 25, 2004 -- Focus on the Family

I have in my hand the August, 2004 issue of Focus on the Family's "Citizen" magazine. It features an article called "Danger Zone." The subtitle reads, "Think it's safe to leave your kids alone at the library? Think again."

It begins with a scare story. Earlier this year, a homeless man came to the Philadelphia Free Library, where he allegedly made a habit of looking at pornography. There, in one of the restrooms, he beat and raped an unattended 8 year old girl.

The author then stated that "safety isn't an issue just in Philadelphia. Libraries across the nation have, as of July 1, implemented measures promoted by a new federal law designed to reduce the chances of a similar attack occurring elsewhere: The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires all libraries wishing to receive federal funds to install filters that will prevent not only children but adults, from downloading pornography."

Child abuse is indeed a serious problem in America. I once served on the board of an organization that dealt with survivors of child abuse, and it continues to haunt me. Just for the record, though, overwhelming research shows that the most dangerous place for a child is NOT a library.

It's home. Most child abuse is perpetrated by immediate relatives. By family.

Nonetheless, child molestation clearly does happen in public places, by strangers. Some research suggests that it may be among the most underreported crimes in America, often with the full support of local media. In part, this is an admirable attempt to protect the privacy of the victim.

Sometimes, the story -- about public restrooms in shopping malls, for instance -- is suppressed so as not to hurt business. In other cases, child molestation may be suppressed by higher ups -- even, as we have learned these past several years, by well-respected religious officials.

However, being a member of a family doesn't make you a rapist. Neither does running a shopping center. Neither does being a priest. Neither does being homeless, and neither does using an unfiltered Internet terminal at a public library.

The author of "Danger Zone" is twisting the tale.

For one thing, her statement about CIPA is false. CIPA does indeed require filtering of terminals for those libraries wishing to receive federal funding. But it requires them only for children. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in June of 2003 that filters must be turned off at the request of those 17 years of age and older.

The purpose of the bill wasn't to prevent sexual attacks in libraries, either. The purpose was to prevent children from displaying "materials deemed to be harmful to minors." "Danger Zone" then goes on to quote an advocate of public library filtering, who said, "They're never going to be 100 percent accurate..."

What does all this mean? It means that legislation or no, filters or no, librarians will still have some responsibility to supervise public space. We will still, on occasion, have to remind people to behave themselves, and take action when they don't. Just as we do now.

The truth is, relative to many places in America, libraries are among the safest and healthiest choices families have, as so many families have discovered, to their pleasure and ours.

Yet it's also true that no place, public or private, is wholly safe, particularly for our youngest citizens. But the first step isn't the enthusiastic endorsement of new governmental restrictions on research, or to launch sensationalist attacks on the American Library Association, or to otherwise make the public library a pawn in a political chess game.

The first step -- who would have guessed? -- is to focus on the family.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

August 18, 2004 - leadership in the public sector

Several weeks ago I wrote a column about decision-making at the library. I'm still thinking about it.

I should have said, in my other column, that I was talking about operational or management decision-making. There's another kind that I didn't mention: leadership.

This is a different level of deciding: picking the big things that the whole organization will focus on. Not operational, but strategic.

Strategic decisions tend not to be made at the lowest level of an organization, but at the highest. Front line staff have the best insights on HOW to do things. Leadership decisions concern the positioning of the organization within a much larger environment: WHAT to do.

Through my years of library leadership I've learned two absolutely contradictory lessons. The first one is that leaders of any public sector organization never have as much power as they think they do. Yes, it's possible to mandate change, to force it down people's throats. But that kind of brute, blunt force tends not to work very well. People fight back.

The second lesson is that leadership matters nonetheless.

What does a leader do? He or she sets both an agenda for change, and a tone. The agenda for change is what most people mean by vision: two or three wonderful opportunities; another two or three things that are really important, that keep re-framing the daily stuff.

People seek meaning, and they need context to find it. When leaders articulate that context, people can more readily fit the random incidents of life into a pattern, into predictable currents. That makes it easier to navigate them.

Leaders also set a tone. I've worked in plenty of places that were out and out toxic emotionally. Everybody bickered and backbit, and withheld information, and scrambled for petty status.

I've worked in other places where the leadership communicated a sense of embattled paranoia.

I've tried, in our library, to set up an environment that avoids both of those, that takes pride in productivity and competence, that finds real pleasure, even humor, in service. I try to be courteous, and I expect other people to be, too. My motto: "he may be wrong, he may be right, but come what may, he'll be polite."

Leadership doesn't just belong to directors, of course. It also belongs to boards and commissions, the folks that oversee the directors, the budgets, and public policies generally. It belongs to legislators, the people who craft our laws. It is the solemn responsibility of all our elected officials.

We have been in the midst of several electoral contests recently, some of which have generated surprisingly strong emotions.

But the issue is important: what do we look for in our leaders? How will they shape the social, economic, and even physical world around us?

However the elections finally come out, it's worthwhile to thank the candidates -- all of them. Stepping into the political fray takes a truly incredible amount of time, money, patience, hard work, and family support. And of course, not every one is going to win. Leadership also entails taking a risk.

The difference between democracy and tyranny is choice. Having candidates who offer real differences is a very good thing. I'm grateful to them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

August 11, 2004 - genre fiction

When I was in library school, I took a class called "Genre Fiction." We read and discussed samples from many categories of popular fiction.

I knew about most of them. Through my undergraduate years, I'd worked as a clerk at the Normal (Illinois) Public Library. For the hardbacks, we had four separate sections beyond the regular fiction collection: mystery, science fiction, romance, and western.

In the paperbacks, there were even more genres. We had Gothics -- whose covers inevitably featured a pretty young woman running through the night in a nightgown, a look of fear in her eyes, and a castle looming in the background.

We had historical fiction, also known as bodice-rippers. Those covers always displayed, locked in a passionate embrace, a bare-chested man, rippling with muscles, and a woman in an advanced state of decolletage. These books averaged about three times as long as most of our fiction.

We also had, I kid you not, a section of Nurse books. Those covers all featured a perky young nurse, cute in her nursing cap and cape, usually worrying about the goings-on at the hospital.

Well, we had to come up with a final paper for the semester in Genre Fiction, and I decided to write a short story. It was a Nurse-Romance-Gothic-Science Fiction-Western-Mystery. As far as I know, it's the only one of its kind.

The main character was Harriet Blackthorne, a nurse who had to leave her hospital back East to collect on the fortune of her uncle, who died mysteriously and left a crumbling Victorian mansion in Arizona. Her love interest was Lone, "150 pounds of fighting librarian," who was imposing a reading program on a rough-and-tumble Western town. Then, of course, there was Xixil, the horse from the stars.

I had a lot of fun playing with stereotypes and cliches. I also (he said modestly) came up with one of the best lines I've ever seen in any book. It was about my Western librarian. "He had," I wrote, "the strong, deeply tanned hands of a man who had done a lot of heavy reading outdoors."

I got an A.

I remembered all this when a patron recently asked me to consider establishing a science fiction and fantasy section at one of our libraries. While we do mark science fiction (and mysteries) with a distinctive ribbon of tape, few people will browse the whole fiction collection for their favorite genre.

Right now, our collections are set up to make it easy to find books by authors -- but people who browse by genre don't always know which authors they want.

It was certainly the case for me, back in Normal, that I mostly hung out in the science fiction area, and as a result, read a good mix of both old and new titles.

Moreover, as you think about bookstores, they too sort collections by genre. Why? Because, I'm guessing, they sell more books that way.

Changing our internal layout isn't an easy thing. We also would have to change a lot of catalog records.

What do YOU think? If you're interested in seeing distinct collections of genres, let me know which ones you'd like to see broken out. Call 303-688-7656, or email me at jlarue@jlarue.com.

But where to shelve a Nurse-Romance-Gothic-Science Fiction-Western-Mystery?

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

August 4, 2004 - my wife's reading

My wife, Suzanne, admits to her almost obsessive collecting of books. Some years back, I was going to award what I thought was a clever prize: a gold library card. (Not real gold, you understand, but a gold-colored collector item.) It would go to the person who had checked out the most books over the past five years.

But there was a problem. The winner was my wife.

It would be churlish of me to complain about the piles of books around the house. For one thing, I keep running across the most interesting things. For instance, immediately at hand is a paperback called "Useless Information," by Paul Steiner.

It lives up to its title. Even the most dedicated diet-addict would be hard pressed to do anything with this:

* One portion rattlesnake steak contains 200 calories.
* One bowl bird's nest soup ... 75 calories
* One serving of barracuda ... 135 calories
* One glass hippopatamus milk ... 80 calories
* Five fried grasshoppers contain 225 calories. (You want my advice? Boil them.)

And for those of you in the dating world, here's a gloomy tidbit: "Only one woman out of ten knows how to wink, asserts a University of Melbourne professor."

Worried about contagious diseases? Well, no wonder: "Particles expelled by a sneeze have a muzzle velocity of 152 feet a second, says the Massachusetts institute of Technology." It's a wonder we're not riddled with tiny holes. Or maybe we are.

Just under this compendium of random facts lies "The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell. The subtitle is "How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference."

Gladwell posits that there are three kind of people who together add up to social movements, fads, and sudden action. There are Connectors. These are the people who always know way more people than you do. A famous example: Paul Revere was one of two riders who sounded the alarm. But only the people Revere contacted actually did anything. Why? Because he knew the people who lived at the hub of social networks.

There are Mavens. They obsessively collect highly detailed data. They are early adopters of technology. They are comparison shoppers. They are blazers of the trail. They not only know those useless facts above -- they can help you get a deal on your next batch of raw grasshoppers.

Then there are Salesmen (and women). They make you feel at ease. They persuade. They are impossible to work up a good defense against.

Together, these people can "tip" something from notion into reality.

Then there's the book "Wicked," by Gregory Maguire. It's the story of the Wicked Witch of the West -- from her side. Unlike, for instance, the Three Little Pigs, told from the Wolf's side, "Wicked" is not a kid's book. I found it utterly moving. The Witch Elphaba (whose name comes from "F. L. Baum," author of the Oz books) will break your heart.

A week or so later, Suzanne brought home the CD from the musical of the same name. And the music is some of the catchiest, soaring, most powerful I've ever heard. Glinda makes me laugh. Elphaba still breaks my heart.

Over the past 20 years, I've worked hard to pull people into the library. It's ironic that although I go to the library every day, I hardly need to. I have a talented librarian at home whose ceaseless curiosity offers a quirky education that catches me when I least expect it.