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, October 27, 2004

October 27, 2004 - rethinking the library

Suppose everything you know about libraries is wrong.

For instance, suppose we have way more than books. The books we do have aren't hidden spine-out on metal shelving. It's OK to carry around a cup of coffee or can of pop. (Yes, for those of you paying attention, we already made those changes!)

Now, suppose libraries don't need service desks. Suppose you don't have to look for staff to ask a question. We look for you.

Suppose that instead of having library staff barricaded behind those desks, we were roaming all over the place, maybe with headsets that let us instantly summon expertise from all over the organization -- including our crackerjack online reference librarians.

You don't have to ask at all for the stuff that everybody is already asking for. Books, popular music and topical information are posted on a kind of cultural billboard. You could walk in the door and SEE what's hot.

Suppose that you didn't have to wait for books to get put back out on display. Right now, much of what people want from a library is waiting to get shelved. Suppose we put the hot stuff right back out by the checkout stations. We save steps (and costs). You save time.

Suppose that when something went NOT-so-hot -- a bestselling book, for instance -- it immediately moved to the in-house library sale. You could pick it up for a song.

When you were done, you could give it back to us. We could sell it again. And again. This is, incidentally, an excellent strategy to recycle intellectual content to a community, leveraging an original purchase through many levels of use.

Suppose that our computers let you not only do email and search databases, but also request notifications of unknown but upcoming titles, or new electronic articles, on topics of interest to you. Suppose that our catalog told you about these new options by sending a message to your Palm Pilot or cell phone, just as you stepped through our doors.

Suppose your local library was THE place where teenagers came to find high-end workstations, enabling them to engage in intense multi-player computer games. (Before some of you older folks have apoplexy, riddle me this: why is it OK for you to check out books on golf or tennis or chess, or sit and read fashion magazines, or spend hours online fora discussing various personal or recreational options, but NOT OK for young people to play games?)

Suppose that library hours started to look like your own life?

Over the next year, your local library district is going to make history. We're going to take some outrageous risks, try some truly radical experiments.

Oh yes: some of them will fail. Not all of them!

Our first roll-out of some of these ideas, incidentally, will be at Roxborough, probably around March of next year. Our next big roll-out will be at Lone Tree. But you'll be seeing pieces of all this everywhere.

I have the very strong sense that our society (local, state, national, international) is on the edge of transformation. As always, we have a choice: we can be victims of change, or we can be agents of improvement.

We choose to be leaders.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

October 20, 2004 - I am an Earthling

It was a perfect Colorado day: crisp and clear. Autumn burned on the bluffs.

I was walking down the main street of my home town. Suddenly, all I could hear was the roar of traffic.

Just as suddenly, I was angry, irritable.

I have striven my whole life to cultivate calm. So with my anger came disquiet. WHAT was wrong with me?

I have two answers. Here's the first: it was America. America the loud, America the intrusive, America the land of the big, honking automobile.

Second answer: my real problem was something called acculturation. A couple of weeks before, I was in eastern Europe. I was able to walk for hours at a time on streets that meandered under trees, ambled along river beds, and had learned the trick of dodging traffic.

My deep anger was, of course, ridiculous. Right? Yet it was real.

For the past decade or so, I've been a member of Rotary International. I've always taken a keen interest in our exchange students.

Every year, we interview a handful of very bright, surprisingly poised high school students. We send a few of them off to live with loving families in other countries.

About nine months later, they come back. And they all report a similar thing: coming back to America is at least as hard as leaving it.

Over there, they were sometimes overwhelmed by all the differences from the life they knew. At the same time, it was invigorating. The brain is wired to notice what is new. When everything is new, life is intense.

These students expected their travels to be strange. But they didn't expect HOME to seem strange. When they returned, they made a deep discovery: what so many of us believe is basic and right, a given, is only cultural. Other places, other people, have other premises.

In my own travels, I thought I'd adapted well. I was booked from dawn to dusk and beyond, but always with very kind, even gentle people. I enjoyed myself tremendously, even if I did feel, on occasion, that I needed more time alone, more time to process my experiences.

When I got back, I was plunged into the crazy season of my job: library budget preparation.

So chalk up some of my crankiness to being overscheduled, overstimulated, then suddenly caught up in the finicky business of fiscal decison-making and strategic planning.

I strongly suspect that I am not nearly as adaptable as I'd like to think I am.

But issues of personal stamina aside, I feel a lingering rebellion against ALL countries: my own for its artless arrogance and careless abundance; Bulgaria for its legacy of entitlement, the blunt humiliation of the Soviet era. The rest of the world's nations ... well, because of the whole idea of borders.

On the 2000 census, after long thought, I listed my race as "Earthling." I meant by this that as a very young man I had seen a photo of our planet from space.

It was so achingly beautiful. I wanted to clasp it to me, as an infant hugs a balloon.

I still do.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

October 13, 2004 - Bulgaria, Part 2

The costs of my recent trip to Bulgaria were underwritten by a grant from the US Department of State. Why would the State Department be interested in Americans traveling to Bulgaria?

There are two reasons. First, after some 60 years of continuous occupation in Germany, many of our military bases are being dismantled. They are relocating to Bulgaria. From a geopolitical perspective, Bulgaria is certainly closer to such hot spots as the Middle East.

Second, as a former Soviet country, Bulgaria is deeply enmeshed in the transition to democracy and capitalism. The end of Soviet socialism in Bulgaria was bloodless -- but as several people told me, not without troubles. The abrupt withdrawal of guaranteed pensions and health care has led to deaths, particularly in the rural areas. Many people feel a deep nostalgia for what they remember of the Communist era -- glossing over the persistent loss of individual freedoms one of my translators described as "a humiliation of the soul."

On the other hand, the economic growth in Bulgaria has been nothing short of amazing. In Sofia, the capital, there are endless rows of bustling shops and restaurants. There is the thriving outdoor bazaar, the Ladies Market. In Dobrich, a city of 150,000 people, enormous pedestrian plazas were lined with cafes, clothing stores, pottery shops, and more.

While unemployment is still high -- up to 14 percent in some areas -- the cities are transforming almost overnight into something quite new in Bulgaria's long and rich history. They are becoming vital economic hubs based not on agriculture or centralized planning, but on thousands of independent, entrepreneurial ventures.

Exchanges between the public sectors of Bulgaria and the United States are a stabilizing influence. The United States' own history of economic and political development rests not only on business, but on a host of institutions that provide the glue of a society, an undercurrent of meaning and purpose.

I saw the influence of three such institutions. The institutions of faith -- Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism -- were once strongly discouraged. Now, buildings have been restored, and attract a steady stream of visitors. (The trip to Bulgaria is worthwhile just to hear the Orthodox Church choirs, their music soaring into impossibly high arches.)

Incidentally, these faiths coexist quite comfortably in Bulgaria.

I saw the influence of museums. In some respects, the standards of display and care are far less rigorous than those in the US. I was able to reach out and touch the real bones of a caveman -- something I can't imagine would be permitted here.

Bulgaria was one of the crossroads of the very earliest migrations of humankind. Then there is the whole period of Roman occupation -- many ruins from the 2nd and 3rd century are still visible (and in some cases, are in better shape than the Soviet-era apartment complexes). Then came the long history of Christianity in the area, a tale told in icons. All of these long precede the European discovery of our continent.

And, of course, there are public libraries.

But public institutions also face a challenge, just as they do in the United States. Many leaders consider history and culture worthy of respect, but also consider them too backward looking. To be deemed worthy of funding, in Bulgaria as well as the United States, public institutions must learn to capture significant use, and make an active contribution toward the forging of a local future.

My colleagues in Bulgaria are certainly up to the task. They were very smart, savvy, conscientious, and industrious. I believe in them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

October 6, 2004 -Bulgaria, Part I

For the past 2 weeks, I have been out of the country.

But the work of the library district goes on without the library director. In my absence, library staff managed a "migration." This is the complete replacement of one library computer system (Dynix) with another (Horizon).

The move wasn't entirely optional. Our old system was an orphan, no longer actively developed.

But the timing was our choice. And we were prepared. My thanks to the many people whose thoughtfulness brought up a fiendishly complex system -- and who continue to tweak and customize it. Well done, all!

As with most projects of such a size, we've had some unanticipated problems. Most significant was the utter collapse of a telecommunications line at Highlands Ranch -- but I hope that will be fixed, too, by the time you read this.

And now ... Bulgaria, part 1 of 2.

This is both truth and symbol: I had unhappy feet.

None of my shoes fit anymore. All of them were old. But the problem wasn't them. My FEET were old. I needed a change.

My feet were unhappy for another reason. I was restless. My wife traveled both western and eastern Europe as a young woman. My 17 year old daughter had just come back from a tour.

I had been to Indiana, once. To Europe, never.

So when the opportunity suddenly arose to take advantage of a US Department of State grant to travel to Bulgaria (lecturing on librarianship in the US), I jumped on it.

For me, the journey began at Park Meadows Mall. I found a stand where they were selling what looked like plastic gardening clogs.

In fact, they were Crocs. See www.crocs.com for more info. I tried on a pair. In that moment, my life changed.

I told my 10 year old son: "I'm wearing a pair of orthopedic marshmallows!" (This made him laugh.) It was instant, springy comfort. My feet were abruptly and astonishingly ... happy.

The color of the shoes was a little unusual. Green-blue, I guess. To the folks at Crocs, it was "emerald." My alternatives were off-white, pink, or yellow. There are no sedate crocs.

So I bought the emerald ones for a modest $40.

As Lao-tse said, "a journey of ten thousand kilometers begins with a single pair of crocs." I am, of course, taking some liberties in translation. But the need for such freedoms is one of the things I learned from my travels.

The purpose of the grant was both modest and clear: to deliver a 3 day workshop that would result in 7 Bulgarian libraries establishing a "community information center."

Which meant? Well, the Community Information Center is a collection of both materials and staff organized around a local problem. It's a good idea in any country, and a potent notion for any public library.

But my trip wound up being about much more than that. To my profound surprise, I found myself on a 2 week mission that involved meetings with many levels of local and regional government. I spoke with embassies, Supreme Court jurists, Bulgarian newspapers, radio stations, TV reporters, and Internet news agencies.

I was to be The Diplomat With Emerald Shoes.