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, November 24, 2004

November 24, 2004 - New Board Member Needed!

As I've written before, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. The message is so simple: let us be thankful.

For all the acrimony that surged around our election season, most of the people in Douglas County are free of so many of the ills of humanity. Few of us go hungry, are tortured or enslaved, are trapped in brutal, dangerous jobs, or suffer outrageous physical challenges. Plus, we get turkey.

Another reason to be grateful is the remarkable service given to the county by our volunteer boards and commissions. One of our Library Trustees, Cindy Hegy of Lone Tree, is stepping down at the end of this year after almost 15 years of service. She was appointed in 1990.

In 1990, our library was still a small county department. Cindy came on just after we had established the independent county-wide library district. She served as President of the Board during the reconstruction of our Lone Tree Library. She also served as Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary, chair of our Building and Grounds Committee, President of our Foundation Board, and much more. Thank you, Cindy!

However, her departure means that we will have a vacancy on our Board of Trustees. If you're interested, please follow the instructions at the end of this column.

First, some facts about the Board.

* There are seven Trustees. They are appointed by the County Board of Commissioners. In general, we have two representatives from each of the three commissioner districts, and another at-large. The current vacancy is at-large.
* Since our Bylaws revision in 2002, Trustees serve terms of 3 years. They may serve a maximum of 4 terms.
* Trustees are responsible for the governance (not the operation) of the library. This involves setting policy, long range planning, adopting and overseeing the district's finances, and conducting the annual evaluation of the library director.
* The Board has at least 10 official meetings a year; typically, one regular monthly meeting (sometimes the Board takes a summer month off).
* All Board members belong to at least one committee, which meets as needed. Among those committees are: Building and Grounds, Bylaws and Policies, Finance, Government Relations, Long Range Planning, and Personnel.

Second, here's what the Board is looking for this time around:

* A woman! Of our six remaining Trustees, five are male. Yet by the overwhelming majority of our users are female.
* Although the position is at-large, our next development area probably falls within the triangle of Lone Tree, Castle Pines North, and Parker. We'd like to find somebody from that area.
* Lots of local connections. As the district has grown, we find we deal far more often with other local entities. The Board would like to find someone who knows her way around the local (municipal, county, and regional) political and community structure.
* A financial background. Cindy had strong financial skills.

Applicants will be interviewed by the Board's nominating committee, which will then make a recommendation to the County for appointment.

If you're interested, please send a letter of interest, and a resume of your business and community experience to:

Board of Trustees
Douglas County Libraries
100 S Wilcox
Castle Rock CO 80104

I'd be thankful if you considered it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

November 17, 2004 - change management

The beautiful thing about ignorance is that everything is so simple.

You can spin out love advice to people you've just met. You can consult for somebody else's company, and whip up a detailed long range plan after just a couple of meetings.

Why? Because you don't have time to know ... all the little things.

Sometimes that means you actually do give good advice. You aren't distracted by things that may seem pressing, but really aren't important. That lets you see to the heart of an issue.

Of course, when it comes to your own life or business, things just aren't that obvious.

Why not? Well, it could be that those unimportant but pressing things have confused you, clouded your vision. You have no objectivity.

More likely, though, it's as as H. L. Mencken once said: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." Some problems are complex.

I've been reflecting on this since giving a presentation back at my home town library, a town I haven't lived in for over 30 years. The topic was "change management."

Obviously, I'm not up to speed on everything that's gone on at that library since 3 decades ago. But I did an honest and thorough job of research about the topic before my talk.

Here's the main insight of the experts: the greatest single resistance to organizational change is the resistance of staff. I even ran across a pseudo-mathematical formula: D x V x F > R. It means that Dissatisfaction (with the way things are) times a Vision (of something different) times First steps (to get people moving) is greater than Resistance.

Why do people resist change? Most frequently, because they haven't been consulted or informed. They want to know why. They want to know when and how. They want to know who is supposed to do what.

So many people fear change. That falls into distinct categories, too: they fear a loss of status or power, they fear some other loss in the pattern of their relationships with other people, they fear that the cost of change (learning new things, having to work with new tools or co-workers) is greater than the benefit. They don't want to feel foolish or incompetent. No one does.

What can managers do to make change easier? The experts say:

* communicate. This is key. Start by asking what your staff thinks should change. Understand and be able to articulate why change is necessary, and where the organization needs to go. Don't tell people how. Let them figure it out, and thereby take ownership of change.

* encourage staff to take risks. Change happens when people try something new!

* minimize the risk of failure. But everything new doesn't work. If people are punished for taking risks, then everybody gets cautious. Don't say, "You failed!" Say, "THAT was interesting! What did you learn?"

* seek changes compatible with the past in important ways. That might mean gradual changes in procedure or techniques. But more important is to stay focused on core institutional values.

* seek buy-in not only within an organization, but around it.

* recognize success. When things work out well, celebrate.

It all seems so ... simple.

Or as I asked my colleagues in Illinois, "Remember the good old days, when nothing changed?"

Me neither.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

November 10, 2004 - scaling the organization

I do a lot of reading about technology. And philosophy. And management. They're all connected.

Take, for instance, Linux, the computer operating system. It began as the hobby of a Finnish college student. Linus Torvalds wanted to wring a little more work out of his new DOS-based computer, so tried to program a free clone of Unix. He launched this project on the Internet.

Today, Linux is a collaborative, truly international project. It runs the web servers of IBM, of Yahoo, of Google, and even of Microsoft.

But along the way, Linux ran into a couple of walls. The first was wholly human. One guy, Linus, just couldn't keep up with all the corrections (or "patches") people were submitting. Some important new features weren't being picked up or adequately tested. Linus seemed to have reach his administrative limit. He was getting cranky, too.

The second involved what was called "the scalability" of Linux. It was marvelously efficient at some tasks. But when those tasks got to a certain size or complexity suddenly there were unacceptable slow downs. To be successful in big business, Linux needed a redesign of some core functions -- and it looked like Linus wasn't up to it.

Same problem. Scalability of administration. Scalability of function.

The odds are good you've seen this in any organization you've ever belonged to. Strategies that work, well enough, in your own family, don't work in your church group. The communication style that was so efficient you didn't even have to think about it when your business was small ("hey, everybody, come here and look at this!") stopped working when you had people in four different locations, on three different shifts.

The library has had its challenges, too. I'm an intuitive manager, which worked great when our district was small. Then, some years back, in a period of rapid growth, I started dropping appointments and project details. I was becoming, in my own judgment, an organizational problem.

I had to sit down and retool. I took time and project management classes, read up on the topic, designed my own date book, and eventually moved to the Palm Pilot. I'm still an intuitive manager, but now I have a skill set, and some technologies, that help me keep up.

More recently, the library's administrative and communication structure -- the operating system of an organization -- started running into those unacceptable slowdowns and dysfunctions. Again, that's not a criticism of a previous model; it USED to work.

Over the past year, we've been working on addressing that. And I think we'll solve it -- for the period of time that such things can BE solved. (I don't believe in the perfect administrative structure. Things change.)

Linus, incidentally, did pull out of his funk. There was a slight reordering of the administrative structure -- with a little more trust and decision-making authority placed in the hands of a few subordinates. He also adopted some different software tools to manage the various versions of his kernel hacking.

And Linux is a big success.

As Linus said in a recent interview, "So start small, and think about the details. Don't think about some big picture and fancy design. If it doesn't solve some fairly immediate need, it's almost certainly over-designed." Wise words from a programmer -- and excellent management advice.

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

November 3, 2004 - AV is Popular

First: this column is not about politics. Isn't that refreshing?

Second, this week I wanted to air an internal library discussion. We're trying to figure out what percentage of our collection should be "AV" -- audiovisual formats, including DVD's and VHS films, books on tape, books on CD, CD-ROM's and music CD's.

The library tracks the use of all kinds of very specific categories. We don't just keep statistics on cassettes, for instance, we break them down into adult, children, and teen, and from there, into fiction and non-fiction. We have similar divisions for everything else.

Overall, though, AV stuff is popular. Last year, it accounted for almost a quarter of all our checkouts. Another library statistic is "turnover rate" -- how many times things get checked out, divided by how many copies we own. For books, it's about 5.5 (as if every book gets checked out five times in a year). For AV, it's 8.5.

That's impressive enough evidence of AV popularity. It's even more impressive given that, as of the end of October, 2004, AV accounts for less than 15% of our collection.

We're trying to grow it fast. For the past couple of years, we have spent a little less than a third (about 30%) of our materials budget on AV materials. We've built up a collection of over 80,000 items.

AV costs more than books. It takes a little longer to process. It tends not to last so long -- probably because it often has more parts to get misplaced or broken. DVD's have proved to be especially fragile in a library setting. So even spending a lot of money, it takes a while to build up the percentages.

Not only that, many of these formats are fairly new -- DVD's haven't been around all that long, for instance, at least compared to how long we've been buying books. The change in formats means that now our VHS tapes will start to decline statistically, as we add more DVD's. Ditto for cassettes versus CD's -- and who knows what comes next?

The point, of course, isn't just to have a certain percentage, but to have what people are looking for.

For awhile, staff have been thinking about setting a goal of 30% HOLDINGS of AV. That's an arbitrary number, of course, but not unreasonable given the demand for it. But what the above numbers suggest is that to build that collection, we might have to spend closer to 50% of our materials budget. Even then, more of it might be checked out when you walked in, so it still wouldn't SEEM as if we had enough.

AV isn't our only popular category, of course. Right now, children's print materials account for about a third of our collection, but over 40% of our checkouts, for a turnover rate of about 7.5.

And adult bestsellers are hot.

There is, I hasten to add, more to a library than its popular collection. There is its staff! There's a growing demand for meeting space. There is research -- both formal and casual, in print, and online.

But all of the above leads me to believe that a collection optimized for high volume checkouts might look something like this:

* a little over a third AV,
* about a third children's materials, and
* the remainder a combination of bestsellers, series and perennial favorites (cookbooks, pet books, travel, etc.).

Could this be a (partial) blueprint for smaller libraries?