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, December 29, 2004

December 29, 2004 - Music

I don't know what you're thinking about at the end of the year, but here's what's on my mind. What is the evolutionary advantage of music?

You can understand that there are a host of desirable characteristics that influence your selection of a mate. Intelligence. Strength, either physical or emotional. Beauty. (Although, hmm, one might also ask, what's the evolutionary advantage of curly hair, when in the man, it's liable to fall out?) There is the equally mysterious power of the pheromone.

But back to the tune at hand. Is music like the tail of the male peacock? Designed to attract and thrill, with no other earthly purpose?

But think of all the uses of music. I have the privilege, several times a year, of announcing for the Castle Rock Band. Mostly, the band plays marches from a hundred years ago. It's stirring stuff -- but then you realize that such music, often including the aptly named "snare," serves largely to send our boys marching off to war. The bagpipes and drums have long been with us.

As my 10 year old son would say, "What's up with that?"

There are many who hold the reins of power in our world. But the names we know and remember are the names of musicians. The crowds gather only rarely for political reasons; often, for the singer or the band.

Words, language, speaks to our mind. It persuades. But music speaks to our heart. It commands.

Music holds powerful sway in religion. Even unbelievers can't help but be charmed by Christmas carols. Religious music also gives rise to feelings of exaltation -- feelings that might be otherwise hard to reach.

We fall in love to music. We have "our" songs. Music makes us tender. Mothers sing to their babies.

Music defines our times, from the syncopated rhythms of rag time to lush, big bands to soul music to punk rock.

And speaking of defining our times, there is the use of music in advertising. Studies show that certain cycles of music, piped through our malls and grocery stores, get us to spend more.

Music insinuates itself deep into our memory, driving out genuinely useful knowledge with, and here I speak from experience, the theme song of "Gilligan's Island."

Music involves tremendous human activity. Purists devote their lives to classical study and performance, the latter in enormous and expensive halls. More popular music employs and earns many millions: recording, producing, distributing, booking, selling knickknacks and photographs and mementos.

All of that activity is one of the reasons libraries collect music. It's clearly very important, personally and culturally.

I wonder how many people in the world can get through a whole day without hearing music -- on the radio, on a CD, on an MP3 player, over the Internet, in a restaurant or store -- or producing it themselves through whistling, humming, singing, or playing an instrument.

I can remember carrying my son, back when he was just 6 months old. I hummed "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to him -- and he hummed it back. We respond to music even before we respond to speech.

Some researchers believe the oldest human melody, a melody somehow rediscovered by every child, goes like this: "nyah nyah nyah NYAH nyah." The Ur-song of our species.

Music is somehow hardwired into our DNA.

But I just can't stop thinking about it. Why?

P.S. The library will close on New Year's Eve at 3 p.m. We will reopen on Sunday, at noon, January 2. May your New Year be filled with music.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

December 22, 2004 - A Gift Suitable for All Ages

For the past several years, I've been reprinting what I've come to think of as "my Christmas column" -- a tradition. I hope you enjoy it.


What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else? -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three of four books. Wrap the card and the books and set them under the tree. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books.

After your children have gotten bored with all their expensive toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week after the main event. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It was good advice then; it's good advice now.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue? If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best Christmas card you'll ever send.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

December 15, 2004 - holiday letter from the library

Dear Friends,

It seems like just yesterday when all our kids were small. They were so cute then! There were puppets on the carpet, and just a sprinkle of new children's books on the shelves. The little ones are so wide-eyed and eager to please.

And they're grateful for their one computer -- not like the older kids with their BANKS of PC's, network printers, and wireless connections. Time flies!

I'm so proud of our kids and their educational accomplishments. Parker, our oldest, has been showing up regularly at the Chaparral college campus. Parker has also shown a keen interest in culture -- really fitting in to the life of the town. But then, Parker always has been sensitive.

Hi, up in Highlands Ranch, says that his neighborhood is hopping! The long promised town center is finally blooming. And they've started work on a beautiful park right next door. The hot news with Hi is that one Mary Elizabeth has moved in, and is already running the show! (Pam was very committed to her company, and did take the transfer. But Hi is handling the change well.)

Tree (and some people will never forgive us for giving her this name!) is bustling around like anything. For her size, she's got some Big Ideas, and on a square foot basis, I have to say she's the busiest child we have. And so creative! But she's strong-willed. I do hope she won't wind up aLone.

Phil is still here in Castle Rock. Last year, I moved back in with him. Sometimes I think it can't be easy to have your old dad around all the time, but I'm proud of the way Phil has become an important member of the business community, just like his namesake, Mr. Miller.

Then there's Roxie. You probably know that she's been living out of a bus(!) for years now. Honestly, who is going to go see her when she doesn't even have an inside bathroom! Despite that, she seems to have lots of visitors, and they're all crazy about her. Speaking of the bus, she did have a fender bender earlier this year -- but I guess that's all part of growing up. Don't get me started about insurance! Now she's talking about getting a real place, sort of a loft apartment, next June, over the new Roxborough Safeway. It will have an elevator and bathrooms, which is a blessing.

But I hear the bus is sneaking out to Castle Pines North. I think she's seeing someone new over there!

Lou put a lot of time and money into remodeling last year, although he says the county did most of the work. Do visit the beautiful, restored Louviers Village Clubhouse. It's gorgeous.

Then, of course, there's Cherry, way out in southeastern Douglas County. She still hangs out at the little valley's school house, and does a surprisingly brisk business in getting books to the neighbors.

Well, that's the seasons' news about all the kids. Everybody is growing up, everybody is healthy, and life is good. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

December 8, 2004 - independent bookstores

When my wife and I travel, we rate the towns we pass through. There are all kinds of criteria. How walkable is it? -- a complex calculation that considers the width of streets, the width of sidewalks and their distance from the thoroughfare, the quality and frequency of parks, the height of trees, the mix of commercial and residential properties, and much more.

How good is the public library? We can just stroll through the building once and have a good sense of how much care is given to the collection, and how customer-oriented the staff is.

Also of great significance: are there any locally owned bookstores?

Everybody knows that some of the big names in bookselling -- Barnes and Noble, even Borders -- are opening stores all over the place. On the one hand, that's a good thing. Despite the reports of declining readership, bookstores are a good community "catch."

But there's another kind of bookstore, the independents. And some evidence would suggest that they're having a tough time of it. Many have closed, shut out by the big store competition. Recent closures close to home include both the Chinook Bookshop, and McKinzey-White, of Colorado Springs.

Nonetheless, the independents still have a place. While the big chains account for between 20-30% of the total booksale market (which is tracked both in terms of "units" and dollars), the independents rack up another 14-17%. That's not too shabby -- it's a big market.

Some independent bookstores have shown modest share growth for the past three years, after years of decline. One example is Portland, Oregon's Powell's Books Inc. Powell's strategy seems to be "supersize it!" (They occupy a full city block.) Others focus on niche markets.

One such niche is Christian bookselling. The Christian Bookseller's Association, a Colorado Springs-based organization of 2,400 Christian book and product retailers, says its members are mostly upbeat about the future, but results are mixed. In 2004, 50.1% of CBA members reported a sales decrease, 37.8% posted an increase, and 6.1% experienced flat sales.

What about Internet sales? I was surprised to find that it accounts for
about 8-12% of sales, not as much as the book clubs (16-20%), but more
than the sales from discount, food, and drug stores.

Douglas County has much to be grateful for. We have at least three independents. Castle Rock has Hooked on Books, right next to Crowfoot Coffee. Castle Pines North (on the far west corner of the King Sooper's mall) has the delightful new Chapters, with its own coffee shop.

And then there's one of the most famous bookstores in the world, Tattered Cover, which opened a store in Highlands Ranch, just a couple of blocks west of our library. (And it's got coffee, too!)

The owner, Joyce Meskis, is a savvy bookstore owner. Her previous gamble was the LoDo store, long before LoDo was hip.

But I suspect that Highlands Ranch won't be nearly as much of a roll of the dice. I know from our library statistics that the demographics of readership in Douglas County are just about as good as it gets. We are a community that values books, values libraries, and clearly, values bookstores.

What's the library's official stand on bookstores? Simple. Bookstores are a library's best friend.

The bookstore advantage: you get to keep the books.

The library advantage: you don't have to keep the books.

Your advantage: more books!

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

December 1, 2004 - holds and patron privacy

As anyone reading my last batch of columns knows, I'm thinking a lot about a deep redesign of some longstanding library practices. Why?

Because our own success has led us to a spot where I can see the end of our capacity to grow. Case in point: what we call "holds."

Way back in 1991, I was mucking about with our computer system and saw the option to allow patrons to place their own reserves on items. If the item was out, a "hold" would lurk quietly in the background. When the item was returned, the computer would generate both a message -- please send to Matilda Smith at Parker -- and a notice or list telling staff to phone the patron.

If the item was in (as when Matilda placed a hold for something on the shelf in Castle Rock), then staff would fetch it, check it in, to get the same message. Then we'd either send it to the person's home library, or hold it locally for pickup.

What a great idea! I thought. So I flipped the switch.

Immediately, before we even did any advertising, patrons pounced on this new option. I, of course, had done nothing to prepare my staff, as they soon let me know.

But the service was clearly popular. So we figured out a way to deliver it.

A few years later holds were SO popular that we hit a bottleneck. The process of calling people to let them know that their books were in ate up thousands of hours of staff time. So we spent some money to buy automated notification options: automated telephone calls, automated email, and automated mailing notices.

Between 1999 and 2003, holds continued to grow -- by 165 percent, well into the hundreds of thousands per year. At one of our libraries (Parker) we ran out of space to store them behind our desk. At Philip S. Miller in Castle Rock, we designed our hold pickup space in such a way that it might be accessible to the public, too.

We had noticed that some of our neighbor libraries were allowing patrons to pick up their own holds. Could we move the holds out to a more public area, giving us both more space, and allowing the patrons to incorporate their holds into some kind of self-checkout system?

That was the experiment.

From the numbers side, it's worked, too. Holds continue to grow, without the barriers of space and with slightly less need for staff handling. It has expanded our capacity.

But here's the problem. Although we shelf the holds spine down (so you can't see the title without actively pulling them out and checking), patron privacy is compromised.

Most of the time, nobody cares what you're reading or listening to. But a snoop certainly could intrude on this information. Although I am not aware of a single case where this has happened, several patrons have written me to express their concern that it might.

And they're right.

So here's a head's up. The service itself will continue. In the short run, we'll put a notice on our holds screen letting you know that picking up holds at Parker and Castle Rock uses this system.

But we're investigating some alternatives -- filing the items by patron barcode, or by some mix of last name and barcode, thereby better preserving your confidentiality. This is a high priority project, and we'll get it solved.

Meanwhile, thanks for your obvious support of the service -- and your patience as we work out the bugs.