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.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

January 27, 2005 - popular culture

My family has found some new favorite movies. For a long time, our household was dominated by the extended versions of Lord of the Rings. You do NOT want to play LOTR trivia with my wife and daughter; their knowledge is encyclopedic.

More recently, we brought home some oldies from the library. "Duck Soup," "A Night at the Opera," and "Road to Morocco." The first two, of course, are Marx Brothers movies. The last is one in the series of "road movies" featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour.

These movies are just wonderful. And it does my heart good to hear my ten year old son humming "We're off to the Road to Morocco." I myself have mastered some of Groucho's wilder dance moves.

And because both my wife and I are librarians, the flood of additional movies, books, quotes, websites, etc., has begun. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from Groucho (Julius Henry Marx, although probably written by the screenplay authors):

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter.
Some day I intend reading it."

I'm intrigued by several things about these movies. First, the whole family can watch and find them funny. Second, there's not much meanness in them. People tend to poke fun at themselves, not others. Although not all contemporary humor is mean-spirited or vicious, much of it is.

On the other hand, these older shows often have a hidden bite, surprisingly sly cultural commentary. You can see both the rough handling of immigrants, and their own warmth for the downtrodden, in "A Night at the Opera," for instance. "Duck Soup" is a hilarious parody of war and politics.

Over the past couple of weeks, there's been some metro area newspaper coverage about the rising purchase and use of non-book materials at Denver Public Library. Some view this as the cheapening of culture, a turning away from serious literature. Others see it as "giving the people what they want." A similar battle, notes Denver Public Library's Head Librarian Rick Ashton, went on a hundred years ago when libraries opened children's departments.

My take on the topic is that movies (and music) are an important part, even an index, of what goes on in our culture.

Should libraries stay away from videos because Blockbuster sells them? Well, there is indeed some overlap between the video store and the library, just as there is between the bookstore and the library. But my experience is that libraries tend to spur use of both, not rob them of business.

Moreover, just because we buy movies doesn't mean we don't buy serious books. Let me recommend one I'm reading now. It's called "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime." It details the conflicts between our magnificent federal constitution, and the alarming attacks on civil liberty that have often attended national conflict.

Like other public institutions, the library operates in an environment of both changing and differing expectations. Offer comedy, and you're abandoning your educational role. Offer serious literature, and someone is bound to think you're seditious.

"A Night at the Library" -- it would make a good Marx Brothers movie.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

January 20, 2005 - Public Speaking

I can still remember it. I was a sophomore in high school, and had to give a talk for my Civics class. It was agonizing: would I be called on that day, or the next? Part of me desperately wanted to put it off. Part of me just wanted it to be OVER.

Like thousands upon thousands of people, I was absolutely terrified of public speaking.

In retrospect, it's hard to remember why. Well, I do remember this. One day, one of my fellow students was giving his talk and gave a little snort. A large wad of green snot landed right in the middle of his white shirt. Fortunately, he had a handkerchief with him, and rather nonchalantly dabbed himself clean.

If it had been me, I would have died. Right on the spot. I don't carry a handkerchief. I would have had to move to another state. If I did survive, I would have to live and relive that awful moment for the rest of my life.

But that's the trap, isn't it? Behind the fear of public speaking is the fear of humiliation, of somehow being the recipient of mass scorn, contempt, or rejection.

As it happens, I no longer have that fear. Mainly, I suppose, that's because in college I was part of a traveling troupe of poets and musicians. Somehow, once the ground rules were changed from Dread Duty, to an Act of Irreverence, public speaking got to be a lot of fun.

To my surprise, that fear reared again some years later, when I had to sing and dance as part of a play. It almost magically disappeared one day when another actor asked me just what is was that I was afraid of. I couldn't answer.

Even if I totally bombed -- and I'd seen other actors do that, even very good actors -- I'd still wake up the next morning.

At some point in your life you have to decide: are you going to be a prisoner of your fear of failure, or an explorer of the possibility of joy?

Guess which one has a better time.

But there is another way to overcome a fear of public speaking: read up on it, talk about it, attend a class, join the Toastmasters, keep putting yourself in a position where you have to get used to it.

Maybe you're one of the people whose insides turn to jelly when you have to stand up in front of others. If so, you might be interested in an upcoming session at the Philip S. Miller Library's Castle Rock Bank Meeting Room.

On Saturday, January 22, from 10 a.m. to noon, Tom Fanning will give a presentation called "Beyond Speaking." This interactive lecture will talk about some of the common issues faced by public speakers. He'll talk about strategies for overcoming your anxiety, and how to move on to both effectiveness and real pleasure.

Tom has been an executive coach, business process consultant, motivational speaker, and more. This introductory talk is free.

So come on down. What are you afraid of?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

January 13, 2005 - breaking the pattern

I have written before about the theory of the expanding universe. Now, post-holiday, I have proof: all my pants are too tight. My tentative hypothesis: living matter expands faster than cloth.

But that's just denial, isn't it? After about the age of 35, Americans tend to put on 5 pounds a year. Do the math. They'll have to bury me in a piano box.

My grandfather used to say one simple exercise could peel off the pounds. Then he would demonstrate. Carefully and deliberately, he would push himself away from the dining room table.

My wife told me about recently about another strategy. Start breaking your habits. If, when you go to the movies, you always park on the right side of the theater, park on the left. If the first thing you do in the morning is to make coffee, then get the newspaper, reverse the order: get the newspaper first.

It sounds silly, but in the study upon which this insight was based, people who started messing with their behavior patterns claimed to have changed nothing about their food consumption at all, and yet they lost weight. Why?

Well, my suspicion is that breaking their usual patterns made them more alert. Their minds and bodies interpreted these changes as a need to get ready for something. Their metabolism quickened. Their bodies unconsciously began to orient themselves toward action.

One of many conflicts in the human psyche is the one between custom and complacency, habit and harm. We know, all of us, that the key to a long life is to cut way back on our calories. But a cookie and a glass of warm milk before bed is a charming ritual (or insert your own small comfort here), and the next thing you know, you're cinching your trousers with a circus rope.

This tendency to stabilize our behavior around things that may not be altogether wise also applies to organizations. We work out a solution to some problem of materials handling or work flow, and it recedes into a known pattern. It becomes acceptable, invisible, soothing as background noise.

Then, when the organization starts to move more slowly, more ponderously, like a middle-aged man with too-tight pants, those old solutions begin to look like problems. And like stemming the creep of insulating blubber, turning around organizational complacency requires concerted action.

I don't mean to suggest anything unseemly about the library. We are still a relatively young organization, and are at least as nimble as any public library in the nation. But we, too, have our comforting approaches to things.

In 2005, the Douglas County Libraries will be bringing in some consultants to look at our handling of materials. We do a lot of it. Over 3 million items were checked out last year.

Those materials have be touched by staff many times: they are unpacked from our distributor, cataloged, labeled, checked out, checked in, placed on hold shelves, pulled off hold shelves when they don't get picked up, placed on carts to be shipped to one of our branches, pulled out of the cart, sorted, shelved, inventoried, and on and on. With all that activity, you think we'd be thin as rails (he said, bitterly).

But there are some new options out there: technologies that might help us streamline our processes if not our waistlines.

It is time for a change.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

January 6, 2005 - On the Bus

Years ago I worked with a woman just a few years from retirement. Betty Lou was smart, competent, and efficient. She was also very dour.

No matter what people said to her, you could tell from her face that Betty Lou thought it was a Bad Idea. Or could you?

Aware of the way people perceived her, she bought a big poster of some animal with a fierce expression. The caption: I AM smiling. Some people have bad attitudes. Some just look like they do.

The longer I work in public organizations, the more I have learned that a positive attitude -- an optimism about the future -- is essential to accomplishment. That doesn't mean that "bad stuff" is ignored; quite the contrary.

Real obstacles, real challenges, have to be directly confronted. But you have to believe that they CAN be overcome. Otherwise, life quickly becomes an exercise in drudgery, resentment, or weary resignation. Who needs it?

Claudine Perrault, manager of our Lone Tree Library, recently sent me a book called "Good to Great." The subtitle is: "Why Some Companies make the Leap ... and Others Don't." I'm still working my way through it, but here's the big tip I've gleaned so far: the first thing all the companies that achieve greatness focus on is painfully obvious. As author Jim Collins puts it, they get the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus.

There's a big cottage industry in so-called change management. How do you motivate people? How do you fight resistance to necessary change? And some of that's useful.

But when you have the right people, people who confront their issues squarely and believe that they can, and they must, be solved, most of those issues of motivation disappear. You don't have to manage people. They manage themselves.

So that would seem to divide into several strategies. The first is recruitment: find smart, energetic people who are willing to challenge their premises, make a case, and change their mind on the basis of real evidence. These are people who want the organization to succeed, and will take some risks to get there.

Second, build a culture where these people have the opportunity to engage with the deep issues. No secrets, no sacred cows, no subterranean sabotage. Everything out in the open, even (and possibly especially) failures and mistakes.

Third, get rid of the people who have to be managed. You know who they are. The ones you have to tiptoe around. The ones you've stopped inviting to meetings because all they can say is it can't be done, or that everything's fine, or that they don't want to risk what somebody might say about that!

These people hold an organization hostage to their own fears and prejudice. Left unconfronted, they necessitate all kinds of waste, pointless conflict, and mediocrity. And for this, the organization pays them!

Attitude matters.