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, February 24, 2005

February 24, 2005 - grammar cop

Every couple of years I just can't stand it anymore. There are some phrases or constructions that I strongly disapprove of. They irritate me. People should stop using them.

That's not to say I consider myself a grammar cop. For instance, you'll note that my second sentence ended with a preposition. The grammatical "rules" that say that's bad, like the rule that you shouldn't split an infinitive, are just dumb. They were based on the notion, back in the 18th and 19th century, that English had gotten unruly after those wild Elizabethans. It needed to be tidied up, by which English professors meant, "made to behave more like Latin."

In Latin, you CAN'T split an infinitive. You can't end a sentence with a preposition. What that has to do with English is beyond me. So I reject all those rules. Latin is dead, English is alive!

Having said that, there are a variety of expressions that some consider piquant or quaint. I come from the Chicago area, and I can spot anybody else from there, too. Why? Because we say, "I'm going to the store. Do you want to come with?" Of course, you don't need the final "with."

I've run across people from rural New York, who seem to like the phrase "off of." They'll say, "based off of the book by Johnson...." So by "off of," they mean "on." Or they'll say, "he's going to jump off of the roof," when "off the roof" would do the job.

I've noticed that a lot of people who grew up in the Denver area say this: "they have went." It should be "have gone."

But those are small things. They add flavor to language by introducing regional variation. They don't bother me. Much. It's not as bad as "between you and I."

There's actually surprisingly little difference among the varieties of English spoken in the United States. Linguists identify just five "speeches:"

* Eastern New England (Maine, mostly),

* Inland Northern (upstate new York, and west along the Great Lakes, the Dakotas, Montana and northern Washington),

* North Midland (Pennsylvania, then through the midwest and West),

* South Midland (West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas), and

* Southern (the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida).

In England, where most of our accents originate, there's more variation in 100 miles than in the whole of our continent.

As I recently learned by reading "The Story of English" (my own copy) and "Do You Speak American?" (from the library) the biggest swath of American dialect (North Midland) has been tracked back specifically to Philadelphia. How did linguists do that? Easy. All of the other speech patterns had the characteristic "unvoiced r." Remember JFK, who spoke of "viguh" (vigor), and "Cuber" (Cuba)?

The folks who settled the west pronounced their "r's" where they were supposed to, and didn't add them where they weren't. They, our western pioneers, had more of a Germanic language mix, and carried their linguistic history with them.

But back to what people should stop saying. I continue to be disgusted by the application of the suffix "udge" to perfectly good words to indicate a plural. Usage. Acreage. Sewage. Garbage. Signage. How about "uses, acres, sewers, garbs (just kidding), and signs?" At that, however, "signage" might be better than "wayfinding."

"Utilize" just means "use." Save the extra letters for an emergency.

"To service." This should ONLY be used for machines. You service your car; people, you serve.

"Proactive, not reactive" -- aargh. Can't we say, "let's plan," or "let's get ready for the future," instead of "let's be proactive?"

"Let's dialog." Let's not. Let's just talk.

Our language, of course, continues to grow, acquire new words, and invent others. Not all the new sprouts mature into the sturdy lumber of our common speech.

But really, wouldn't it just be much easier on all of us if we just agreed to adopt MY prejudices?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

February 17, 2005 - Free Speech in the News

When I was in library school, there was deep concern about how librarians should change their outdated image. You know the stereotype: the stern, pursed-mouth spinster with a tight bun and a ready shush.

It lingers still, I suppose. But over the years I have formed a different opinion of the past.

I honor the librarians who have gone before us. These service-minded, well-educated women of the past (there were some men, but not many) established an institution of great credibility.

In part, that's because of that extraordinary level of service.

But it was also their achievement in establishing the public library as neutral ground. Too often, and especially so in these times, institutions take on a certain ideological bent. Librarians keep trying to gather information from all sides, even when a majority may find some of that information unsettling, disturbing, or "dangerous."

As I was flipping around the radio dial one day, I caught a quick section on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." The topic was the resignation of Attorney General John Ashcroft. One of the speakers made the comment that Ashcroft had repeatedly tussled with librarians. Then, the speaker remarked that today's librarians are one of the few focused and believable voices we have on behalf of civil liberties, particularly the twin rights of freedom of speech, and confidentiality.

I'll happily claim that change in our national image, the more so because those rights are under increasing fire. Somebody had better stand up.

There are two examples from the past week. The first was the incident in Norwood. An unnamed parent or parents complained about the book "Bless Me, Ultima," by Rudolfo Anaya. The school superintendent, without reading the book, without, in fact, following any of the relevant policies of the School Board, simply scooped up the books and gave them to the parent to be destroyed.

The book weren't burned (as some alleged). They were apparently sent by the parent to a landfill, instead. This surprising action by the superintendent, despite its utter violation of policy, is apparently too subtle for some people. This is censorship, people -- the willful suppression of information by a government official.

I don't know how you get to be a superintendent who believes that books should be "destroyed." Do you survey your institution's academic scores and conclude, "whoah, our children are reading too much?"

A second case is more emotional. Ward Churchill, a CU academic, has for many years been writing articles and books from a certain perspective. Recently, he has come under fire from the Colorado Legislature.

I won't go into his arguments here (and neither does any other newspaper, which is an interesting omission, don't you think?) except to say that Churchill believes that all Americans, especially those working for international financial institutions, are complicit in a host of crimes committed against the rest of the world.

And watch the scramble of politicians and columnists to denounce this professor! The language used to describe Churchill's writings went from "insensitive" to "outrageous" to the coup de grace, delivered by our own Governor: "treason."

So we have been treated to the posturing and protestations of moral outrage by our elected officials, the "pressure" to fire Churchill, and the calls for a reduction of university funding. (Incidentally, the last time the legislature reduced university funding for similar reasons was when CU stood up to a legislature stacked with members of the KKK who wanted the university to fire Jews and Catholics. A proud tradition.)

As a friend of mine often quotes, "Just because we all agree with each other doesn't mean we're right." Destroying books, pressuring into silence or unemployment those who dissent: what DOES it mean?

It means we just may be standing on the edge of a new age of censorship, characterized by the politics of intimidation and the abuse of authority. Lately, it seems like you have to be a librarian to notice.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

February 10, 2005 -east versus west

After I graduated from college, I wandered around the country for a couple of years. All of my belongings fit into a small backpack on an aluminum frame. My sleeping bag, my pack, and everything in it, added up to 14 pounds.

It's the last time in my life I knew where everything was.

Part of me looks back at that time with a certain wistfulness. How simple my life was! And how much I learned, as I blundered into one situation after another.

It could be that metaphor -- wanderer with a backpack -- still rules me.

On the one hand, I think I carry fewer mental belongings all the time: a distilled philosophy. On the other hand, I'm aware that I'm operating in an environment that seems more and more complex by the hour.

I've been thumbing through a book called, "The Geography of Thought: how Asians and Westerns Think Differently ... and Why," by psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. He writes about his journey from one idea to another.

First, he believed that all human beings think the same way. That is, he was convinced that the mechanisms of perception, categorization, reasoning to results, etc., didn't vary much from culture to culture.

Now, he holds a different belief. He has been able to demonstrate that people raised in Asian cultures (China, Japan, and Korea, for instance) do indeed see and process information differently than those raised in the West.

Westerners -- from ancient Greeks to modern day Americans -- have some predictable characteristics. We tend to see and be aware of objects. Asians tend to see and be aware of substances.

Here's an example: young students of both cultures were exposed to an object -- let's say a toy pyramid made from marble. Then they were asked to find a similar thing among some other objects. Westerners chose another pyramid, made of plastic. Asians chose a different object altogether -- made of marble.

Here's another difference. Some years back, two similar murders happened, both in the U.S. In one, a Chinese exchange student had troubles with his academic advisor. The student got hold of a gun, killed several people at his university, then shot himself. Not long afterward, a similar event occurred at an American Post Office, this time by an American worker.

Nisbett compares the news coverage of both items. In the Western newspaper accounts, the focus was on the individual: the traits, the character, the decisions, that led him to become a murderer.

In the Asian papers, the descriptions were profoundly different. They emphasized the interpersonal problems, the social environment in which the tragedy occurred.

In short, Westerners see things in terms of isolated personality. Asians see personality as just one factor in a large field of social and other factors.

These differences play out in language, in marriage, in business negotiations, in scientific breakthroughs, and more.

Each viewpoint has strengths and weaknesses. Which one is right?

That's a very Western question. Here, perhaps is a better one: which combination of perspectives will enable us to live better lives, and build better communities?

"The Geography of Thought" is available from the Douglas County Libraries.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

February 3, 2005 - statistics

I realize this isn't normal, but I really looked forward to reviewing last year's library statistics.

Here's the first big number: for the first time in our history, we checked out over 4 million items. We are now very close (within a couple hundred thousand) to the levels of activity of Arapahoe and Jefferson County, both of which are larger than we are.

I have called the directors of both library systems to put them on notice. Heh heh.

Here's a broad breakdown of our checkouts in 2004:

* Adult fiction and nonfiction books - a little over 30 percent of our business.
* Audiovisual (movies and music) - a little under 30 percent.
* Kids' books (picture, fiction, non-fiction, teen): 40 percent.

That means roughly 70 percent of what people check out is print.

But AV is definitely the up and comer: it only accounts for about 13 percent of our total holdings, but generates 30 percent of our checkouts. Of course, you can watch a movie faster than you can read an adult book.

I, for one, am thrilled that our biggest crowd-pleaser is print for youth. That accounts for about a quarter of our collection, but 40 percent of our business. We have parents (you know who you are!) who check out 20 books a week per child. The books are thin, and parents and children move through them quickly.

Reading aloud, incidentally, is a wonderful way to bond with children, and may be the best investment in their developing minds a parent can make. We may be moving a lot of AV stuff, but children's books build the essential skill of literacy.

In 2004, over 2.5 million patron walked through our doors. So on average, those visits worked out to about 1.6 checkouts apiece. Of course, not everybody who comes to the library does check something out.

"Virtual visits" -- to our website -- were over half a million. The hits to our web pages were over 13 million.

While there are differences in the activity levels of our branches, there are far more commonalities. The greatest single predictor of activity is the population of the area.

That makes sense, as population drives the size of our facilities, and the facilities determine how much "stuff" we can offer.

There are some consistent ratios of activity, though. In general, most of our branches have about one reference question per 20 checkouts. (And reference transactions do tend to take longer than a checkout.)

Our programming attendance by age tends to be similar, too: an average of about 25 kids for kid programs, 11 teens for Young Adult programs, and 11 adults for adult programs.

District-wide, we now have 653,153 items, or a little over 2.6 items per capita. Over 72 percent of the households have and use at least one library card.

In general, we saw an increase in most measures of our service:

* checkouts - up 9.6 percent over last year
* reference (answering questions in person, over the phone, or online) - up 32 percent
* program attendance -- rising for adults, stabilizing for young children, and apparently falling for teens. That's a little puzzling, and we're still trying to figure that out. On the other hand, we OFFER more programs for everybody, and the number of community meetings is climbing very fast.
* volunteer and tutor hours. Volunteerism is up 7.4%, and our literacy tutors are up 43 percent!

All in all, I would say that 2004 was a winner, a milestone in the life of a library district. Thank you for your obvious interest in quality library service!