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, April 28, 2005

April 28, 2005 - Consultant Report

Recently, we hired some consultants to come in and examine how we "handle materials."

That included everything from how we took requests, to how we ordered them, to how they were delivered, to how the invoices were checked, to how the items were cataloged, to how they were set up for checkout, and to how they made it out to the branches.

As I've mentioned in previous columns, we move a lot of materials.

But as I hope I've also made clear, we have grown incredibly over the past 15 years. That's when I got here, and, coincidentally, that's when Douglas County became the fastest growing county in the nation.

Well, our consultants didn't pull any punches. We heard some hard truths.

They told us that some of the things we do were, to be blunt, crazy for an operation our size. Those practices weren't crazy when we adopted them, as a smaller library district. But now, today, they were almost criminally inefficient.

I have to say I recognized that some (OK, many) of the things we do I was myself responsible for. I had set standards of service, or rules of operation, that just didn't grow well with our system.

The director is responsible, no matter how many people he (or she) delegates to. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

The consultants did just what they paid them to do: they turned over some rocks and found some unpleasant truths. And they spoke them, to all our assembled managers. No secrets.

I sat in the front row. And had to listen to a whole laundry list of things these outside experts identified as poison in the heart of the library I love.


Here's what's worse: I agreed.

When they finished, I realized there was only one thing to do.

We gave them a round of applause.

Why? Because if you don't know that the poison is there, you can't draw it out. If you don't know that you've made mistakes, you can't fix them. If you don't see that you need to change, you won't.

Many organizations teach their newcomers NOT to see the inefficiencies in the system. It's called training.

The Douglas County Libraries have changed so rapidly that some of the things we taught our people to do just don't work anymore. That's a disservice to our patrons -- and to our staff.

It wasn't all bad news, of course. Our consultants also trotted out a raft of statistics. Compared to other libraries around the state and the country, we are in the very top percentages for almost all areas of service.

That's a good thing for staff to know. Their decisions, their conscientious labors, have made us a very good library.

We are not yet a great library. To be that, we'll need the courage to confront the way our libraries need to operate TODAY, even if that means a significant shift in our attitudes and our back room practices.

And I have every confidence in our staff that we can, and will, do just that.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

April 20, 2005 - blogs and websites

The Douglas County Libraries had the first website in Douglas County -- and one of the first library websites in the country.

One fairly recent addition is our branch-specific "blogs." From our website (www.douglascountylibraries.org) you'll see "Branch pages" on the leftmost column. These pages allow our staff to quickly post what's hot at the library that week.

Blogs -- or "web logs" -- have gotten a lot of press lately. Most of the social apparatus of publishing is actually designed to filter or reduce content. More book manuscripts are submitted than printed. More articles are emailed than make it to paper. More news stories are drafted than circulated.

Often, that's a good thing, even a very good thing. Not every aspiring writer deserves to be published. There's a lot of badly formulated, ill-informed, willfully ignorant, and even malicious opinion in the world. The hurdles to mass media save us from a lot of it, and some might argue, not enough.

But there's a downside to this filtering, too. Sometimes, decisions about what does or does not get published reflect the strong interests of entrenched power. Here, technology can provide alternatives.

One example would be Tienamen Square -- which the western world found out about only because of an unsupervised fax machine.

In the news world, many journalists feel threatened and or challenged by bloggers, some of whom do seem to have wonderful insights or contacts, and can publish their words direct to the web. By itself, that poses no more of a threat to the media than a self-published cookbook does to Random House.

But sometimes, writers are good enough that they find their own markets. And because they have "outsider" status, because their writings are less cautious than mainstream media, bloggers are sometimes, to some people, more believable.

Well, I don't fancy myself a threat to syndicated columnists Garry Wills, Cal Thomas, or Molly Ivins, but I did spend some time last weekend (after that powerful snow pounding we took on Sunday) reworking my personal website, and experimenting with some blogging of my own.

Here's one observation: there is something reassuring about print. When you go back to it, the same words are there that were there the last time. When you go to a website, it's gone, or changed, or buried so deep that it is irretrievable.

Cyberspace is disturbingly similar to my own memory. It is unreliable.

And there's something a little pathetic about some blogs, possibly including mine. These people don't have friends? For whom are they recording their trivia and random thoughts?

On the other hand, I got to explore a bunch of new software tools (Freemind and vym, which are Open Source mind mapping tools) as well as Nvu, a web editor. My old website was looking a little dated. The new one is less so.

I also found a place to store the things I sometimes refer people to (presentations or articles I've done in the past).

My main lesson in all this is that we are still trying to understand all the ways that the World Wide Web is changing things.

Meanwhile, if you want to look over my new design, surf over to www.jlarue.com.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

April 13, 2005 - teens and the library

I can't remember if I was 13 or 14. I do remember that I was playing a lot of chess.

Back then, a lad could wander downtown, stroll into the old library (the new library was a couple of blocks away) and face a series of old guys over a chessboard.

It was timed chess. When you made a move, you slapped the clock.

I fought my way to "expert" status. One of the people I played was a charming, near-bald, older gent with the uncharming name of Bevier Butts.

It turned out that Mr. Butts, before his retirement, had been something of a civic tour de force. And one day, when I talked with him over a game about the need for a place for teens to gather, he suggested that I try to do something about it.

So I did. I scouted out an abandoned lunch dive on Sheridan Road, overlooking Lake Michigan. (Well, not really. Its BACK was to Lake Michigan.)

I put together a team of teens willing to clean it up. I talked to the owner, and figured out what it would take to make rent. I got close to a 20% discount.

I talked to a local soft drink distributor willing to cut a deal on supplying teen beverages. He would set us up for free the first time, then charge us just his cost for replacing the inventory. I thought we might even make some money.

Then I started to line up some bands. I was thinking: dance club.

I reported on all this at the next chess tournament.

Then Mr. Butts invited me to a City Council meeting to make a pitch for some subsidy. But he didn't just set me up. He stood before Council and made the case for me.

"Here," he said, "we have a teenager who isn't just complaining about things. He's trying to do something to make this community better. Let's support that effort!"

I got a glimpse about how civic things got decided. You figured out what you wanted. You put together a plan and a proposal. You presented it to the people whose money you needed to set you up.

And sometimes, you lost. I was, truly, very impressed with Mr. Butts. He made a good case, with passion, with eloquence, and with a sound business analysis.

They didn't buy it. I never got to open, as a teenager, a downtown business. I never became a big name music promoter.

But that may have been the first time someone of an older generation reached down his hand to me, as a teenager, because he subscribed to the belief that I lived in a town that belonged not just to everybody else, but to me, too.

Readers, this is a call to you to talk to your teens. And if you're a teen reading this, it's a call to YOU.

The library wants to serve Douglas County teenagers as well as we serve pre-schoolers, elementary students, and as well as we serve adults.

To do that, we need teens to answer some questions for us.

They can find an online survey at http://fs8.formsite.com/douglaslibraries/form215842611/index.html.

You have to respond by April 15, 2005.


Your move.

Thursday, April 7, 2005

April 7, 2005 - Douglas County and the state

I've come to realize that there are four dimensions to a librarian's job. The first is departmental -- working in the local branch, or administrative unit. Here the primary task is immediate, point-of-contact service to the public.

The second is district-wide. Here the task is making that first dimension both effective and sustainable. This is the arena of meetings: working to ensure consistency, coordination, efficiency, productivity, sufficient resources, planning.

The third dimension of librarianship is community. And in this sphere, the task is involvement. What's going on in the local area? What issues do people face? How can we help?

The fourth is the profession. Librarians need to share what they've learned from their experiments and experiences. In the process, they learn that local issues may not be local at all, but part of broad societal trends. They also learn strategies and best practices for responding to a changing environment.

Last week, I was invited to a statewide library planning summit. Thirty-six people were invited, representing a host of constituencies. We had school librarians, or teacher librarians, as they now call themselves.

We had university librarians. We had folks who work for the last remaining library system in the state -- a group charged with maintaining courier services and providing continuing education for librarians.

We had members of the State Library staff. We also had a lot of Douglas County Libraries folks.

Justine Shaffner, Adult Services Department Head at Philip S. Miller, is the chair of the statewide Ask Colorado committee. Ask Colorado provides 24/7 online access to real reference librarians.

Claudine Perrault, Manager of the Lone Tree Library, is the chair of the Colorado Library Card Committee. This is the group that set up and promotes a program unique in the United States, through which library cards from one institution are honored by others. This remarkable service is free.

While some states do have programs that permit borrowing among one type of library, CLC involves public, school, university, and even some special libraries (institutional or corporate).

Rochelle Logan, Associate Director for Support Services, has a strong background in surveys and statistical analysis. She had helped craft and analyze some information-gathering around the state for this planning effort.

I represented the Front Range Public Library Directors, a regional committee I have the honor to chair this year.

After the State Library itself, and the new statewide system, the Douglas County Libraries has emerged as one of the key, active contributors to statewide library planning. Our staff -- based on their activities as managers, district employees, and respected professionals -- have been recognized as the sort of people you want to have around when you're talking about big issues.

Ultimately, our reputation radiates from that first dimension -- the direct service to our patrons. Many of the state programs do just that.

Yet libraries, like librarians, have a responsibility to participate in various levels of activity.

I'm proud to see our institution so well represented, and very proud of our people.