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, June 23, 2005

June 23, 2005 - our future

The Douglas County Libraries have gone through two phases. The first ran from about 1990 through 1996. This was the period in which the district was established, and began to grow.

The second phase was from 1996 through 2005. This was the period of our adolescence, when we began to resemble our more mature neighbors. Specifically, this meant the spread of departmentalization. We launched reference departments at most of our branches. We added children's departments. At Highlands Ranch, we added a Reader's Advisor station; at Philip S. Miller, a Teen Tower.

We are, and our statistics back this up, among the best suburban library systems in the United States. By that I mean that of libraries serving communities of our size, we are not just in the top ten, but among the top two or three. We are a very good library.

It's also the case that our revenues have begun to flatten. The demand for our services has not.

We have begun to talk about what it means to become a great library. This is not, incidentally, all about money. The private sector counts its success by dollars. The public sectors reckons its Return On Investment by something quite different: the depth and breadth of its service.

I've learned some important things in my time here. When I was first starting out as a library director, I thought of communities as essential tools to build libraries. Now, I think of libraries as essential tools to build good communities. That's a big change.

Our future -- of library holdings, of library buildings, of technology, of staffing patterns -- cannot exist in isolation. We will succeed only to the extent that we assist in the success of those around us. Those around us include not just government, but also education, and business, and all those private concerns that add up to local life.

To help us plan for the next phase of our development, the Library Board of Trustees has decided to do some surveying. Over the next several weeks, we'll be conducting a series of telephone interviews.

Some of the questions will indeed be about money -- we're at the limit of what we can do with what we've got.

But most of our questions are about something more important. What really matters to you in your quest for quality of life? What do you really want from your library? It's just possible that what you want isn't something MORE, but something DIFFERENT.

Our questions aren't about what makes a library better, but what improves your community. The library is just another means to that end.

So if you get a call, it's legitimate. The people asking the questions are being paid by us to help us systematically, scientifically, get a read on what our taxpayers are really looking for in Douglas County.

Please, take the time to answer. The future you'll help us craft is not just ours. It's yours.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

June 15, 2005 - blue slips

It has become my mantra: "there are only two problems in life. There is growth, and there is decline. Pick one."

Most of the problems faced by Douglas County Libraries are the result of growth. There is growth in demand -- a really staggering jump in the books, magazines, videos, and music the public checks out from us, an explosion of questions that public asks our reference and children's librarians, big leaps in the number of people that come to programs and meetings.

As a consequence, there is also growth in service. We have had to ramp up to chase that demand. This has resulted in some surprises behind the scenes.

Here's the case study: "blue slips." A blue slip is a half sheet of paper, colored blue, that we use to gather public requests for materials. When such a request is filled out, one of three things happens:

* we buy the item. When this procedure was put into place almost 10 years ago, buying something was often the fastest and cheapest way to get it.

Of course, we didn't, and don't, buy everything. There are always people with arcane and expensive interests: detailed drawings of WWI battleships, lavishly illustrated butterfly books, and so on.

But my philosophy remains that if someone from the public asks for it, if it isn't prohibitively expensive, if it falls within the range of general interest, let's get it.

* we borrow the item. For those things we don't want to buy, or for those things that are no longer available for sale, we use various interlocking computer networks to see if another library has it. Then we borrow it, library to library, to allow our local patron to see it. This is a reciprocal arrangement: we also send materials to other libraries for their patrons.

* we can't find it. It's not for sale, no other library owns it. Then we look for alternatives.

There's a lot of change in the world of libraries these days. For one thing, eBay and Abebooks and other websites mean that it's easier to find and buy some things that are out of print. Of course, few public libraries will chase down really old materials for a one time use. Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is still the logical path in that case.

For another, those interlocking computer systems are making it much easier and cheaper to grab another libraries' items. ILL is now, in many cases, cheaper -- and faster -- than buying an item. That's a big shift.

Well, there was a time when a blue slip made sure that we knew about a hot new bestseller, and got it to the first person who gave us the slip.

But now, we generally don't need blue slips for find out what's coming. We place our orders months in advance of publication -- or have various profiles in place to catch the big things the instant they are available.

Now, blue slips actually interfere with our ordering and processing. Our volume is such that we have to batch things, group together one big order instead of 50 or 100 small ones that stagger in over a period of months.

The blue slip must die. While we will still, of course, provide mechanisms for people to request materials, the processes around those requests simply have to become more efficient.

The paradox is that an individual may see this as a reduction in service. After all, those blue slips used to bump a request to the head of the line, rush rush. But the new batching means that we'll actually be getting more new materials to the shelves quicker.

Our lessons: too many exceptions break the system. Bigger libraries can't operate like small ones.

But I try to keep perspective: there are a lot of libraries that would love the problem of getting more books faster to people who really want them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

June 9, 2005 - harmful books

Sometimes librarians joke about the jargon we, like so many professions, fall into. We say, "Reader's Advisory," to describe the process through which we recommend books. But that phrase sounds like "weather advisory" -- a warning.

Well, this week, I'd like to offer some Reader's Advisory in both senses. Listed below are the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries." I hasten to add that it wasn't me who came up with this. Rather, it was "Human Events: the National Conservative Weekly," published since 1944.

The publication asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help compile the list. So these are expert opinions. I've also given a partial summary of their reasons.

1. "The Communist Manifesto," by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848. "The Manifesto envisions history as a class struggle between oppressed workers and oppressive owners, calling for a workers' revolution so property, family and nation-states can be abolished and a proletarian Utopia established."

2. "Mein Kampf," by Adolf Hitler, 1925-26. "Here Hitler explained his racist, anti-Semitic vision for Germany, laying out a Nazi program pointing directly to World War II and the Holocaust."

3. "Quotations from Chairman Mao," by Mao Zedong, 1966. "It is the task of the people of the whole world to put an end to the aggression and oppression perpetrated by imperialism, and chiefly by U.S. imperialism," wrote Mao.

4. "The Kinsey Report," by Alfred Kinsey, 1948. "The reports were designed to give a scientific gloss to the normalization of promiscuity and deviancy."

5. "Democracy and Education," by John Dewey, 1916. "...in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking 'skills' instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education--particularly in public schools--and helped nurture the Clinton generation."

6. "Das Kapital," by Karl Marx, 1867-1894. Marx described "capitalism as an ugly phase in the development of human society in which capitalists inevitably and amorally exploit labor by paying the cheapest possible wages to earn the greatest possible profits."

7. "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan, 1963. Friedan "disparaged traditional stay-at-home motherhood as life in 'a comfortable concentration camp'--a role that degraded women and denied them true fulfillment in life."

8. "The Course of Positive Philosophy," by Auguste Comte, 1830-1842. Comte advanced the idea that "...the human mind had developed beyond 'theology' (a belief that there is a God who governs the universe), through 'metaphysics' (in this case defined as the French revolutionaries' reliance on abstract assertions of 'rights' without a God), to 'positivism' in which man alone, through scientific observation, could determine the way things ought to be."

9. "Beyond Good and Evil," by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886. "Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation."

10. "General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money," by John Maynard Keynes, 1936. "The book is a recipe for ever-expanding government. When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar debt."

More information about Human Events can be found at www.humaneventsonline.com.

I regret to say that your library system owns only 8 of the 10 books above. We own neither "The Course of Positive Philosophy," nor "Quotations from Chairman Mao." We will, of course, seek to acquire them as quickly as possible.

I have found that it's a good idea to investigate, and draw your own conclusions, about lots of things experts tell you. That's especially so when they tell you that books are harmful.

I'd also be interested to know if there is any self-described "left wing" group with a list of its idea of dangerous books. I do strive to keep the collection balanced.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

June 1, 2005 - Gilgamesh

It is the oldest story in the world, a thousand years older than either the Iliad or the Bible. Its birthplace was the land we now call Iraq.

Its hero was the king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, back in 2750 B.C. The name of the king was Gilgamesh.

The discovery of this classic of world literature is almost as good as the story of Gilgamesh itself.

Let's start with the sheer passage of time. The "book" of Gilgamesh was missing for over 2000 years.

It was rediscovered in 1853 in the ruins of Nineveh, ancient capital of Assyria. There, an antique-hunting Englishman unearthed the remains of the library of the last great Assyrian king -- thousands of baked clay tablets, filled with cuneiform characters.

But it was decades before this ancient writing was deciphered and translated.

In 1872 another Englishman translated one of the fragments to world-wide excitement. The story may sound familiar.

A god informs a favored human that the world, overrun with human wickedness, is about to be destroyed. The god instructs the man to build a boat of specific dimensions, and fill it with "examples of every living creature." After six days and seven nights of rain, water overwhelms the earth.

At last the sky clears. The man sends out a dove, which returns, unable to find any land. Then he sends a swallow, which also returns. Finally, he sends a raven, which alights on a tree.

The favored human was not named Noah, but Utnapishtim, king of Suruppak, "that ancient city on the Euphrates." The mountain where the ship ran aground was not Mount Ararat, but Mount Nimush. And the god who issued the warning was not Yahweh, or Jehovah. It was Ea, one of many gods.

The story of Noah, it appears, was plagiarised.

"Gilgamesh: A New English Version," is the work of Stephen Mitchell, best known for his translations of the Book of Job, the Tao te Ching, and the German poet Rilke (who was, coincidentally, one of the first writers to hail Gilgamesh as a world classic).

Mitchell freely admits that he can read neither Akkadian (the Babylonian dialect) nor cuneiform. But the boy can write.

Using line-by-line translations of experts, Mitchell weaves together in "lithe, muscular prose" (as it says on the blurb, and I whole-heartedly agree) this ancient poetry, this marvelous epic.

In truth, the book is incomplete. Not all of the tablets survived, or have been located. But "Gilgamesh" feels whole.

At the beginning of the tale, Gilgamesh is a giant of a man, two thirds divine and one third human. He is also a king grown arrogant and cruel.

So the gods create an opposite number for him, Enkidu, two thirds animal, and one third divine. Enkidu is a wild thing, a creature who runs with the beasts.

First, he is tamed by Shamhat, the temple prostitute. Then he grapples with Gilgamesh. Finally, Enkidu and Gilgamesh become deep friends, soul-mates.

The next part of the saga involves the quest to kill a monster. But Gilgamesh goes too far, upsetting the balance of things, and Enkidu dies, cursed by the gods.

The deep story of Gilgamesh now begins: his own quest, ultimately denied, to become immortal, to find an answer to the death that has broken his heart.

"Gilgamesh" captured me, from its turns of phrase (Gilgamesh had muscles "of stone" -- a phrase that resonates oddly because it is so long before muscles "of steel") to its modern day parallels.

Kings still grow arrogant. We still lose those we love. And we still seek to resolve ourselves to the fact of our mortality.

Of course, in one sense, Gilgamesh did triumph over death. His story, almost 5,000 years later, still lives, as close as your local library.