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, July 28, 2005

July 28, 2005 - self-check

The Douglas County Libraries are retooling.

Why? Because the demand for our services is growing. We need to grow our ability to meet it, and there are some new tools we haven't had before.

So our retooling will begin with something called "self-check." Our first full-scale experiment will be at the Parker Library.

Right now, our very capable staff spends a lot of time doing simple tasks: scanning the barcodes on your library card and books, for instance.

Frankly, that's a ridiculous underuse of their skills. Over the years, I've learned that the people who work at our circulation desk are among the best read, most savvy library consumers you'll find.

Of course, their deep dedication to public service comes in handy when some odd circumstance comes up. Our people know the system, and can help steer you through it.

But most of the time, a lot of the process of checking out materials is purely mechanical. So here's what we want to do:

1. Put out more self-check stations. This is essential. Right now we have one public self-check stations, and three staff stations. This week, we'll have 4 public stations, and one for staff. We really CAN'T add more staff at a circulation desk -- not enough room, not enough money. A different configuration, with our staff overseeing several stations, will let us grow our capacity.

2. Get our staff out from behind that desk. This is the Big Change. The idea is that we'll not only have our people standing right there to help our patrons past the rough spots, staff will also be there to do something even more important. What's that? To help you find the materials in the first place!

3. Make checkout easier. There are all kinds of little "blocks" that might come up during checkout -- really, just notes and reminders to our staff. We're trying to whittle those down so that they don't stop people from checking things out themselves.

There are some things you can do to help us test this new system.

1. Have patience! Like every other new technology, there will be bugs and gaffs. But we'll work to get it right.

2. Please carry your library card with you. I know it can be a pain to pack one more thing in your purse or wallet. But having your library card will make things go faster and smoother.

3. Holler for help if you need it! Again, all of our staff are still around, and are eager to make this experiment go as smoothly as possible. But we're sure you'll find their help far more significant and useful out in the stacks, rather than at the circulation desk.

4. Let us know what you think. The first couple of times might be weird or awkward. But after you've tried it a few times, staff would appreciate some thoughtful feedback. Right now, we see this as one of the key ways we can handle more work with the same number of people. We're also looking, as noted above, to make more intelligent use of the skills of the very bright people who work for us.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

July 20, 2005 - passing on the torch

It was the morning after my last night in Springfield, IL. I'd stayed up late packing, along with my wife (who got stuck STARTING to pack while I wrapped up a final conference obligation). We were off to a new life in Colorado, where I'd taken my first job as a library director.

My last stop on the way out was Lincoln Library, where I had been Assistant Director for 3 years (and Circulation Department Head for 2 years before that).

I had to pick up the PC I'd bought with my own money -- back when it was really, really unusual for a public official to have a computer on his or her desk.

I boxed it up and set it on a cart. My boss, Library Director Carl Volkmann, offered to accompany me down the elevator.

As we sank from the administrative third floor to the basement parking garage, I turned to the man who had taken such a gamble on me. "Thank you," I said, "for giving me this amazing opportunity."

To my utter surprise, his eyes filled with tears. He blinked and turned away for a minute. Then he looked back at me. "I thought I'd prepared myself," he said.

I get it. Now.

You see, some six years ago, I recruited another young librarian to what is, in some peculiar sense, "my" library. (I know, it's really yours, but I mean "not Carl's.") The name of this young librarian is Claudine Perrault. She hadn't worked in a public library before, but from conversation at conferences, from our email debates on library fora, from her interview, I thought she'd be great. I hired her as manager of our Lone Tree Library.

For the past six years, she HAS been great. She has given me one of the greatest pleasures any administrator ever gets: watching people grow.

These days, most of our libraries are seeing something like a 6% increase in business for checkouts. At Lone Tree, that would be thirty percent.

Claudine has been a force for change at our library, articulating new goals, advocating for them with passion and integrity, reveling in her staff. I have striven to be a good mentor to her, as Carl was to me. But mostly, I suspect, she grew on her own.

And now, starting in September, she'll be packing up her own family for a move. She will be a director herself -- of the Estes Park Public Library. They're lucky to get her.

I well remember what that first job is like. The weird feeling of actually being in charge. The sober realization that you can't blame any big screw-ups on somebody else. Now the responsibility is (gulp) yours.

And then, the discovery that ... this is really fun. This is what you're meant to do. This is living!

In some ways, this profound feeling -- of pride and loss -- makes me feel a little, well, old. It's a passing of the torch.

But mostly, I remember my own mentor. Carl, here's another "thank you," for providing yet again a wonderful model for just what principled and heartfelt leadership really looks -- and feels -- like.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

July 14, 2005 - the Spiral Staircase

There was a time in my life -- early adolescence -- when I loved biographies. I suppose I was trying to get a feel for the rhythm of lives. I hoped that by reading the lives of exceptional people I admired, I might get a clue how to live an exceptional life myself.

Gradually, my reading tastes changed. But I just finished, almost at one sitting, a gripping biography of an altogether unique mind.

The name of the book is "The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness." The author is Karen Armstrong, probably best known for her surprise bestseller, "A History of God."

The story begins with the result of a life choice made by a 17 year old. Armstrong had decided to become a nun. Seven years later, with the full consent of her superiors, she broke her vows and left the convent, a self-described broken and damaged woman.

The reason she'd become a nun was to seek transcendence, an encounter with God. Instead, the disciplines of the Carmelite order, designed to build strong women with iron control of their bodies, minds and spirits, left her intellectually repressed and spiritually desolate.

Moreover, a series of fainting spells, accompanied by the smell of sulphur and vivid hallucinations, had left her in doubt of her own sanity.

In essence, Armstrong, whom I consider one of the wisest and most insightful writers in the English-speaking world on the divisive topic of religion, tells the story of her spiritual development. It closely follows the metaphor of one of my favorite poems: T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," in which Eliot must turn, and turn again, without hope, as he climbs a spiral staircase to the light.

Armstrong describes her panic at reentering the secular world via a scholarship to Oxford. Next to come was a new disorder: a condition known as jamais vu. She would find herself somewhere without any memory of how she had arrived.

She had, along with another former nun, a bout of anorexia. She sought psychiatric assistance, without success.

Through petty injustice, she was denied the advanced academic degree she had earned. Then, she settled for a career she knew did not suit her: teaching English at a girl's boarding school. Her growing illness -- more fainting spells, deepening jamais vu -- ended that career as well.

Then she had a true seizure, and at last discovered what three years of psychiatric visits had never fathomed: she had temporal lobe epilepsy.

With this condition at last diagnosed and treated, other changes happened. A gifted intellect and writer, Armstrong was drawn to religious topics. There isn't much of a market for that in England, by the way, where only 6% of the population attends church.

No matter. Armstrong ignored her agent's and publisher's advice and explored potentially explosive topics. Among them was the true meaning of Islam. Based on her research, she believed that the West was making a profound mistake, reframing the Islamic world in terms straight out of the Crusades. She feared a devastating conflict.

Then came September 11.

Since then, Armstrong has contributed much to our understanding of fundamentalism (see "The Battle for God").

After spending so much time with religious scripts and history, she has concluded that the core truth of religion -- whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Taoist -- is the same. Its essential message is Compassion. To meet evil with good. To live by the Golden Rule. To love thy neighbor as thyself.

Yet consider our everyday news. The sons of Abraham slaughter each other in the Middle East. Christian evangelical groups rattle their political sabers here at home.

It is impossible not to be impressed by Armstrong's journey.

And it is impossible, once reading it, not to wonder how so many so-called believers get it so wrong.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

July 7, 2005 - librarians in fiction

If you're about to take a long road trip with your family (and I just did, to attend a couple of events in Chicago), I advise two things:

1) Have a companionable family. When I was a kid, we engaged in things like whacking each other repeatedly on our sunburns. My kids work out synchronized seated dance moves. It is better to hear the sound of giggles than the sound of screams.

2) Take some audiobooks. We took "Looking for Bobowicz," written and read by Daniel Pinkwater. We took "Matilda" by Roald Dahl. We also took "War of the Worlds" -- the original Orson Welles broadcast.

In the first and second, I was delighted to meet two distinctive librarians. Pinkwater introduced Starr Lackawanna, "a woman with wild hair, wearing what looked like a gym suit with rainbow-striped leg warmers and cape." Ms. Lackawanna was one of the few people in the town of Hoboken, NJ, who was willing to talk to young people. (The others included a pirate radio station operator, a bum in the park, and a mad scientist.) Lackawanna tells the kids that she lives to "amaze and astonish."

I won't spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Ivan Itch, known (understandably) as "Nick," moves from his suburban Happy Valley into the big city because his parents want him to have "urban experiences." Within half an hour, his bicycle is stolen. The rest of the story involves Classics Illustrated comics, old music, Beaux Arts, and libraries as authoritative repositories of local history. It also features, it almost goes without saying, a giant chicken. Highly recommended.

I'd seen the "Matilda" movie, and enjoyed it. The book is set in England. Matilda is an extremely precocious child, raised by a crooked dad and a negligent mother. Matilda's life starts to turn around when she finds the local library, where Mrs. Phelps, local librarian, gently steers her to the world of classic literature. Phelps is interesting: concerned and thoughtful, but most unwilling to interfere except by acts of professional courtesy and kindness.

Later Matilda goes to school, where she meets a wonderful teacher, and a school master who can only be described as nightmarish. As with Pinkwater, all ends well.

On the whole, I found both of these portrayals of my colleagues sympathetic and positive. It happens that authors Pinkwater and Dahl had childhoods in which the charming and magical was occasionally mixed up with adult brutality. Pinkwater's father was apparently a gangster; Dahl was savagely caned by a cruel headmaster.

Fortunately, librarians can be trusted to provide sanctuary, to tell the truth, to treat children with respect.

The last audiobook was "War of the Worlds." This story of a Martian invasion was written by H.G. Wells, and reworked as part of a famous radio broadcast on the night before Halloween, in 1938. Over a million people thought it was happening for real. The audiobook also presents snippets of another version (released during the Vietnam War), and rare audio interviews with both H.G. Wells and Orson Welles.

After the first broadcast, there was a fierce national debate. Some were concerned that the young media of radio had demonstrated that it could be used to sell preposterous lies. Others found the gullibility of Americans very funny.

At any rate, don't forget to pack the audiobooks before that trip. It sure beats looking at license plates.