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, August 25, 2005

August 25, 2005 - libraries help children learn thirst for literacy

It's coming.

My daughter Maddy is 17, just entering her senior year of high school. This summer she said farewell to many of her friends. They're off to college.

Next year she will be, too.

Although my son is just starting 6th grade I'm starting to notice all those parents whose children are gone. Yet another life change looms on the horizon, and not only for the children.

But this makes me remember many wonderful things. It also makes me appreciate anew a vital aspect of the public library.

It is all too easy these days to get snagged in the culture wars, to view our public institutions as battlegrounds, places where one ideology squares off against another, places where adults yell at each other.

Here's something that just might be common ground. One of the deep purposes of the public library is to establish the thirst for literacy in our young.

I remember the first time I propped Maddy in my lap to read her a book. I don't remember her age. She wasn't old enough to sit up by herself.

But I do remember how quickly this became something that both of us enjoyed. There is a deep and abiding beauty in parents introducing their offspring to image and print.

They begin a Story. What do I mean by that? A story is that life-affirming, life-building exploration of self that is love, and character, and event, and conflict, and change, and growth.

For many people in our society, the public library never even registers on their consciousness. Until they have a child.

Suddenly, these parents realize that the world is far larger than they'd thought. Such obvious things as color, the sound of words, even the smell of the printed page, all open the door to a whole lifetime (for the children) of attitude, alertness, and the real meaning of the word "intelligence."

It also, I believe, has a distinct effect on the parents. One definition of maturity is "investing in the world AFTER you."

One hundred years ago, the notion of adding children's books to the collections of public libraries was vigorously opposed by most of the day's intellectual leadership.

Today, children's books -- fairy tales, classics, Dr. Seuss, primers, and all manner of picture books -- account for as much as 42 percent of our checkouts.

Our children's storytimes are always packed. It's a place where mothers meet and children open their eyes and ears to another kind of literacy: the story shared.

I submit that this just might be one of the enduring values of one public institution.

Through our collections and programs, we give parents an occasion, an excuse, to do something wonderful. We let them talk to and listen with their children.

We also offer the chance to participate in those all-too-brief moments, so startling in the power, of our children's dawning.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

August 18, 2005 - contrary thoughts

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

For instance, I have two very strong and absolutely contrary notions about politics. I believe in individual freedom. The preservation of that freedom, it seems to me, is the only moral justification for the state.

On the other hand, I believe in community. There are times when people must curb their behavior in order to live together.

Only a fool would believe that the two never come into conflict. Yet reasonable people may disagree about precisely where to draw the line between the two.

I believe in the strict interpretation of the Constitution.

But I also believe that no document -- whether it be Constitution or Scripture -- can possibly foresee every eventuality, and that sometimes you have to toss the wisdom of your ancestors right out the window. You have to make a personal decision -- and abide by the consequences.

I believe in religious freedom. That is, your beliefs are your own business.

Unless, of course, you impose those beliefs on me, or those beliefs lead to behavior that interferes with others' safety or freedom.

I believe in the right of people to make a living.

But I have, swimming around in my body, a substance called PCB -- globules of a virtually indestructible industrial lubricant that has been shown to cause cancer. I got it from swimming around in Lake Michigan when I was a kid, not far from theJohnson Motor plant, which dumped this substance into the lake.

So I also think people bigger and more powerful than me should slap regulations and penalties on other people who flush their poison into my body. (Why? Because Johnson Motor can afford better lawyers than I can.)

I believe in the primacy of individual choice -- whether it be books to read at the library, films to view at the theater, people to hang out with, and more.

Yet I also bemoan the pap that too often passes for literature, the movies made for morons, the social ties as pointless as they are absurd.

I believe the world is glorious, straining with splendor. I am proud to be a human being; I revel in this earth. I am also aware that for countless beings, the world is ruthless, cruel, even wanton with indifference. People are not just monsters sometimes, but often.

I believe that groups are often incredibly powerful in the making of decisions, quickly sorting through complex factors to find a solid consensus that balances and resolves all those factors.

I also believe that groups can come up with things so monumentally foolish, tyrannical, and deadly as to drive me to a hermitage.

All of these things, I believe, capture the lure of librarianship. I view every idea with gladness and suspicion. I greet the mission of each institution with warmth and disdain.

I am convinced that the real value of the public library is that it is both common and neutral ground. The brilliance and madness of our political parties, the incisiveness and dimness of our science, the exaltation and pettiness of faith, the trustworthiness and the utter corruption of our closest friends, the joy and the despair of life (and, come to that, your family, your neighborhood, your town, your state, your nation, your planet, and for all I know, your solar system), are ALL on display at your local library.

Or, to end this with another quote: "There is a time for Buddhist meditation. And there is a time for Irish whiskey." - Joseph Campbell

Thursday, August 11, 2005

August 11, 2005 - Are libraries obsolete?

I was listening to the Mike Rosen show the other day, where I heard him horsewhip Denver City Librarian Rick Ashton for buying "graphic and violent comic books" -- a Spanish-language illustrated novel in the library.

Rosen seemed to imply several things. First, the REAL mission of a public library was to be "a repository of knowledge," and even to be "uplifting."

Second, by having a book featuring drawings of a violent murder and rape, the library was "pandering" to popular taste.

Why, he wanted to know, did the library buy such a thing? Rosen said he wasn't interested in censorship, this was a selection question. Rosen said he wasn't a prude, he even believed in the legalization of prostitution, but wasn't adding such a controversial title a terrible mistake in purchasing?

Then he went on to describe the women in the book: large-breasted, narrow-waisted, muscular thighs, and "bubble butts." This graphic novel existed only to titillate, he said. (As opposed to, say, a radio show?)

Later, Rosen also mentioned that he thought a lot of people had questions: was the library becoming obsolete?

Well, it seems to me that Mr. Rosen is trying to put libraries in a double bind. First, he proposes that libraries should only offer things that are safe, innocuous, and "uplifting." In short, it should provide things that nobody is all that interested in.

Second, he suggests that libraries might be obsolete. Why? Because our job is to be boring, and ... we are boring?

Well, let me set some things straight.

First, people are not bored. They ARE using libraries. Statewide, two out of every three people have a library card. In Douglas County, three of four households have a card. The growth of our services consistently outstrips even our rapid population growth.

Why? Because, second, the library does NOT exist to lecture you about how you are supposed to improve yourself. We are not a ladies' temperance union.

Our job is to provide one stop shopping for the marketplace of ideas. Our job is to gather, organize, and present the intellectual capital of our culture.

Librarians don't invent all these ideas and products. We reflect them -- and our culture sends a lot of messages, not all of which are universally hailed as wholesome.

Should a library avoid controversy? Absolutely not! A vital library, a library that's doing its job, has lots of ferment in its holdings. It takes risks.

In the 1950's, for instance, "nice" libraries didn't have books by a new crop of African American writers -- James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, or that upstart, Martin Luther King, Jr. And those libraries missed the underpinnings of profound social change.

Libraries that are innocuous are also irrelevant.

Third, sex and violence were not invented by the graphic novel. You'll find it in Shakespeare. You'll find it in Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales. You'll find it on the radio and in the newspaper and in movies. You will find it in every medium known to humanity.

Fourth, surely Rosen doesn't believe that the big problem in Denver today is that there are too many children spending time at the library.

Fifth, I happen to be a passionate defender of comic books. The so-called "graphic novel" is a source of some of the most interesting storytelling and art around. See the works of Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.

Libraries that foster a fervent discussion of ideas, where people meet to talk, to participate in an emerging online reality, to view art, to sample the output of our culture, are libraries that are deeply and directly involved in their communities and culture.

And they are libraries that will never be obsolete.