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.

Friday, February 24, 2006

February 24, 2006 - "Weeding" Good for the Library

Before my wife and I moved to Colorado I used to say we had a ton of "stuff" - our belongings. I was wrong. When the movers weighed everything, I discovered we had three tons of stuff. One ton - 2,000 pounds - was just books.

These days I try not to buy so many. If I want to read something, I get it from the library. Otherwise, I know that sooner or later I will once again have to whittle down my possessions to fit the available space. I hate that. I get enough of it at work.

Deciding which books not to keep is the most painful task a librarian faces. You don't get into this business unless you love books. And like everyone else, we have the unconscious presumption that a once a book makes it to library shelves, it will be there forever. The Happy Hunting Ground of the Printed Word.

But libraries not only collect books. They have to get rid of them too.

We call this process "weeding," and we do it for the same reason a gardener weeds. We need to make room for fresh, healthy growth. Just because a book makes it to the library shelves, doesn't mean it stops getting old. Over time, and despite our best efforts, the paper yellows and turns brittle. The binding begins to deteriorate. Dust collects. The lettering on the spine starts to fade. Old books eat up shelf space. After a while, they actually scare people away from the new books.

Particularly in the non-fiction areas, we can't afford to keep books more than 5-8years. In some areas, even five years is pushing it. Old books, particularly technical books, have bad information in them.

How do we decide what goes? In general, the people decide. Every time someone checks out a book, it counts as one vote. Popular books get a lot of votes. So whenever we weed, we re-elect them to our shelves.

But sometimes we find that a book hasn't been checked out in a long time. And in the public library, a book that hasn't gotten a single vote in awhile gets kicked out of office. It's democracy in action.

Even when the People Have Spoken, that doesn't make it any easier on librarians. Some books - classics, for instance - we may choose to replace with newer copies. In our innermost hearts, we still believe that every book has its reader, and every reader his or her book. It's sad when one of our books goes unloved.

But here's the other thing, verified by countless libraries around the world. When we get rid of the older growth, the use of the newer material takes a big jump. Now patrons can find what they're looking for.

So where do new books go when they've been weeded? Often, they wind up in library book sales. From there they pass to precisely the places that please us most. They find good homes, with people who will love them.

Right now, we're doing something new: we have a contract with a company that takes everything we don't hold back for sales, and sells it for us on Amazon.com. We then get a share of the proceeds.

We went to this approach recently because of our push for RFID tags -- a technology that will allow our people to move materials much more quickly. Before we put the new tags on our items, we wanted to make sure these are items that our public actually wants and uses. So we're weeding in earnest.

Incidentally, we'll be looking for volunteers to help us with the tagging process. If you'd like to be a part of the conversion to tomorrow's library, talk to someone at your local branch.

I can guarantee that it's way more fun than moving.

Friday, February 17, 2006

February 17, 2006 - Leadership is About Thinking in Public

I had the privilege recently to serve as provocateur for the current class of Leadership Douglas County. Originally formed by the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce, then expanded to include the entire county, the program seeks first to recruit tomorrow's citizen leaders.

Our civic infrastructure requires lots of thoughtful, well-informed people to sit on our councils, boards, committees, task forces, and advisory groups. So the second task of Leadership Douglas County is to provide a basic orientation to our county's issues.

Most recent was "Education Day" -- a presentation about our public school system.

The Douglas County School District is worth paying attention to, quite aside from the fact that it tends our children. Its budget is now more than half a billion dollars annually -- well over a million dollars a day. At almost 6,000 employees, it is the largest employer in the county. It is a major corporation.

I'm particularly interested in all this because of my own family's experiments in public education. My wife and I homeschooled both of our kids up to second grade (up to third grade for our son). Then our daughter went to the first Core Knowledge charter school in the state (which I helped found, and on whose board I served twice).

Later, she was homeschooled again, then went to public middle school. She is now wrapping up her final year in the district's International Baccalaureate program. My son is in the district's Discovery program.

So we consider ourselves experienced educational consumers.

But my job on Education Day wasn't to share any of that. It was simply to ask the Leadership Douglas County people a couple of disarmingly brief questions.

First, I asked, what is the most important job of the Douglas County School District?

Second, I continued, how will you know if it succeeds?

I guaranteed the people in the room the freedom to try on an opinion, and see how easy or difficult it was to defend it. Leadership is often about thinking in public, and it takes practice. So I won't betray their confidences here.

But I concluded at the end of the session something I have long observed.

At this moment in our history, there is very little consensus about either the value or the purpose of the public sector. What people think the school district should do may say more about them, than it does about the school district.

We are all too likely to project our personal values on a public institution, and all too quick to anger when those values aren't immediately reflected.

Yet, our values are often in conflict. To use just one example, there are those who believe the key task of education is to assure global scientific leadership, particularly in the core disciplines, such as biology. There are others who don't want children to be taught about evolution.

It's hard to see how the school can accommodate both tasks. Yet that failure is not about the schools, is it?

To put it another way, today's Americans often hold public institutions accountable for our own lack of consensus.

Learning to distinguish those two -- our individual expectations, and what is achievable and worthwhile as a public good -- is one aim of public leadership.

For more information about Leadership Douglas County, talk to your Chamber, local government, or check the web. Broaden your world. Make a difference.

Friday, February 10, 2006

February 10, 2006 - speed reading boosts comprehension

"I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen

When I was in fourth grade, I decided that my homework was taking too long. Social Studies was particularly onerous. What I needed to do, I decided, was learn to read faster.

So I went to the library and asked for a book about it. There were several.

The main thing I remember was that most of us, unless we make a conscious effort, read every word aloud, in our minds. That is, we "subvocalize." So we silently read text just about as fast as we can say it.

But the brain is faster than the tongue. Much faster.

So I tried some of the ideas I was reading about to break that pattern. I would glance at a line, or three or four words in a row, and shut my eyes. Then I would try to remember the words I'd seen.

The idea was to push myself to "grab" more text at a single glance: first a phrase, then a line, then a block of text approaching the length of a paragraph. Some people got to "page at a glance."

I followed various other exercises. I would move my finger slowly back and forth across two lines at a time, in the center of the page, trying to encourage my eye to keep up with my finger. Or I would use other patterns to pull my eye down in unusual directions. Then I would try to do it without the aid of my finger.

The brain is so flexible, it can grab big clusters of words, or even piece sentences together backwards.

It was a little frustrating at first. Some kinds of page layouts were easier than others. My Social Studies textbook, it turned out, was actually perfect. It was laid out in two or three narrow columns, something like a newspaper. That's the easiest kind of format to scan quickly.

Then, suddenly, there was a kind of breakthrough. I did it! I didn't have to subvocalize anymore, and I was racing through my homework. This left me more time for important things, like comic books.

In a year or so, I was reading a book a day, mostly science fiction.

And here's the funny thing: the faster I read, the BETTER I read. That is, my comprehension went up, not down. Despite the Woody Allen quote above, research suggests that reading comprehension and speed are positively correlated.

That isn't to say that everything should be read at breakneck speed. Reading speeds, and strategies, vary with the material and your purpose in reading it. In fact, it appears that it's best to vary your speed. Slowing down or speeding up keeps things interesting, and aids retention.

What are some of the other roadblocks to reading quickly?

* eye problems. Before embarking on a big push, see an eye doctor.

* "regression" -- reading the same text over and over.

* bad habits of concentration. Pay attention, reduce external stimuli.

* lack of practice. As I often say to myself these days, "Achievement equals application of effort over time."

* fear of losing comprehension. Don't deliberately slow down to "pick up everything." You still won't. The idea is to scan material to decide what actually matters.

It wasn't that long ago that pundits were predicting the death of print, the rise of alternative media, and the resulting loss of significance for reading.

But the truth is, we need to read more than ever. The literate American, whether student or business person, is bombarded with text. Learning techniques for swiftly moving through the choices restores a little control to your life. It gives you back that most precious of commodities: time.

Friday, February 3, 2006

February 3, 2006 - Do Immigrants Need Libraries?

I don't know much about my maternal great-grandfather. His name was Wilhelm Waack. He came from Germany, and settled in Michigan.

Later, he became a reasonably successful businessman, filling an important social need. He was a bootlegger.

My grandfather, Wilhelm's son, spoke some German, and could read it a little. Sometimes, I remember neighborhood boys would ask him to translate a line from a WWII movie. But it was definitely a second language for him.

My mother knew only a phrase or two. So it took just three generations for English to completely replace "the mother tongue" of the Fatherland.

According to the fascinating book "Do You Speak American?" by Robert MacNeil and William Cran, German was once a very popular language in the United States. By the turn of the last century, 1900, it was spoken by one American in ten. Incidentally, that's just about how many are now speaking Spanish.

But in 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania led to American outrage. About this time, many German names were quietly changed. Stein became Stone.

Even food names changed: Frankfurters became hot dogs. Sauerkraut became, for some, "liberty cabbage," anticipating the "freedom fries" of our own time.

Public schools banned the teaching of German, which I find truly odd. You would think teaching people to speak the language of an enemy might prove useful in a time of war. But many schools instead encouraged students to learn Spanish, because it would be "more useful in business."

And come to think of it, you can't take Arabic in our high schools today, can you? Nor Mandarin, which has more native speakers than any language in the world.

At any rate, German is no longer a popular language in our country. The waves of German immigration are over. Now the top language group of immigrants is Spanish.

By 2020 (according to some estimates) one in five residents of the United States will be of Spanish heritage, mostly Mexican. In Denver, today, about 35% of the population is Hispanic; it's 55% in the public schools. Twenty percent of Denver residents speak Spanish at home.

This worries some people. Hence the "English only" movement.

Linguists have been studying assimilation rates of Hispanic immigrants, and have found something surprising. It's just like the Germans. Within three generations, the children don't speak Spanish anymore.

Why then, is there such growth of Spanish newspapers, radio shows, and TV channels?

Because the immigration continues. People who stay in this country get assimilated, but there are a lot of new arrivals, still in the first wave of the language group, like my great-grandfather.

What does the issue of immigration have to do with libraries?

For one thing, our state legislature is talking about some anti-immigration measures, perhaps including the denial of public services to illegal immigrants. It's hard to know what that might mean.

Will it be OK for libraries to buy Spanish language materials?

Will it be all right to let non-native people learn English through the library's volunteer-based English as a Second Language (ESL) tutoring program?

I hope people remember that the public library is not actually charged with immigration enforcement. We do, however, greatly assist in the education of new citizens.

I hope people also can support the idea that we need more foreign language materials in our schools and libraries, not fewer. English literature, and American literature, are rich and deep. But there are other world literatures, and most of us know nothing about them.

Personally, I'm opposed to some new form of linguistic Prohibition. The idea reminds me of Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," a book that was about, among other things, people who smuggled forbidden texts. These people were known as "bookleggers."

History is a circle.