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, March 30, 2006

March 30, 2006 - green buildings save money

I used to live across the street from an old architect, trained in the 1950s. Back then, he said, architects believed buildings needed to "breathe." Public buildings used to have windows that opened.

Then came the energy crunch of the 1970s. To deal with wildly rising costs, owners scrambled to tighten up, even hermetically seal their buildings.

It wasn't easy. People kept opening doors to get in and out. (Imagine!) Air escapes other ways, too. So, figuring that fresh air leaked in, too, many building managers did something few people know about: they turned off the air intake valves.

It made heating or cooling the building much cheaper, because it was mostly about recirculating the same air.

At about the same time, lots of new building materials came along. New glues. New, less expensive plywoods.

The glues were used to hold down the carpet. The reconstituted plywood lined the inside of many a home.

But the recirculated air was thick with staleness, germs, and mold. Many people are allergic to some of the compounds in the glues. The plywood, it turned out, released concentrated formaldehyde, for many months.

And a new phrase entered our lexicon: "sick building." Remember Legionnaires' Disease?

Here's an irony. The Environmental Protection Agency poohpoohed some of the early findings. Buildings can't make you sick!

Then their headquarters got all new carpeting. The carpeting was backed with those new glues.

And the whole agency called in sick.

It makes you wonder: how many days of productivity are lost annually due to illness? How much of that illness is preventable?

Well, eventually a group of architects, engineers, and builders was formed called the United States Green Building Council. (For more information, see www.greenbuildexpo.com.) They're the folks behind a kind of education called "LEED." That stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It's also a rating system -- a way for owners and buildings to quantify the actual performance of a building on several dimensions.

These standards apply to new commercial construction and renovation. They refer to existing building operations -- to give you a baseline. There are LEED guides to core and shell projects, homes, neighborhood development projects, and more.

Incidentally, we're not talking about teepees, geodesic domes, and yurts, here. Green building is now about 20% of the construction sector activity: green buildings are rising in Manhattan, underwritten by major banking firms. Wal-Mart, Costco, and others are investing in the idea as a competitive advantage. Green buildings may cost a little more to build, but they recover their costs in operations, often within a year or two.

Here's the other thing: a number of schools are looking at building green, too. They should be. The students who attend green schools score some 20% higher than their peers. Why not? Better lighting. Better air movement. No hot and cold spots. Healthy environments make it easier to concentrate and learn.

When was the last time you saw anything about that in a CSAP report?

There are green hospitals. Patients there have measurably shorter stays. Why? Because they recover faster.

The library has been interested in this movement for a long time. We've even recycled whole buildings: a bowling alley, a grocery store. Our facilities manager is a LEED-accredited professional.

We have yet to build a LEED-certified building -- although that's definitely the future of building. Just maybe, it ought to be a focus for both public and private sectors of Douglas County.

Incidentally, Denver will be hosting the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo at the Colorado Convention Center from November 15-17 later this year. We'll be there.

It might be a smart thing for all of us to know how to build smarter buildings.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

March 23, 2006 - banjo and the bluetail fly

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was learning to play the banjo. I took lessons for six weeks from Swallow Hill (www.swallowhill.com). I continue to practice.

Along the way, I did a little reading up on the instrument.

The banjo (also called banjar, banjil, banza, bangoe, bangie, and banshaw) came from the west coast of Africa. Originally an instrument made from gourds, a neck, and four strings, it was recreated in the New World by slaves.

There were several early banjo-playing legends -- all of them African-American. Some escaped, became famous, were recaptured, escaped again -- and managed to make their living as banjo players. Banjo players then were like rock stars now, sought after and well-paid.

Eventually, however, the banjo was appropriated by white minstrel players -- white performers in "blackface," playing broad and sentimental versions of slave songs and ditties. And over time, the instrument changed. First, frets were added, then, finally, the fifth string.

At that point, African-American banjo players, arguably the best in the nation, abandoned the instrument. In the time just before and immediately after the Civil War, banjos went from being an instrument of liberation -- a memory of a time before captivity, a celebration of remembered rhythms -- to further evidence of mockery and stolen heritage.

Two banjo styles developed. The first was closer to the original, in which the banjo was a rhythm instrument, mainly played by strumming. This style eventually evolved into something now known as "frailing" -- an alternation between picking (with the thumb) and strumming (usually, with the back of the fingernails).

It also moved from minstrel show to the Appalachian hills. There, it merged with Celtic rhythms and hillbilly verse to form an enduring underground folk style.

Curiously, for some 15 years (1930 to 1945), hardly any mainstream musicians played the banjo. You couldn't even buy banjo strings; no one made them.

In the 1940's a banjo revival slowly awakened, led in part by Pete Seeger, who published one of the only banjo books to be found during the instrument's long dormancy. He also recorded many songs that might otherwise have been lost.

The second style was "finger-picking." In the late 1800's, some white musicians tried to make it a classical instrument. Later, players moved into what is now known as the three-fingered Scruggs style -- named after Earl Scruggs. He played a very quick, very precise series of picking patterns, called "rolls." Scruggs, and now others, use metal finger picks for the index and middle fingers, and a plastic pick for the thumb.

This is the style that predominates today, when the banjo is again surging into popular, mostly country music.

But this week's story is about one of the songs that first appeared in the minstrel period, and may be a sly bit of folk memory.

The song is "Blue Tail Fly." You may remember it from grade school. It begins with:

"When I was young I used to wait / On master and hand him his plate / Pass him the bottle when he got dry / And brush away the blue-tail fly."

It has the chorus:

"Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care / My master's gone away."

Well, here's a new spin on an old song. The setting: the "old master," who is clearly a tippler (note that bottle) liked to go for rides on his horse. But he took a young slave with him to brush away the horse flies from a "pony being rather shy / when bitten by the blue-tail fly."

Well, at one point, the pony "threw my master in a ditch." And the master went away.

Did the young slave miss the blue-tail fly? Or did he deliberately swat the shy pony on the thigh?

There was a trial. "He died and the jury wondered why / The verdict was the blue-tail fly."

In short, behind the mugging of the minstrel show was a sly and subversive message. "The blue tail fly," taught in many elementary schools as a slice of Americana, may well have been about a successful murder by an enslaved African-American.

For more information about the history of the banjo -- and the contributions of early musicians -- see "With a Banjo on my Knee: A Musical Journey from Slavery to Freedom," by Rex Ellis. You can find it (and Pete Seeger's classic book on the 5 string banjo) at the Douglas County Libraries.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

March 16, 2006 - IB Students Win Scholarships

It could be that I hung around with the wrong kind of kids in high school. Now that I think of it, I probably WAS the wrong kind of kid in high school, and that's why they hung around with me.

My daughter's experience has been different, and almost certainly better. She's a senior at Douglas County High School. She's also in the International Baccalaureate program.

I have to say, when I watched her, for 2 years now, bring home some 4 hours of homework each night, I wondered if that was altogether good.

Of course the only time I had 4 hours of homework was when I had a big paper due the next day.

Back then, I thought school was totally irrelevant. When, I used to ask people, was I ever going to have to crank out big projects, involving both research and writing, by some arbitrary deadline?

Answer: for the rest of my life.

But what I learned slowly, Maddy seemed to know instinctively. And it's even better than that.

Maddy loves to learn. The only time I've ever seen her really frustrated is when some teacher or class asks too little of her. She thrives on academic challenge -- always has.

Where I learned the rules by breaking them, Maddy learned them by careful observation, followed by disciplined application of effort.

This, I believe, best explains the significant difference between our Cumulative Grade Point Averages.

Like her mother, Maddy has the itch to travel. She's been to Europe twice already on school tours, and is slated to go again for a theater competition in Scotland this summer. Maddy also has my wife's gift for languages.

So we weren't surprised when Maddy told us she wanted to go to university in Europe.

True to form, she did her research, followed by all the paperwork.

And one by one, every college she applied to scrambled to accept her. Then, Maddy started downloading the financial aid forms.

Note to other parents: college is expensive. European colleges aren't much better. But they aren't much worse, either.

Here's the kicker. Just last week, Maddy learned via email that she seems to have been awarded a full ride to the International University Bremen, Germany.

She's not the first Douglas County High School student to pull this off. About a month earlier, another International Baccalaureate student, and one of Maddy's many bright and accomplished friends, got the same 3 year scholarship to the same school. (It's a 3 year program.)

This friend, Lauren Greyson, reminds me of Maddy quite a lot. Both are not only frighteningly smart and focused, they are cute, charming, and very funny.

They will have a wonderful time in Europe, however programs, scholarships and parental separation anxieties finally play themselves out.

I would like to say that the well-deserved, thoroughly earned achievements of these remarkable young women had something to do with the library. About the best I can come up with is that Maddy told me about her scholarship in one of our study rooms, in the company of several of her cohorts.

No, maybe I can do better than that.

All of Maddy's life, she has been showered in the fountain of human knowledge. The library has always been there, a resource, a sanctuary, and a stimulus to further exploration.

One day, I have no doubt, she will have her own unique contributions to that vast memory that is the birthright of our species.

Maddy, you have once again overwhelmed your father with pride. Well done!

Thursday, March 9, 2006

March 9, 2006 - tech change

At the beginning of my career, the buzz was all about "automation."

Most libraries in the late 70's and early 80's used one of two methods to handle the checkouts. Most common was a paper-based checkout card system. You slid the library card, with its metal plate, into a device, then inserted the book cards, one by one, to be ka-chunked and stamped with a due date. That night, all of the cards had to be manually filed -- by author for fiction, and by Dewey Decimal number for non-fiction.

When books were returned, assuming they still had their date cards with them, you searched the appropriate day for the match.

If something wasn't returned, you looked up the card number in another file, typed up a letter with the book information, and mailed it out. If somebody asked for a book they found in the paper card catalog, you walked over to the shelf to see if it was there.

A second checkout method was photographic. You positioned the item and the library card and stepped on a button to snap a picture. These rolls of film were sent out to be developed. Checkin was an even more laborious and uncertain process. The photographic method, while more technically advanced, worked poorly. A lot of libraries never did adopt it. I happened to work (as a clerk) at one that did.

So when the automated circulation system came along, it looked like a real improvement. No more manual filing. No more typing of overdue notices. You could just look on a computer screen to find out if the item was available.

By then, I had my library degree, and was part of the cadre of new professionals focused on modernizing and making the switch to computer-based systems.

But here's the thing. Forgotten now is that there was tremendous staff resistance to these changes. A lot of the communication of the circulation department happened as people were putting the cards in order for the day. Now there was nothing to file.

Many library workers were afraid: does the library even need me anymore? Am I going to lose my job? So they fought the new system, inventing reasons not to use it, cooking up dire scenarios of doom that somehow never came to pass.

Then the automated systems started to add a lot more information -- moving the card catalog into electronic format. And the catalogers were up in arms.

But it was clear, right from in the beginning, that the automated systems worked. They saved money, and freed up staff time. Library automation became a wave across America.

What happened to the jobs? Well, some jobs did disappear. I'm not aware of anyone who got fired because of automation, but libraries stopped hiring filers.

We still needed people at the circulation desk, because at about the same time, libraries started to get much busier. The automated systems helped us keep up.

But then an interesting thing happened. We created new jobs. They weren't about filing. They were about more subtle and sophisticated tasks. Database managers. Telecommunications.

These new jobs were not only more interesting, they also paid better.

Bottom line: libraries got more work done with about the same number of people, who starting making a little more money.

What's the point to this history lesson? We're seeing another wave of technological innovation at the library. It's called "self-check." As of last week, most of our libraries now have computer stations that walk you very quickly and easily through the task of checking out your own materials. (And we'll still have staff around watching for folks who need or want help.)

Why are we doing this? There are several reasons. Mainly, it's that after researching and testing these units, we've noticed that people move through the lines faster. The units don't need to have staff members tending them, which means that we have the potential to save money -- diverting resources from the checkout desk to out in the stacks, to more meaningful interactions with our patrons.

What happens to our people? Nobody is losing his or her job. But those jobs, almost certainly, will change. Pulling people away from the more mechanical tasks frees them up for things that will be a lot more interesting. It will also let us reward people for the new skills we teach them, because we won't have to hire as many new people to keep up with the volume.

Meanwhile, we hope your transition, and ours, will go smoothly.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

March 2, 2006 - Aging Brains Need Exercise

I've been reading up on the relatively new scientific discipline of brain development.

Much of the focus has been on early childhood development. If you have small children, you've probably heard about the importance of mental stimulation.

The library can and, for many families, does play a big role in precisely this. In fact, we're reworking our storytimes to take better advantage of the research to make sure that when children reach school age, they are truly ready to read.

But this week, I'd like to talk about something else: what happens to the brain as it ages?

Here's the good news. The old stories about losing brain cells aren't true. Brain cells continue to generate. More important, the brain continues to make new neural connections -- trunks and branches of nerve cells and pathways that grow always more complex.

But recent research suggests something intriguing. The side of the brain that is used to explore the world, to find new things, does slow down.

The other side of the brain, though, begins to really pick up. Instead of being optimized to acquire information, now the brain starts focusing on something different: the recognition of patterns. So while it may take a little more effort to lay down new neural tracks, it's much, much easier to make sense of the world, extrapolating from previous information.

This pattern recognition goes by many names. Experience. Knowledge. Wisdom, even.

Research also shows something else. As the brain ages, it doesn't have to deteriorate. Or rather, these four activities can keep the mind sharp, even, in some cases, compensating for many symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease.

* Exercise the body. Walking has been shown to have remarkable long term benefits on the health of the brain.

* Exercise the brain. Read! One surprising finding is that the brains of well-educated people tend to do better than those of folks who have done mostly manual labor. Why? Because an education inclines people to continue to seek mental stimulation. Reading leads to thinking, thinking leads to understanding, and the activity of understanding leads to a longer and healthier life.

Incidentally, some kinds of puzzles are proven brain builders. Crossword puzzles, chess puzzles, jigsaw puzzles are all excellent. Just last weekend, I seem to have gotten myself addicted to sudoku, the 81-square logic puzzle involving numbers 1-9.

Another powerful mind-building activity is music. Get back to an old instrument, or take up a new one. I just signed up for 5 string banjo lessons from Denver's Swallow Hill, and am enjoying it immensely. I'm also finding that library books and videos are almost as good. (Note to older students: our parents were right. Practice makes a difference.)

Here's one that seems to encourage a really astonishing amount of brain development, even late in life: learn a new language. Chinese, anyone?

* Have an active social life. This is one of the key predictors of a long life. The brain is wired for interaction. Other people are so funny and fascinating, so unpredictable and unchanging, so perplexing and paradoxical, that they keep you involved, keep you guessing, keep you alert. Join a Rotary club, a church, a bridge club, run for office, become a volunteer. Talk to people.

* Eat right. Spend more time at the salad bar, and less time at the potato bar.

The bottom line: the almost 80 million Baby Boomers are about to join the ranks of our existing seniors. They, we, can either be a significant drain on society, or productive, contributing, and interesting citizens.

So don't wait to get that brain in shape. Your membership in the mental health club of the library is already paid up. Come on down!