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, May 25, 2006

May 25, 2006 - Librarians Compete with Google

Every so often, someone asks me if libraries are really necessary now that we have Google.

We brought it on ourselves, I think.

There were a lot of librarians, pre-Google, who tried to define our profession solely on the idea of "information." Ask a librarian, and we'll look it up for you!

Then the Internet came along, then Google emerged as the top search engine. And the people who just would never take the time to phone a librarian, or stand in line at a desk to ask something, found Google marvelously convenient.

So if looking up answers was what librarians do, then Google seemed better: up 24/7, blindingly fast, and so dead simple anybody could use it. You always got something!

There are two responses, though. First, "looking up questions" isn't the only thing librarians do.

There are a variety of services that are just as important: inculcating a love of reading in the young, allowing the public to sample the many offerings of both popular culture and more enduring works, providing common and neutral ground for the public to meet and talk with itself, helping the community solve a host of other issues. And more.

The second response is that even in "looking up questions," we're not down for the count.

People still DO talk to our reference librarians. In fact, the demand for reference services is rising far faster than our population growth -- by double digits every year.

Our conversations with the public often start with them saying, "There's nothing on the Internet, can you help me find something?" They mean that they did a Google search and couldn't find anything relevant.

A recent worldwide survey of some 5,000 online users revealed that most searchers have great confidence in their searching abilities. But we don't know if that confidence is justified.

For one thing, librarians really are good searchers. We can find things on Google that you can't.

And Google isn't the only game in town. Google indexes the public Internet. That encompasses many billions of pages. But the depth of those resources is often shallow.

It happens that we spend almost a quarter of a million dollars on other online resources. For just a hint of this shared treasure, go to our website (www.DouglasCountyLibraries.org) and click on Research Tools, then Research Resources. There it is: a public reference library, most of it searchable from home around the clock, and packed with high quality information.

We also have actual people (through various shared staffing arrangements) providing online reference help 24/7.

But here's the other way librarians have misrepresented ourselves.

Google's strength is its interface.

To date, librarians have gathered some wonderful sources, but until recently, you had to search them one by one -- a hassle that depends on a lot of familiarity with the tools. In short, it meant that you almost HAD to ask a librarian.

For a look at our latest effort (and still under development), head back to that library home page. On the upper right corner, pull down the "Select-A-Search" box. You can choose, Magazine Search, Just for Students, Business Search, Health Search, or Library website.

Most of these searches don't just search one of our commercial databases; they search sets of them.

Like Google, it's one stop shopping: one search box. But you'll pull up things Google doesn't have: authoritative commercial information, pre-paid by your library.

Give it a try.

Libraries were here before Google. We'll be here after. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from our competitors -- and even go them one better.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

May 18, 2006 - Literacy is a Life

Some people think the word "literacy" means the attainment of a specific reading level.

They may have heard that literacy is where an elementary student should be at the end of fourth grade. (Fourth grade does indeed appear to be that crucial year when somebody "gets" print, or needs a little extra assistance at just that moment.)

Or they think it means someone can follow newspaper headlines and get the gist of a story. Or maybe they think literacy is what helps someone decipher the instructions on a prescription.

And of course, those things do involve literacy -- of the most basic kind. But it's like defining "art" as "can sharpen crayons."

These things are the beginning of literacy, not the end. Literacy is not a state, a minimum skill, like learning to zip a zipper or even ride a bicycle.

Instead, literacy is an activity. It means many things.

* to actively engage in the world of print, media, and conversation. Some people read the newspaper. But others also read the reviews: not just for books, but for movies and music, too. They track what's going on in many different formats. They attend concerts and plays. They enjoy arguing about it with their friends.

* to use a variety of information sources skillfully and in a sophisticated manner. Let's take just one example. Lots of folks use Google. Some folks use it well -- and understand that Google doesn't even know about at least 75% of Internet resources. Such people are deft at using both the public Internet, and the many treasures available through subscription sources, like those of the public library.

* to apply that information to one's life for personal growth or understanding. Literacy isn't just about passively absorbing information. It's about picking and choosing things that will add real value to your life.

* to think critically about statements, artistic accomplishments, and society.

This idea of "critical thinking" comes up a lot in the field of education. In my more cynical moments, I wish I thought somebody in our society had a clue what this might mean.

As I have lamented in this space before, just spouting the party line -- ANY party line -- in response to some topic isn't really much of a contribution. Critical thinking means an openness to new information, even if it doesn't fit your preconceptions.

But it doesn't stop there.

Critical thinking is about combining all those things mentioned above to assemble a framework of facts, to probe that information for real insight and knowledge, and to test the conclusions in your own life.

To my mind, the exercise of literacy moves you from being a passive consumer to being an active producer. What's the product? Ideas! Or more print, more music, more theater, more art.

If all the world is a stage, we need more than an audience. We need players. Or to switch metaphors, literacy is a series of experiments and explorations. And the public library is the laboratory.

Literacy is more than a life skill. It's a life.

Monday, May 8, 2006

May 11, 2006 - wild parrots, right livelihood

Recently, my wife brought home a fascinating film from the library called "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

It told the story of a man, Mark Bittner, who had once tried to start a life as a musician. That hadn't worked out. He wound up in San Francisco, where he spent a lot of time studying various Eastern philosophies, and reading poetry, particularly the works of Gary Snyder.

On the basis of that study, he decided that he needed to make a stronger connection to nature. At that moment, he was not quite squatting in a small rental house on Telegraph Hill.

Just below him was a flock of wild parrots, known variously as the cherry-headed conure, the red masked conure, the red-masked parakeet, and the red-headed conure. The birds are not native to the area. Nobody is quite sure how they got there.

Over the next six years, Bittner earned the birds' trust, feeding them as often as five times a day. He began to make very detailed notes, based on his close observation of their habits and personalities. Now he even has a book, also called "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

I recommend them, mainly for their surprisingly spiritual awareness of the natural life going on all around us, and to which most of us are oblivious.

But the thing that sticks with me was one of the comments Bittner made about why he had time -- a lot of time -- to be devoted to this peculiar connection to wild parrots.

Bittner said that he had not yet found what the Buddhists call "right livelihood."

Bittner was in fact living a pretty marginal life back then, a life utterly unconnected to the workaday world.

That seems to have changed for him. His amateur naturalist status, the success of the film, the success of his book, have kept him on the lecture circuit for a number of years now.

Bittner seems now to have found a way to turn his natural interests, his loves, into a way to "earn a living."

The Buddhist idea of right livelihood isn't just about WHAT you do. It's about how.

The "right" job might be almost anything, at any level of society. But "wrong" livelihood is characterized by scheming, a lustfulness to win at the expense of others, a grasping for illusory power.

I've known a lot of people who never felt like they had found the right work. Or maybe, they never figured out how to make the kind of work they had INTO the right livelihood. There are so many false measures of success, and some are seductive.

I got lucky. I found an institution whose values, whose purpose, made sense to me, and that I was proud to serve. Moreover, I've learned a lot from it. But everyone doesn't get lucky.

The message of Bittner and the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill is this: you start where you are. You use YOUR talents, YOUR insights, to do the things that make sense to you.

And then, just maybe, your life takes flight.

Monday, May 1, 2006

May 1, 2006 - Libraries Will Close to Convert

The public sector is not the same as the private. In business, if you move more products, you get more money. In libraries, it doesn't work like that.

We recently took a look at the last five years of one of our main activities: checking out library materials (books, DVDs, CDs, VHS and audiotapes, magazines, etc.). And in the past five years, our business has grown by 124%.

But our money doesn't come from that activity. The revenue of the Douglas County Libraries comes mainly from property taxes. The good news is, the county has grown. But our business has grown way faster than our revenues.

I've written recently about a deep retooling of your public library. To try to keep up with our demand, we've been exploring ways to shift some of the more mechanical work over to computers. So we've rolled out self-checkout stations at our libraries.

Here's the good news: within our first week, most of our libraries reported that 85-90% of our checkouts were going through the new system. Our people were, and are, still around to assist, but for the vast majority of our transactions, no assistance was necessary.

That would seem to have freed up a lot of labor, right? But it didn't, really. Because we were still looking at a 20-30% increase in business -- and we still had to check everything back in. And in some of our libraries, we're just about out of space.

So that pushed us to the next step. To use our technology to handle both sides of the checkout process, we needed to replace our old barcodes with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. We opened our Roxborough Library using this technology, and it works.

So since January, we've been adding these tags to every item we own.

We ran into problems. It is NOT a time-saving process to run two systems side by side, not knowing in advance whether an item may have had the RFID tag attached.

Remember, items are coming in and going out all the time. This is much like trying to change a flat tire on a bicycle -- while you're riding it.

So we started to run into backlogs. In a time of rapid business growth, you do not need backlogs.

I thought about this for awhile, consulted my many advisors, and finally took a proposal to the Library Board of Trustees. In brief, I asked for permission to close the Parker Library for one week, from May 16-22. Then, from May 24-May 31, we would close the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock.

They have granted that permission.

Some services will continue. Of course, all of our other branches are still open, and you're encouraged to visit them. You can still call Parker and Philip S. Miller with reference or checkout questions. Even during the closings at these two libraries, you'll still be able to return items, pick up holds, and attend most the meetings you may have scheduled (check at your branch if you have questions). Meanwhile, we'll have teams of staff and volunteers moving through the stacks, just pounding away at the conversion process till we're done. (It's not too late to sign up to help!)

Our library faces two choices: stretch out the conversion to a new system through October, facing daily jam-ups of work, or focus on the conversion, get it done, and use the technology we've tested to help us keep up.

I apologize in advance for the inconvenience of these closures -- but I do believe it's less inconvenient than the alternative.

By the bye, as problems go, this is a good one. Douglas County patrons really use their libraries.

And even though we don't make money on these literally millions of checkouts, we do try to do what any thoughtful business would do: invest enough back into the operation to make sure we're running as efficiently as possible.