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, June 29, 2006

June 29, 2006 - successful libraries offer mix of services

There's a common misconception about libraries.

In brief, a lot of politicians seem to think that technology competes against libraries -- and that libraries are losing.

This is something former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called the "Displacive Fallacy." It's the idea that new technologies drive out old.

But the truth is, they often coexist quite comfortably. TV didn't kill radio. DVDs didn't kill movies. Both radio and movies make far more money than they ever did.

The Internet didn't kill books. And public libraries are doing quite well, thank you.

A friend of mine, Dr. Keith Curry Lance, is the director of the Library Research Service, based right here in Colorado. He's a professional number-cruncher, a guy who tries to use data to get at the truth of things in library land.

The Library Research Service (www.lrs.org) regularly produces something it calls Fast Facts: quick surveys or statistical analyses on hot topics. In this case, the topic was "what's the relationship between number of public Internet terminals in the library, and other use statistics?"

To put it another way, when you add public Internet stations, how does this affect such traditional measurements of library activity as visits (tabulated by gate counts), circulation (number of items actually checked out), and questions asked of our reference librarians?

Talk to politicians in some cities, and they'll say visits may go up -- because people are coming in to use those Internet stations -- but people won't be checking things out, and they sure won't be asking reference questions. They'll be looking up things for themselves.

Well, that's wrong.

Lance went back to the last year for which there was complete national data (2003) and compared those four statistics: number of public computers, visits, circulation, and reference questions.

The story is pretty clear: the more computers, the more activity of all kinds.

Lance concludes that the strongest connection is indeed between computers and visits. But statistically speaking, all of them are at least moderately correlated.

The presence of computers certainly did not reduce the number of checkouts or reference questions. Or as Lance writes, "Traditional and Internet-based library services are not an either-or proposition."

The report is careful to point out that adding computers is not a direct cause of other increased use. It may well be that libraries doing things right in the area of choosing materials for checkout, and hiring competent reference librarians, are also doing the right thing when they add public computers.

Public libraries have stepped into the role of "closing the digital divide" -- providing public access to the Internet, even in the poorest communities. That's a good thing.

But it's clear that it's not the only thing that's good, or the only thing that people want. Today's public libraries are successful precisely when they strike a balance, offering a mix of services.

Public libraries must offer public access not only to the cutting edge technologies of tomorrow, but also to the organized evidence of the past, and the vital community energy of the present.

And mostly, they do.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

June 15, 2006 - Divisiveness Can Start Young

by Demetria Heath

[Ms. Heath is a library patron who recently challenged a children's book, "Princess Buttercup."]

I appreciate Douglas County Libraries’ Director James LaRue for offering me this forum and I will provide a list of the reference material used in this writing to anyone requesting it. I ask that you read Princess Buttercup before making the request.

A researcher studying race relations in Chicago records the following quote from a five-year old girl. I have removed the name of the ethnic group that she refers to.
“I don’t like [them]. [They] are dirty. [They] talk so funny. [They] don’t talk like us. [Their] talk doesn’t sound like ours.”

Many adults believe that our precious children do not discriminate against others. However, children as young as toddlers can perceive physical differences between themselves and others. By the time they enter the first year of primary school they are forging a place in their culture and behaving accordingly. The quoted young girl from Chicago was speaking of Italians during the early 20th century.

Almost a century later, children of the same developmental age gather and apply information about others and their world. Their libraries provide resources for book clubs, research, and storytelling. Douglas County Libraries offer a book entitled "Princess Buttercup." It is a whimsical story about fairy creatures. Yet, in its pages, it also suggests to the impressionable reader, "The people who look like this [of African descent] are lazy non-contributors."

It is concerning that a thirty-two page book could plant the seed for divisiveness in the mind of a young child. While preparing for the Board of Trustees meeting I researched cultural awareness and racism during early childhood and what I discovered was startling.

When children are singled out and excluded from activities with their peers based on their physical appearance, it can lead to aggressive behaviors such as bullying, rivalry, and resentment. It introduces children to "us" and "them" discrimination. As they grow into adolescence and adulthood, they arbitrarily discriminate against groups and individuals who are not like "us." The seed for divisiveness has grown. In one of its vicious forms, an adult shouts “N[racial slur] -lover” at the mother of a biracial child at a gas station. This happened recently in Colorado.

Additionally, I researched picture book authoring and publishing. From this I learned that developing picture books for young readers is not easy. The chances of being published are very low and, once published, the book competes with environmental distractions while entertaining the young reader. This must be accomplished within 32 pages using less than 800 words, the standard format for picture books. Phrases and illustrations are carefully created to meet these guidelines.

In the interest of fairness, James LaRue, Douglas County Libraries Director, contacted the author and publisher, and informed them of the issues surrounding Princess Buttercup. To date, the author has not replied and the publisher merely acknowledged receipt of Mr. LaRue’s letter. Either they are aware that the book contains a racial stereotype and don’t care; or they are unaware of the racial stereotype and are not concerned.

Since the author and publisher express such indifference to their audience, I ask community members to read the entire book. Not to young children but for themselves. There is no need to check it out of the library as it can be read in less than five minutes. It offers one example of covert racism which can be applied to other media that we are exposed to.

Not long after the Princess Buttercup debate entered our home, my spouse, a European who is rational about all things -- except soccer -- viewed a beer commercial, then turned to me and asked, "why is it that the only [person of color] in the advert [isement] expresses indifference?" It was a valid observation.

Who knew such a large issue could take the form of a fairy?

Thursday, June 8, 2006

June 8, 2006 - Culture Sends Conflicting Messages to Children

Not long ago, one of our patrons registered a complaint about a children's picture book called "Princess Buttercup."

The book was about a party being planned by a group of fairies -- diminutive beings, all female. Princess Buttercup set out to gather honey for the party, then got distracted, then got lost. Eventually, she flagged down a butterfly, and found her way back.

That's pretty much the whole story: a slice of the whimsical social life of mythical creatures.

But on one page appeared three lines about another fairy, Princess Iris. Iris was lazy. She didn't like to work. She liked to play ball. There was an illustration of Iris throwing a tiny blue ball into a spider web.

Oh, and one other thing. Alone among the fairies, Iris had brown skin and black, curly hair. Iris was a fairy of color.

The patron complaint was that this illustration, taken with the comments, promoted a dangerous and negative stereotype. It linked "laziness" with "black" with "basketball." No other fairy was so singled out for criticism -- other than Buttercup herself, who, perhaps, who had some problems with her attention span.

The patron, who in addition to being thoughtful and articulate, is also a person of color, asked that we remove the book.

I responded to her written "request for reconsideration" (a form created by the library), also in writing. The library has a comprehensive policy manual, detailing what we buy and why. On the basis of those policies, I believed we should keep the book. The patron then appealed that decision to the Library Board of Trustees.

While I suspect most librarians would strongly support materials that eschew bigotry and racism (and indeed, we have many in our collection), there are a few key facts the public should understand:

* the library isn't pushing any agenda. That isn't our job. Our job is to gather the intellectual content of our culture: books, magazines, music, movies, and such. Then we organize it, and put it out for the public.

* we buy what is published. And what is published, mostly from mainstream presses, presents a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. We don't direct our culture. We reflect it.

* a good deal of what appears in books is intended to be humorous -- but not everyone will think it's funny.

Yet our patron is quite right that early influences are often more powerful than those we encounter later in life. Good parents do pay attention to the messages sent by our culture -- and often find that such messages contradict privately held values.

From a practical perspective, I believe the library cannot possibly purge its shelves of all those works that somebody will find offensive. Why? Because people are offended by almost everything -- and often, in opposite directions. That is, what one person finds sexist, another finds insufficiently supportive of traditional values.

If we are to remove materials at each complaint, then our shelves will be bare. Such a strategy enriches no one and impoverishes us all.

I do understand the desire, particularly strong among parents of children between the ages of 4 and 6, to want the world to be safe, and affirming, and kind.

But it isn't. Not always.

The power of literature is to help people -- especially the young -- come to grips with life. I'm not advocating a ruthless exposure of children to everything dark and difficult. But I do advocate the enormous value of parents reading to their children, and talking about what they read together.

I believe that knowledge, and shared understanding, is the best antidote to ignorance and bigotry -- both of which are far too common, whether the message of "Princess Buttercup" was intentional or not.

Our Board of Trustees, upon reviewing the matter, did vote to retain the title. But they also encouraged us to bring the matter before the rest of the community -- not to seek a vote on the retention of each title, but to promote a dialog within Douglas County.

Are we as alert as we should be to the often conflicting messages of our culture? How might we better talk to our children about such issues as negative racial stereotyping?

Next week, I'd like to hand this column over to the patron for her own perspective. I hope you'll give it careful consideration.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

June 1, 2006 - Douglas County Libraries are World Class

About a year ago, I let myself get talked into running for office.

This wasn't a political thing, not really. I ran to represent a regional library network to a much larger international body called "OCLC Membership Council."

OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) is a non-profit organization that sells various technical products and services to libraries around the world. Its flagship product is something called WorldCat -- a database of the cataloged items of all its members. We're talking billions of records.

I have now completed the first year of my 3 year term. Although the first two meetings were a little confusing (66 delegates? membership formula? the membership council versus the board of directors?) I think I've gotten most of it sorted out now.

It's been fascinating in several respects.

* International librarianship. I've heard presentations on libraries in South Africa, Singapore, mainland China, Germany, Malaysia, and others. I've had the chance to talk with these folks over coffee and dinner later.

* New products. OCLC uses our council as a focus group for new ideas. I've seen presentations on something called FRBR -- a formatting protocol through which big bodies of data are grouped to make them more understandable. I've seen utilities to automatically download and provide first pass cataloging from html, pdf, and doc files from the web. Data are getting smarter, and working harder.

* New research. OCLC does a lot of market research, which it shares widely with the profession. Recently, OCLC investigated perceptions of the library by online users. It has done other widely cited environmental scans.

* Partnership opportunities. In the trip just past, we learned a lot about museums. Libraries should be doing more with them.

* Travel. OCLC flies the delegates out to its headquarters. And where is that? Dublin!

That would be Dublin, Ohio, just northwest of Columbus. But I was born and raised in the midwest, and I find the trips very enjoyable, even nostalgic.

* The competition. School libraries are very poorly represented in our member council. I'm not sure I've figured out why. It's clear that west of the Mississippi in particular, school libraries are in a lot of trouble.

Even in Colorado, a recent study by the Library Research Center of the Colorado State Library shows that the average book in a school libraries is now 15 years old!

That means our school library books don't cover Bill Clinton's election to the presidency in 1992, the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, Nelson Mandela's inauguration as South Africa's first black president in 1994, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Columbine shooting, our invasion of Iraq, and more. It's a disgrace.

Most of the librarians on the council represent academic institutions. They tell me one of their big trends is the declining use of books and the increasing use of databases.

In public libraries, it's almost the opposite. For the more progressive libraries, books are flying out the door -- but nobody is using the databases. We're working on that issue locally, too.

But I did have the chance to compare notes with a handful of other public libraries, some of the leaders in the world. Douglas County Libraries stacks up pretty well.

We are seen as innovative. But as I pointed out to several people, that's not WHY we do what we do (our RFID conversion, our use of GIS data for long range planning, our hiring practices, etc.). Innovative is a means for us, not an end.

While change is certainly inevitable, I don't believe in change for its own sake. I believe in purposeful change, change that gets you closer to where you actually want to be.

But the good news is, our own local talent and thinking have made us one of the more forward thinking institutions on the globe. The rest of the world has a ways to go to catch up.