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, July 27, 2006

July 27, 2006 - Technology Isolates and Brings Us Together

I was talking with a friend last night about the social effects of technology. He was saying that people today, mainly because of technology, live incredibly accelerated lives. And we're overstimulated.

We rush from one place to another, never really having the time to focus, to pay attention. Along the way we have radios, CDs, DVD players -- and that's just in the car.

Not to mention cell phones. How often, he said, do you see people driving down the highway, one to an automobile, paying only partial attention to the road, jabbering away on a phone?

We are a society with attention deficit disorder, he said.

We were having this discussion in a coffeehouse, surely one of the positive signs of the time. Coffeehouses are places where people go just to hang out, to talk with each other face to face.

Of course, over in the corner was a teenager, plugged into an iPod, surfing on his little iBook. Alone.

My argument was that things aren't that simple.

On the one hand, technology isolates us. Think of all those people, boxed up all by themselves, on the daily commute.

In an earlier time, they might have ridden a bus, or a trolley, or a stagecoach, or a wagon. The very freedom of the automobile makes us little atoms, whizzing around space by ourselves, colliding only occasionally.

But the cell phone works against that. Maybe you're not talking to a real live person right there with you. But you're talking to somebody!

Or if not, you're listening to talk radio. You're in the middle of somebody else's conversation.

Or take that teenager. If we had peered over his shoulder, what would we have found?

He would have been participating in some kind of online community -- a multiplayer game, a chat room, a forum devoted to a favorite movie or a band. He would be listening to a podcast made by a couple of kids just like him, one living in a basement in Vancouver, the other in an apartment complex in Pittsburgh.

The technology isolated him from us. But he was using technology to get connected to people elsewhere. And the odds are, he had found people more likely to share his interests than anyone he could have found in the coffeehouse.

I wish we had better library statistics on this phenomenon. We know that our public computers are in great demand, in every one of our branches. There is a host of resources we have developed for people: the marvelous asset of our catalog, the depth of our website, the wealth of in-depth information of our subscription databases.

But I suspect that the biggest use of the computers is just to talk to people. Our patrons send and receive email. They hang out with their buddies online -- and their buddies are all over the world.

Certainly, there's irony. They come to a public place, then ignore all the people around them, to talk to people somewhere else.

But you know, that's always been true in libraries. When you open the longstanding technology of a book, and immerse yourself in it, you're sitting in a roomful of people that suddenly cease to exist.

You enter a world of imagination, not quite physical, but still real. It's kind of like cyberspace.

I believe that people everywhere, of any age or time, seek the same thing. They are trying to find meaning, to make sense of their lives. They want to have real contact with others who share a vision of the world.

Sometimes, that contact is physical. We still have a need for that.

But other times, we reach out even in the middle of our incredibly overscheduled lives for just a touch of that human contact, even if the touch, strictly speaking, is only in our minds.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

July 20, 2006 - Listen to the Band

One of the things I do for fun is to serve as Master of Ceremonies for the Castle Rock Band. The band, under Bandmaster Kent Brandebery, was formed in 1999, and plays concerts at the Castle Rock Community Bandstand, the Douglas County Fair, and other occasional locations.

Mainly, my job is to let these fine musicians catch their breath. To pass the time, I talk about the history of the next piece -- that research usually provided by the Bandmaster. Along the way, I've had the chance to learn a little bit about the American band movement.

It really started after the American Civil War in 1865. A lot of musicians returned home, and were recruited again to keep playing for various civic functions. Typically, they paid a small fee to the local band director. He (I've haven't heard of any women yet) then provided leadership, and helped train other community folks to play instruments.

Often, bands were adopted by various local organizations, who raised money for instruments and uniforms. You knew that a town was serious when at last it built its own bandstand, right in the town square.

And that's about how it went in Castle Rock. The first band was organized back in 1886. It had nine men, playing Cornets, Alto and Tenor Horns, and two Drums.

The local newspaper of the time -- the Record Journal -- seemed to enjoy writing about them. But they weren't always kind. After announcing the band's formation, and that they'd ordered their instruments, the Record Journal gave an update on Oct. 13 1886.

"[T]he band boys are happy, they have received their horns and are making progress under the able instruction of Prof. Bryant. The boys gave their first open-air blow out on Saturday night, and they say that [if] God will forgive them for the breach of the peace and quiet of the town this time they will not repeat their performance soon. May their request be granted."

But they got better. By July 6, 1892, after a ball game between Sedalia and Castle Rock (hundreds of Castle Rock folks went over by train), "...the Castle Rock Cornet Band played a few pieces which called the people together and speakers were introduced and entertained the people for a short time."

On Oct. 1, 1909, the Record Journal reported about the county fair, "The band boys had plenty of music and gave the people the best they had. They were not afraid they would more than earn their money either. No former Douglas County Fair ever was furnished with anything like as good music." I think that's praise.

And sure enough, by the early 1900's, Castle Rock build a band stand on Court House Square.

Then things got interesting. The bandstand appears in historic photographs up to around the late 1920's. Then, abruptly it was gone. Following W.W. I no newspaper stories regarding the band are to be found.

Mr. Brandebery, a local historian of some note, went looking for it, and did turn it up. It is now a toolshed in an alley off Gilbert Street in Castle Rock. The legs were sawn off -- but the dimensions were still recognizable.

And in fact, those same dimensions were used to recreate the bandstand on the northwest corner of the new Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. And various local groups, including the library, helped raise the funds to resurrect it (and it's a lot sturdier than the first one).

Maybe you'd like to hear an old-time band playing classics from a hundred years ago. I recommend it: it's fun for the whole family.

Here are the dates and times for the rest of the year. We hope to see you!

July 29 - Evening concert, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (Castle Rock Community Bandstand)

August 12 - Fair Concert, Saturday, 9 a.m. (Castle Rock Community Bandstand)

September 17 - Fall Concert, Sunday, 1:30 p.m. (Castle Rock Community Bandstand)

November 18 - Star Lighting Program, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. In front of the Douglas County Administrative Building, Castle Rock.

December 11 - Holidays Concert, Monday, 7:30 p.m., Faith Lutheran Church.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

July 13, 2006 - Thank You, Melvil

There seem to be two things that everybody knows about public libraries.

First, we collect fines. The collective guilt of America about overdues is staggering.

People, please! For most things, we charge the same rate we did 20 years ago: a nickel a day. It always caps out way, way less than the cost of the item. We just want you to bring things back so other people can use them. Relax!

The second thing people know is the phrase, "the Dewey Decimal System."

But nobody remembers why Melvil Dewey invented it. The short answer is: we really needed it.

Before what librarians call Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) came along, libraries were a mess. The typical system worked like this:

* we got a new book.
* we assigned it an "acquisition" number. Typically, this was nothing more than the cumulating count of our purchases and gifts. So the first book to arrive in a day might be number 700,212. The next one would be 700,213, and so on.
* we indicated a location for the item -- "the green room." Or it might be a specific shelf location -- third shelf from the top, stack number 122.

Sometimes, people also tried to add some kind of subject description. All of the geography books would be by the map cases, and it would say so in the librarian's acquisition list. (There weren't a lot of public catalogs.)

Do you see the problem? As we kept adding books, the locations started to change. One day, that third shelf was full. One day, we had too many geography books to keep in the green room, or by the map cases. So everything got shuffled around.

And nobody went back to the big acquisition book or filing cabinet to cross off the old location and write in a new one.

Dewey's contribution was a significant improvement, and had several dimensions.

Just for starters, he came up with a classification system that attempted to describe the whole universe of possible subjects.

These subjects, or classes of knowledge, were assigned to various numbers. For instance,100-199 contained all works on philosophy and psychology. Within that range were finer divisions (tens and single digits), eventually sifting into still finer subdivisions, identified by decimal numbers (.5, .073, etc).

The DDC had its biases. In the 200s, for instance, Dewey gave lots of numbers to Western religion, and very, very few to Eastern religions.

But it was sturdy. The classification system was both infinitely expandable within the hierarchy, and internally consistent.

And it kept like materials together, greatly easing research, and greatly rewarding the casual browser.

It also had the important value of being relative.

That is, it didn't describe a particular location of an item. It provided a relative location. 153 was after 152, rather than being in a particular room. If something got moved, librarians just had to change a sign -- "the collection continues at ..."

Dewey was also a tireless promoter of the system. He wasn't the first to organize collections by subject. But until him, everybody organized those collections differently. So every library you went to required you to learn a new system. Dewey established a standard.

He also popularized the idea of the public card catalog -- setting up systems where items could be searched by anybody, not just librarians.

And he was serious about those standards; he even described the correct dimensions of the catalog or "index" card. Hence the perfect uniformity of card catalog cabinets.

Developed in 1876, the DDC has been modified 22 times. Today it is used by over 95% of the more than 15,000 public libraries in the United States. It has also been widely adopted in the rest of the world, even though many card catalogs have given way to computers.

It just goes to show you. Libraries work hard to publicize the many fascinating facets of our institution: our many formats of materials, our programs, our online offerings.

What people remember is fines and the Dewey Decimal System.

Now you know why we need them.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

July 6, 2006 - The War of Independence Still Being Fought

Since this column comes out so close to Independence Day, let me recommend a book. It's called "The Founding Brothers: A Revolutionary Generation," by Joseph Ellis. It's available from our libraries in several formats: book, large type, CD, Cassette, and now, even on VHS and DVD.

It's a shame they don't teach history this way. Instead, we get elementary school fiction, in which the Founding Fathers did boring things, building to the inevitable climax of our own perfect government.

The truth was, the American Revolution was a time of almost unimaginable tumult. There were religious conflicts, duels of honor, agitation over slavery, and an emerging struggle between agrarian society and pre-industrial. There was over half a continent to be explored -- and many Indian tribes with their own views on the matter.

The Founding Fathers -- or the revolutionary brothers, as Ellis has it -- did not meet in measured calm, and quietly agree on the rules for a new government. They fought, not always fairly. They argued publicly and passionately, about both personal and political matters.

And when they were done, they had established a nation unlike any before it. It was a nation founded on compromise and mutual distrust; now we call it "checks and balances," and we ignore those systems at our peril.

It was a nation founded in the midst of deep and bitter issues it could not then fully resolve -- witness the enshrinement of slavery in our Constitution. But without that compromise, there would have been no nation.

Beneath it all was something truly magnificent: an idea that had at least some of its roots in the Iroquois Confederacy. Our first official formulation was Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence: that we all have certain "inalienable rights." He was saying that in America, all were equal under the law.

It was a lie, of course. Even after the Constitution was adopted, there was slavery. Property-holding men could vote. No woman could.

But it was a good lie.

That root idea was so powerful, and grew so deep into the minds of the emerging nation, that it continued to work, trying to untangle the contradictions at the core of the Constitution. Four score and twenty years after the Declaration, was Gettysburg. Later, there was another battle for women's suffrage.

The deep history of the United States is all about that idea of personal equality. And it has always been in conflict with our actual social practices.

Not for us was the class-bound system of England, with its hereditary titles and lands. Not for us was the control of the state by priests. In our country, in this brave new nation, all were to be equal under the law.

Of course, these days, we do have a very distinct class system, now based on wealth, passed not by title but by trust fund. Yesteryear's priests are today's televangelists. And it's just possible that these threats are as much a danger to personal freedom as they were over 230 years ago.

Even our Bill of Rights faces many current challenges: there are people held without charges, records searched without permission or legal review. We still debate whether equal rights includes homosexuals, or workers we eagerly employ, but who had the misfortune to be born elsewhere.

But we haven't given up.

The real meaning of the United States of America is not our flag. It's not even our money. It is that stubborn belief in each individual's right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Revolution continues.