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, November 30, 2006

November 30, 2006 - elections had 2 positive results

I'm sure people are tired of hearing about the elections. But I have two things I'd like to share.

First, a lot of Colorado libraries went to the voters this November. And by and large, they did very well.

Successful library issues (usually, increases in funding to build or renovate libraries) were approved in:

* Adams County
* Basalt
* Berthoud
* Dolores
* Durango
* Fort Collins
* Garfield County
* Florence
* Hayden
* Montrose

Three of these were votes to form library districts (converting from a municipal or county library to an independent entity, much like the Douglas County Libraries): Adams County (which was actually formed a while ago, but only now got sufficient funding to operate), Fort Collins, and Garfield County.

That's not to say that all libraries won at the ballot box. Four issues went down, in Alamosa, Eagle Valley, Superior, and Pagosa Springs.

Still, I take the trend as encouraging. Libraries are smart investments in a community, and this is often even more strongly the case in small towns.

Here's another trend: over ten years ago, there weren't very many library districts out there. Now, about half of the 241 or so public libraries in the state are districts.

Why? Because for library districts, funding increases don't depend upon the whims of a small group of politicians. They depend upon broad community support.

That's probably true for most libraries. But it's unavoidable for districts: good service is essential to their survival.

And the record shows that the public understands that. They tend to reward library districts with greater funding than their municipal or county counterparts, because they can see how hard libraries work to provide that service.

My second observation about 2006 voting is this: even with some of the bobbles in Denver and Douglas County, I found myself tremendously heartened.

The last two national elections left a lot of people with a deep distrust of the process itself. Some believed Diebold voting machines to be utterly insecure from a software perspective. In many parts of the country, extreme partisanship worried others, particularly when some of those extremists (of either party) might be in local "control" of the election processes.

What troubled me, before this election, were the open expressions of that fundamental mistrust of the system. While there have always been shenanigans and errors in American elections, the elections themselves have been regarded, I think justifiably, as trustworthy nationwide.

Now, I believe, we have proof. Without any bloodshed, a lot of power changed hands overnight. If there really was some kind of big national conspiracy, that wouldn't have happened. The people in power would have stayed in power.

So quite aside from the spin you'll see by any of the political parties about the specific results of the last election, I think we owe a deep and genuine thanks to all the officials and volunteers who put those elections on.

Ultimately, and for all the verbal nastiness and even personal inconvenience of the 2006 elections, we have the good fortune to live in a nation where your political opinions or ambitions won't get you killed.

Instead, they actually count for something. And that's worth celebrating.

Friday, November 24, 2006

November 24, 2005 - Google

Just last week, the annual conference of the Colorado Association of Libraries brought over a thousand attendees to the Marriott Hotel at the Denver Tech Center.

I had the pleasure of participating in a "reactor panel" -- commenting on a keynote address by Pat Schroeder. Schroeder, former Colorado Congresswoman for some 24 years, is now the President of the Association of American Publishers.

Schroeder isn't too happy with librarians these days. How come?

Because Google has announced plans to scan and digitize the book collections of five big American libraries. And Google didn't talk to the publishers first.

Three of the libraries -- Stanford University, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan -- are digitizing everything they've got. Oxford University and the New York Public Library are also participating -- but are offering only those works already in the public domain.

What do libraries get? A free, digitized copy of every item. Ordinarily, that would cost millions.

What does Google get? In exchange for offering "snippets" from the scanned materials, available through typical Google searches, they'll make millions from the ads.

What do publishers get? Right now, nothing. Schroeder's stand is that Google has snookered everybody. In her view, the publishers made the content, and Google swiped it.

I disagreed with her: authors make the content. Publishers, at least in our current model, are the distributors of content, for which they take the bulk of the profits.

And just lately, it seems to me that publishers are getting a little greedy about copyrights. Publishers allow things to fall out of print, but then do not allow them to pass into the public domain.

Now they want a slice of the pie when somebody figures out a way to make these works more broadly available to the public. At the same time, publishing conglomerates are trying to extend the range of copyrights long past the death of the author.

How did libraries get in the middle of this? Well, library catalogs have been enriching their content for years. Once we just offered basic descriptions of a title, first on paper, then computer screen.

Now we show an image of the book jacket, include reviews and plot summaries, display sample chapters, and sometimes even offer detailed indexes.

Now, some of us offer the whole book online.

But I still haven't met any one who has actually read a whole book this way.

Neither Google, nor our catalogs, will lead to wholesale theft. Instead, they push people TO the book. We promote it, even when the publisher has utterly forgotten it.

There's another reason libraries are interested in this project. Sometimes, we are hit by disasters. There was the 1997 flood in Fort Collins that washed away whole floors of the CSU library. Katrina swamped many libraries in New Orleans.

Until digitization, there was no practical way for libraries to make a backup copy of one of their most important assets. Now there is.

Yes, Google will make a lot of money from brokering this access. Yes, publishers will have to scramble to find a new business model.

And yes, Google is also competing with some traditional library services. We have to look to our own business plans.

In part, that means that we need to ensure that not ONLY Google provides access to full text. We need other tools that do not assess fees, or subject the public to an endless stream of advertising.

It is fair and good that both author and distributor should receive compensation for their labor. But not in perpetuity.

Ultimately, these works make up the heritage of the whole human race. They need to be findable.

And they want to be free.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

November 23, 2006 - Turkey Bowl, with Potatoes

I'll lay my cards on the table. A man has to make choices in his life. He can't be knowledgeable about everything, even if he works at a library and reads a lot.

Weighing my choices, then, I made a radical life choice, and I've stuck with it.

I am a sports illiterate.

I mean it. I have never watched an entire baseball game or basketball game or football game on television in my entire life. I've been to a couple of live basketball games, but that was back in junior high school.

I play tennis, racquetball, and used to play handball. I was a diver in high school, and once took a second in the state competition. I still try to keep in some kind of shape (roughly, the shape of a potato).

But I mean no disrespect to anyone when I say sports just isn't my thing. Like car and home repair, sports is an area of carefully preserved ignorance in my life, and I'm fine with that.

That makes my recent invitation to serve as commentator to an upcoming sports event a little puzzling. I will be accompanied by David Truhler, who may be more knowledgeable about sports than I am. But not by much.

We'd much rather sit around and play guitar and banjo. Or work up some /a cappella/ version of Christmas songs for our soon-to-be-released CD, "Christmas a la Tuna." (David and I are the Tuna Boys, as surely the world is now aware.)

But we have been asked to officiate over Turkey Bowl X, November 26, 1 p.m., at the Douglas County High School stadium in Castle Rock. By "officiate," I mean "emcee and make remarks about the game."

The Turkey Bowl has an interesting history. It started in 1996. The local fire and police departments were going through a lot of changes. To build some team spirit, Bret Johnson and Ty Peterson decided to have a flag football game between the two departments.

For the first 4 years, the game was played at Centennial Park, with friends and family in attendance. After 9/11, the Turkey Bowl was a fundraiser for the Fallen Firefighter and Police Officers of New York City. It raised $3,000 for that worthy cause.

In 2002, the donations (over $4,000) were split between the Fallen Firefighters and Police Officers and the Womens Crisis Center, located here in Douglas County.

In 2003, the Women's Crisis Center got the proceeds ($3,000). In 2004, the Turkey Bowl raised over $5,000 for a local firefighter battling ALS.

Since 2001, the Turkey Bowl has raised over $15,000 for charities! In 2006, they're donating proceeds to Sungate (see www.sungatekids.org). They've also pulled in some noteworthy sponsors (MedVed, IREA, Town of Castle Rock, and various local businesses).

So if you're looking for intense civic engagement and clueless but (we hope) entertaining commentary, come on out to this unique event. Admission is $2 at the door, per person. You'll find concessions, commemorative T-shirts, and a half-time visit by an Airlife chopper. Finally, there's a post-game barbeque -- tickets available at the game. It's an ideal family event.

I'll close with a somewhat touchy point. In brief, the "Hose Jockeys" (firefighters) have "hosed" Magnum Force (police) for 9 years in a row. It was close in 2004 (14 to 12), but the rest of the years, it's been pretty lopsided in favor of the firefighters.

I'm going out on a limb here. This year, the firefighters are gonna be in trouble. This year, Magnum Force is taking no prisoners. I base this, of course, on my really impressive sports knowledge deficit, an ignorance so profound that for the first couple of years I was in Colorado, I thought the "Broncos" were some kind of rodeo team.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

November 16, 2006 - Dynamic Organizations Stay Supple

A young friend of mine recently moved to California. She's been sending back thoughtful and astute observations about the public library she works for out there.

Not surprisingly, that library is different from ours in ways both large and small. For instance, we are an independent library district -- the only kind of public library that is directly accountable, not to some other governmental entity with its own concerns (such as a county or city), but directly to the people it serves. My friend's library is within a city with lots of its own problems.

Yet, responding to her observations reminded me that organizations, like the people who make them, are more alike than not.

I've often said about the Douglas County Libraries that we follow a distinct rhythm: 2 years out, 2 years in. It's like breathing.

For 2 years, often around a building project, we have intense and probing discussions with the public. That's how we figure out what people want from us. Breathe out!

Then, for 2 years, we put our plans into practice. More often than not, they are successful, often wildly so. That ramps up our business.

And that's when we find out that the new level of activity requires us to change the way we do things. Breathe in!

Any dynamic organization -- make that "any organization," because an organization that isn't dynamic doesn't last very long -- finds that "changing the way we do things" falls into two broad strategies.

First, you centralize. This happens when you find that there's a lot of inconsistency in the system. There's duplication of effort, some major or minor squandering of resources through inefficiency and lack of standards.

Second, you decentralize. Too much focus on standards and predictability results in, well, too much predictability. To some, it looks like a loss of creativity, or stagnation. (Although predictability in getting the right things done is no vice.) It may indeed result in a lack of responsiveness, particularly when things are changing rapidly in the environment around the organization.

Which is best? Like so many other black or white choices, the answer is, "it depends." It depends on which set of problems your organization faces at the moment. It depends on the people in key spots, and what their own strengths are. It depends on what's happening in the context of your organization.

One of the strengths of our library has been our distinct local connections. That's largely a decentralized process -- our staff responding to a unique community.

But an honest assessment of our operations told us that there were a lot of ways we could give the public a better bang for its buck. We moved our book ordering into fewer hands, and managed to get a lot more efficient with our time -- and therefore get more materials faster.

We established some standards for graphics, taking our program promotions up a notch, and increasing the number of people who came to them. We've worked hard to coordinate a unified strategy for the use of phone and computer equipment.

This year, as we go into our final budget adoption, we're working hard to institute that mysterious quality called "alignment" -- where all the rowers in the boat are pulling in the same direction and at the same time. We're also using more centralized measures of accountability -- benchmarks that tell us what's working, and what isn't.

Breathe out; breathe in. Centralize; decentralize. Flexibility is a sign of life; rigidity is the distinguishing feature of death.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

November 11, 2006 - Checkouts Still a Basic Business

I was talking the other day with an economic development executive. A self-described Internet junkie, he wanted to know how the 'net was changing the profile of library use.

I told him a little bit about the study I reported on earlier this year: the more Internet stations we add, the more business we get everywhere else, too. But then I got curious about proportions. How do the uses of the public library compare to each other?

As of the end of October, we've already matched or beat our statistics for all of last year. In round terms, we have checked out over 4 million items. Our patrons have walked through our doors more than 1.2 million times.

We offer round the clock access to various electronic databases. To date, people have racked up over 400,000 searches.

Over 300,000 people have logged into our public Internet stations. We've answered over 230,000 reference questions.

We've had 168,856 volunteer hours donated to us. Imagine that each volunteer gives us just one hour. Given that we're open 69 hours a week, and have worked through some 44 weeks, that works out to about 55 volunteers every 7 days.

Finally, over 80,000 people have attended various library meetings.

So in terms of actual library use, here's what we know:

* Every person who walks through the door checks out about 3 and a half items.

* Every third person uses one of our subscription databases (either in the library, or from home).

* Every fourth person signs up for one of our Internet stations.

* Every fifth person asks a reference question.

* Every seventh person gives us an hour of their volunteer time.

* Every fifteenth person attends a library program.

Clearly, then, the greatest use of our public library is still as a place to borrow stuff. But there is quite a drop between what people check out, versus other measurable uses of our services.

Just because we can't measure it, of course, doesn't mean people are standing around with a confused look on their faces. (Although, sometimes, it might mean that, at which point our staff should make a graceful intervention.)

There's also the activity of "browsing," which is part of the process through which people get to those checkouts. It correlates to "shopping" -- people spend more time wandering around and handling the merchandise than they do actually paying for something.

Like shopping, hanging out at a library has another important dimension: social interaction. We are social creatures. We like to see others of our kind, and be seen by them. We like to listen to others, and have them listen to us.

Often -- although we don't have good numbers for this -- people are simply sitting and studying or reading. But quite as often, they're talking to each other. They may also attend meetings not sponsored by the library, but held there.

In all, I find these statistics reassuring. Despite the hype about computers replacing and displacing public places, it turns out that we still need those places for people to gather. And the traditional use of the public library -- a place to browse and borrow materials -- is still the big winner in terms of people's actions in the building.

2006 has been a year of many changes for the library. But it's important to remember that some things, basic to our business, are still our bedrock.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

November 2, 2006 - when Mother Nature is cruel

Mother Nature is mighty and unpredictable.

I've tried to set up a procedure to handle library closings or delayed openings. In general, we try to follow the school district. But sometimes what makes sense for them doesn't make sense for us.

As I'm writing this (the morning of October 27), Douglas County's weather is split along peculiar lines. In some areas, it's fine for travel. In others, people are socked in with snow. But the weather forecast says it's supposed to be in the 60s by noon. You gotta love Colorado.

The school district's delayed openings reflect local conditions. But what I decided to do is delay openings all around the library district until noon -- simplifying (I hope) the message to be distributed.

Once that decision is made, we begin the laborious process of contacting all our staff. At the same time, we gear up our PR machinery: that means that we call TV stations Channel 4 and 9, post the news on the front page our website (www.DouglasCountyLibraries.org), and put a message on our phones (for now, call your branch library number in the yellow pages; soon, we'll have one district-wide number).

If you ever have questions about a library opening, these are the places to check.

Closing our libraries is always a mixed thing -- a risk no matter which way I call it.

On the one hand, I grew up north of Chicago, where winter snowstorms were frequent and severe. Eventually, you adapt -- learn how to get around in icy and dicey situations.

But in Colorado, those conditions don't last long enough for people to learn the skills they need. So we get more accidents.

I've become a little more protective of the public and staff through the years, without trying to totally wuss out, and have a timid library shut down when everybody else is open.

I'm even starting to wonder about my own driving skills. Once upon a time, I was a truck driver back in the midwest, where I endured one of the roughest winters in some 50 years. I got through the whole thing without incident, even though I was putting in some 6-8 hours a day on the road.

Yesterday (and my worn tires are probably much to blame), I got stuck in my own cul de sac on the way home. Were it not for the friendly helpfulness of my wonderful neighbors, I never would have made it to my driveway.

Mr. Hopkins, one of those great neighbors, popped up with snowsuit, snow blower, SUV and tow line -- which I promptly attached to what I thought was the metal ring designed for that purpose on my Toyota, but to what turned out to be a vacuum hose.

Sigh. I'm sure I had a car once that had a tow bar in that exact spot. But I will be the first to admit that I am mechanically inept. Mr. Hopkins straightened out that problem, too.

Ultimately, extreme weather is yet another lesson in humility. Sometimes, things don't go the way we want them to. But with the cooperation of our neighbors, coworkers, and friends, somehow we get by.