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, January 25, 2007

January 25, 2007 - patrons win when libraries compete

Some of my best friends are library directors. I suppose that isn't surprising. By definition, they tend to share both my values and my interests.

Two of these friends are Douglas County neighbors. Eloise May is the director of the Arapahoe Library District. Bill Knott runs the Jefferson County Public Library.

Both have held their jobs for quite a while. Eloise has been director for over 20 years, Bill for over 30.

Both of their library systems are excellent, well above national averages in virtually every category.

I've learned a lot from them. What I especially like about my library director friends is our total candor about what did -- and did not -- work for us. Our purpose is the same: to provide the best possible service to our communities.

Arapahoe Library District is a close match to us in population (the library district's official service population is significantly less than the whole county, as the district excludes the cities of Aurora, Littleton, and Englewood, who all have their own libraries). Call it 250,000 people. So I've been comparing our numbers to theirs for some time.

In January of every year, I call Eloise to ask for her "circ" number (where "circ" stands for circulation, or total number of items checked out). Always before, Arapahoe was still ahead of us, although last year, not by much. I've been chasing them for 17 years.

Well, in 2006, we finally pulled ahead. They checked out about 4.5 million items. But we checked out 5.5 million.

We beat them by a million!

I was quietly gloating over this when Eloise mused that a 5.5 million circ had to be close to Jeffco's number. Immediately, I called Jeffco and demanded their stats.

And they told me that Jeffco checked out a little over 5,291,000 items in 2006. We beat them, too! And Jeffco has a population of roughly half a million -- about twice our size.

At the beginning of 2006, we were the fifth busiest public library in the state. At the beginning of 2007, we jumped to number three.

Who is ahead of us? Denver and Colorado Springs, in that order. But I don't think either of them is experiencing 21% growth in circ per year. We did.

Heh. They're next.

But it's reasonable to wonder: what explains our rapid rise in use from 2005?

I think there are two primary causes:

1. Merchandising. For the past two years, we've been working hard to use library space to better display our wares. We concentrate on displays and face-out shelving. As a consequence, we have to replace those displays almost hourly.

Where did we come up with the manpower for this effort? Answer: from the staff liberated from the circ desk by our RFID-based self-checkout machines. These same people help our patrons FIND those displays.

2. Supply chain. Also over the past couple of years, we've focused on centralizing purchases, building and monitoring branch profiles to closely match the demands of our patrons. Our materials get here faster than they used to, move through our system quicker, and show up on our shelves the same day they show up at bookstores. (Please note that libraries have to do way more to a book, CD, or movie than a bookstore does, including but not limited to cataloging and marking.)

Incidentally, all of this work -- from our front line staff who work directly with patrons and our stock, and our back room folks who select and MOVE those materials -- is handled by fewer people than we had last year.

Our demand is rising (21% from 2005 to 2006, as noted) -- and much faster than either our population or revenues (which climbed about 6% from 2005 to 2006). So, like any other business, we've had to find ways to streamline and improve our operations.

Of course, we'll share all of our hard-won knowledge with all the other libraries we know. So they'll be even tougher competitors.

But why not? No matter who pulls ahead in a friendly competition between libraries, there's only one winner.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

January 18, 2007 - libraries are workshops for the future

Not long ago, a provocative opinion piece by author John J. Miller appeared in the Wall Street Journal. In essence, he was alarmed when a nearby library removed a book by Hemingway because nobody was reading it.

Finally, he concluded that today's public libraries were "welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow the hot new potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at the local Wal-Mart."

It generated a lot of conversation among librarians.

But it's a little baffling. Miller's curious stance is that libraries, through the process of becoming more popular, are thereby "becoming outmoded." But what is he suggesting? That it is our mission ONLY to be guardians of the past, not (also) eager participants in the present?

Miller writes, "There was a time when virtually every library was a cultural repository holding priceless volumes." Oh yes, we all remember that long lost day when all libraries were well-funded, and bought only the "best."

But that's nonsense.

Yes, we're still cultural repositories, and our collections still hold treasures. But librarians have always had limited funds, and have always wound up with a mix of holdings both classic and current.

And consider this: in the time of Mark Twain, many librarians refused to buy his books, branding them popular trash. Better to buy the Lives of Plutarch! Or they chose more sedate, critically well-received authors of the day, now forgotten.

Who decides what's worthwhile? Is the decision made by librarians, who choose to keep, or not keep, particular titles? Or are classics decided by readers, by people who actually choose to USE something?

Here's what I think: Our libraries may be marketplaces of ideas, but they are marketplaces nonetheless. The canon of the classics is in constant turmoil and evolution.

The mission of the public library isn't to place the seal of eternal judgment on specific titles; instead, our mission is to reflect our culture as it happens, talent and tawdriness alike. That includes a steady wellspring from the past – witness Jane Austen's resurgent popularity – and the fresh precipitation of authors on whom the juries of history are still deliberating. (I've got juries deliberating on rainfall here, but I hope the point is clear.)

Miller asks, "... why must we have government-run libraries at all?" Here are three reasons:

* Because not everybody CAN afford to purchase new books.

* Because libraries do more than provide bestsellers. We provide children's books and storytimes, perhaps our nation's most potent strategy for sowing literacy in the land. We provide public programs, of both civic and recreational nature, thereby building communities. We answer reference questions essential to students, struggling entrepreneurs, curious voters, and more. We bridge the digital divide, and thereby participate in still-emerging forms of creativity and social discourse. And yes, we preserve parts of the past -- but not as museums. We are workshops for the future.

* Because having publicly funded institutions that actively respond to the paying customer is a good idea. Public institutions that ignore public interests and needs not only die, they deserve to.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

January 11, 2007 - read to your children!

Recently, library staff began work on a handout for parents to help them select books for their children. I just got the latest draft of it from Andrea Logan, one of our Youth Librarians, and I thought some of the research she cited deserved a broader audience.

The key finding is this: literacy begins at home. Families play an important role in their children's reading success. Indeed, a 1994 study of individual families showed that what they do to support literacy in the home is more important to student success than family income or the years of education of the parents.

Sadly, not all families understand that. More than 4 in 10 preschoolers, 5 in 10 toddlers, and 6 in 10 babies are not read to regularly.

It's a shame. Parents who glom onto libraries find that we can help their babies and young children:

* Develop cognitive skills through sensory stimulation. This helps to foster intellectual development. Hearing words and music, seeing pictures and text, touching objects and turning the pages of books helps connect brain synapses.

* Understand the function of words and pictures in books.

* Develop language skills.

* Develop the idea of sequence by experiencing the beginning, middle and end of stories.

* Learn to socialize - understand what people do and why.

* Develop positive habits.

* Stimulate their imaginations.

But reading is not only useful for preschoolers. A 1998 study showed that students improved 2.99 grade level for every school year in which they read 60 minutes per day.

Fourth-graders who reported daily reading for fun scored higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test than peers who reported less reading for fun. It's important to point, out, however, that the love of reading doesn't just suddenly bloom in 4th grade. Children need to be exposed to books long before then!

Children who scored at the 90th percentile on a reading test spent five times as many minutes per day reading books as children at the 50th percentile.

Naturally, most parents want their children to do well at school. But reading proficiency is not just about good grades. Low literacy is strongly related to crime. A National Institute for Literacy report in 1998 found that 70% of prisoners fall into the lowest two levels of reading proficiency.

I don't want people to feel that the encouragement of reading is just to promote academic achievement and avoid social dysfunction, however. It's fun!

Recently, my family took a trip to Estes Park's YMCA camp, where we rented a cabin way up in the woods, then promptly got snowed in. Later, we all agreed that the highlight of the trip was when we read aloud to each other from "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." We would each read a chapter, then pass it along to the next person to pick up the story. The fire crackled in the fireplace, snow fell outside the big picture window, and we had a wonderful time listening to each other's voices.

Ultimately, the most powerful educational experiences -- the defining moments of our character and comprehension -- build on this simple truth: parents are the child's first and most important teachers.

Books are a bridge between generations, and the sooner you start reading them to each other, and the longer you keep it up, the better both generations will feel about each other.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

January 4, 2007 - libraries smart investment

There are two kinds of people -- those who think there are two kinds of people, and those who don't.

To put it another way, there is a peculiar psychological need for some people to see the world in black and white. Politically, in our divided nation, there are liberals and conservatives.

In that context, I've been thinking some more about "a national agenda for public libraries."

I believe there are two fundamental arguments for the public library: it is a public good, and it is a sound return on the investment.

"The public good" argument is immediately understood by liberals. Public libraries are social assets, available to, and benefiting, all.

Public libraries are "bootstrap" institutions -- places where ambitious people of any age or background can seek the education they need, rather than waiting for somebody else to deliver it to them. Or as my granddad used to say, "Education isn't something that's done to you; it's something you do for yourself." Providing, of course, the resources are accessible to you.

Surveys show that the poorest among us often have the greatest appreciation for education, and see public libraries as part of that continuum of services. They believe education is a means through which their children can achieve a better life than their parents, and is therefore worthy of shared financial support.

Another argument for the public good is a demonstration of the efficacy of the public sector. I remember, when I first understood as a child that I could use the public library for free, feeling a surge of wonder and respect for the grown-up world. It was a tangible sign of social benevolence.

For over a hundred years, America's libraries have maintained a tradition of openness to all, of frugality and good stewardship of local resources, of simple respect for the individual's right both of inquiry and privacy.

People trust libraries and librarians, and that's a rare achievement.

Finally, libraries are builders of community. Just lately, we see how often people come together and work out common aims in our buildings.

The second argument for libraries veers from social good to private gain. It is quickly grasped by conservatives. In brief: libraries give at least two dollars back for every tax dollar invested. (We're participating in a statewide study on the exact amount, which I'll report on later in 2007.)

You might be surprised to learn that much of the economic activity in our county begins at the library. For instance, developers often begin by researching past uses of land, and find our aerial maps from the 1930s invaluable.

Small business owners start by putting together a business plan to attract investors or borrow money. As part of that business plan, entrepreneurs investigate the competition or potential target market -- and discover that their library card unlocks literally tens of thousands of dollars of relevant data resources.

I've seen many business people use the library as both virtual office, and as business conference center. One of our small meeting rooms is an ideal location for a quick consultation or sales discussion: we have white boards, projection screens, plugs and connections for computers. Chambers of Commerce hold larger group meetings at libraries too, for leads groups, organizational business, and continuing education for people with little time, but a great need to stay current.

Too, libraries improve property values in a neighborhood, and as I mentioned last week, make great anchor stores.

On an individual basis, some people are driven to the library through a big change in life circumstance: pregnancy, career change, health problems, big consumer purchases. One visit to the library, for many people, saves far more money than they have ever paid in taxes. In the case of medical information, libraries have even saved people's lives.

The library is more than passive "resources," by the way -- the buildings, books, magazines, and databases. What makes a library is the staff, people trained to move swiftly and surely to the most salient information.

It's not hard to find data. What's hard is finding data that matters.

Public good or private gain -- which argument is "right?" Like most dualities, it's a false choice. Whichever you may privately hold is "better," it doesn't take much thinking to realize that both are necessary.

The public library: it's smart for the public, smart for the individual, and a good investment either way.