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, February 22, 2007

February 22, 2007 - You're Fired!

Recently, I did a workshop with a friend of mine. The topic, according to my friend, may address one of the key issues around the nation.

How do you fire somebody?

Obviously, firing should be the last step in an unproductive relationship. But every single one of us can think of people who accept a paycheck, then seem to feel no compunction of any kind to work on behalf of the organization that pays them.

And often, it's worse than that: they actively work AGAINST the goals of the organization.

Sometimes it's overt -- and astonishingly, even then, people get away with it.

More often, it's covert. They sit and nod in meetings, and the instant they leave, they begin to undermine whatever decision was made.

There's a deep organizational trap here. For unproductive employees, the trap is powerlessness and bitterness. They feel that they have no say over the organizational direction. They feel they are somehow entitled to pay, but owe nothing more than time. They become toxic.

There's a trap for managers, too. They find that the atmosphere of the workplace is mired in negativity. They can see it: no one ever smiles anymore. No one is even polite. Whatever measure of success matters in that business is simply unattainable.

Instead of a contract for productivity, the relationship between manager and employee becomes a contract for mutual victimhood.


I understand how people get there, and often it's through the best of intentions.

We try to be compassionate. We think that a warm and understanding chat with someone going through a rough time is sufficient to set things right.

Instead, it grants permission to introduce non-work place factors as a kind of trump card.

Years ago, when I was just getting into the field, I was lucky enough to land a graduate assistantship. At first, I did a great job. I have always loved library work.

Then, a romantic relationship I was in failed, pretty miserably. I deeply resented winding up in what seemed to me a particularly sordid country western lyric. Over the next few weeks I was, frankly, worthless at work.

Until my supervisor, a very kind and competent lady, came around the corner and caught me in the perfect snapshot of indolence: feet up on desk, doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself.

She asked me to accompany her to her office. She told me that she had to make some decisions about the next year's graduate assistantships. She had plenty of applicants, she said. She believed that those assistantships should go to the people who had enthusiasm for the job, who would give it their best, who would demonstrate by their actions and behavior that they had high standards of performance.

She wanted to know whether I was interested in such an assistantship. Right then, she said, it didn't seem to her that I was.

Then, she said briskly, she wanted me to think about it and let her know. End of meeting. Total elapsed time, maybe 30 seconds. Half a minute.

I was completely and utterly devastated. Shamed.

But that did it. l came back the next day and apologized for my behavior, and said I offered no excuses. But I would show her that I deserved that assistantship. And I worked my heart out to prove it to her.

She gave it to me, along with a glowing recommendation.

I ran across this supervisor some 5 years later, just before accepting my first directorship. I thanked her for saving my whole professional career.

What had she done? She refused to accept victimhood for either one of us. She told me in no uncertain terms what she expected of me. She had a decision to make, and told me what would go into it.

And I had a decision to make. There was the offer: work for pay. My choice.

She didn't have to fire me, because she did something that few in the work place have the courage and simple decency to do. She set aside 30 seconds of her day to have a direct conversation with me. She wasn't demeaning or cruel. Just direct.

Maybe you don't have anybody in your organization who needs that talk. Maybe you do. Can you afford half a minute?

Can you afford the alternative?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15, 2007 - digital and personal rights hold surprises

As I've written before, I am a "delegate" to an international library cooperative called OCLC.

So far, this has entitled me to attend the quarterly meetings in Ohio. OCLC pays for the trips. In exchange, I attend about 2.5 days of meetings, often intense, for which I have to prepare in advance, and at which I'm expected to contribute something thoughtful and useful.

This year, OCLC decided that since it is an international business, it should hold a meeting outside the U.S.

But we didn't go too far. My meeting is in Canada. I'm writing this from Quebec City. It's a wonderful and fascinating place.

I have two stories about this trip.

First, many of you have an interest in downloading audio books to an electronic player. The electronic player of choice is Apple's iPod. Several people have asked me, sometimes with great anger, why the library doesn't offer downloadable books in the iPod format.

OCLC is one of the major brokers of deals like this. So one of the things I did at the conference was to ask Jay Jordan, President and CEO of OCLC, how come libraries can't buy Apple downloads.

His answer was interesting -- and the same answer as last year. We still don't have a deal, but it's not for lack of trying.

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, has a different view of "Digital Rights Management" than other companies, namely, book publishers and Microsoft. Generally speaking, Jobs is inclined to have fewer copying restrictions on digital formats (book, music, movies) than some publishers want.

In my view, Jobs has it right: he is far more trusting of consumers to use the products they have purchased legally. Microsoft is more accommodating to the publishers who fear that their products will be given away, at a financial loss to distributor and artist alike.

Bottom line: publishers like the more restrictive Microsoft formats. They won't release their properties to Apple to sell to libraries. So we can't buy them.

We'll keep trying, but I don't see this changing in the short term.

Here's the second story. One of our speakers at the conference was Michael Adams. He presented data from his book, "Fire and Ice: The U.S., Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values." Like the U.S., Canada has a Boomer generation. Back in the 60s and 70s, they, too, were extremely distrustful of authority, rowdy and challenging to the system.

But in the U.S., Boomers changed in midlife, tilting very much toward increasing respect for authority. Some have even described them (think culture wars, family values, etc.) as "moralistic."

Adams does surveys, in Canada and the U.S. both. He asked whether or not people agreed with the statement, "The father of the family must be master in his own house."

In 1992, 42% of Americans agreed; in 1996, 44%; in 2000, 49%; and in 2004, 52%.

In Canada, things have been mostly heading the other way. In the same years, to the same statement, 26%, 20%, 18%, and 21% of Canadians agreed.

There were other questions, but they added up to the same general trend: U.S. citizens were moving strongly toward greater alignment with authority and judgment; at the same time, Canadians were moving toward individualism and tolerance.

I asked the obvious question: why the differences? After all, our media and advertising output surely affects them as much as us.

I'm not sure I bought the answer. Adams said it came down to historical tradition.

But that doesn't make sense. Did you know that early Canadians declined to join the United States experiment because they couldn't go along with the separation of church and state?

Today, though, Canadians are far less likely to attend religious services than Americans, because Canadians are far less religious.

At the same time, the U.S. was founded on a belief in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those are pretty individualistic goals.

Canada was founded on "peace, order, and good government." Mostly, Canadians believe they get it, too: their government spends less of its Gross National Product on health coverage than the U.S., and covers everybody.

It's all a little puzzling.

The point to all this is that as an international non-profit, developed in the U.S., OCLC can't just assume that people in different nations (or even different computer companies in the same nation) share the same values. The U.S. and Canada are cousins, and there are some big surprises in what we do, and don't, believe together.

It's likely that the differences won't be any smaller elsewhere.

[Disclaimer: LaRue's views are his own.]

Thursday, February 8, 2007

February 8, 2007 - Call the Douglas County Libraries

One of the things you grapple with as you get older is this curious contradiction: there are a lot of good, smart, conscientious people in the world, who just can't seem to get simple things right.

I could illustrate this principle with many examples from my own life. But let's pick on the phone company.

For many years, our libraries have had their own phone numbers. Because of the way Qwest sliced up the various phone books (Castle Rock/Parker, South Metro, etc.), it was almost impossible to get all of our listings and locations in one book.

Every year, we would very carefully detail all of our libraries and their phone numbers. We would ask for a complete listing. We would be told that that would cost us extra. We would agree. We would ask to proof the final listings, and sometimes did get that proof, which we would edit, and resubmit.

And year after year, the phone listings would be maddeningly incomplete or misleading.

Part of me gets this. There are millions of phone numbers, and more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. But it was not only frustrating and expensive, it also contradicted the whole point of the phone book: to tell people how to reach us on the phone.

Technology proceeds apace, however, and one of those technologies is Voice Over IP. VOIP combines data and telephony on the same lines. It also makes it easier to aggregate phone lines, making it much easier to switch from one place to another.

At about the same time, the library was engaged in a deep job analysis. When the demand for your services is growing faster than your revenue, you look for ways to become more efficient.

Over the years, we'd wound up with a lot of phones around the district. And where there's a phone, there's a desk. And where there's a desk, somehow somebody winds up being assigned to it. But waiting for a phone to ring isn't the best way to provide service.

So we hit on a solution: publish just one phone line for the whole library district. One number that shows up in every phone book. One switchboard that is manned by multiple staff. One place where 90% of people's questions can be answered -- or quickly switched to somewhere else if it's more complicated.

So that's what we did.

Here's the number: 303-791-READ. Or for those people who, like me, find that hunting down the numbers behind the letters puts a strain on the brain, it's 303-791-7323. This is now the main contact number for the Douglas County Libraries.

We're still tweaking it. Right now, we're in the process of getting the right number of incoming phone lines, so that people don't get busy signals. Until now, there was no easy way to calculate exactly what the load was. Now there is, and we've got to juggle the phone system to handle it. That will take us a couple of weeks.

But finally, what does that mean for the average person? It means that when you actually step into a library, you'll get prompt personal service, rather than a brief transaction crammed between two phone calls.

On the phone, there will probably be two results: a direct switchover to our automated renewal service (which will run 24/7, and seems to account for a big chunk of our calls), and a live human being -- someone actually dedicated to the call, with the time to help you -- who can answer your questions.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

February 1, 2007 - Library Wins Prestigious PR Award

Once upon a time (1889 to 1898, to be precise) there was a director of the Denver Public Library named John Cotton Dana. He was, in fact, Denver's first library director.

He was a beacon of "progressive" librarianship. In his view, most libraries of the day were mere warehouses and prisons of books. Librarians were more concerned with protecting the collections from patrons, than in seeing those collections used.

The 20th century library, he believed, should be open to all, a true community cultural center. He became famous for his determined removal of what were then iconic library furnishings: gates, fences, and closed stacks (where you had to request a book, and have it fetched by staff, rather than having direct access to the materials).

In Denver and elsewhere he did such things as:

* add foreign language materials for immigrants.

* acquire works of popular fiction (much to the dismay of certain intellectuals).

* make it easier to get a library card.

* extend library hours.

* create a business section.

* champion children in the library -- at a time when this was truly radical. His was one of the first libraries in the country, if not THE first, to have a dedicated children's room. Now, of course, all of them do.

He also advanced the equally radical proposition that libraries should make their activities known to the public. He produced library newsletters, and worked to get them into people's hands.

Later, Dana went on to become the founder of the Newark, New Jersey Museum, which he directed till his death.

In 1946, the American Library Association teamed up with publishing giant H.W. Wilson to create a public relations award for libraries, honoring the thoroughly visionary man who had become known as "The First Citizen of Newark."

Today, the John Cotton Dana Award is known as "the most prestigious award of the American Library Association." It is, in fact, "highly coveted," as any honest library director will tell you.

Enough build-up. We won!

Based on our 2006 project, "Page to Stage Productions," the Douglas County Libraries just became just one of seven libraries in the country to receive the John Cotton Dana award ($3,000 in cash, but lots of recognition!).

Page to Stage was the brainchild of Katie Klossner, our Community Relations Manager. Here's the truth: she and her incredible staff deserved to win.

The idea was simple. Using a very small cast (3 people) and an extremely portable set, the library sponsored 42 performances of the play, "Miss Nelson is Missing" at 42 (or 64%) of Douglas County's elementary schools. It was seen by over 10,000 children.

All of the performances were booked solid. In addition to producing a play based on a very popular children's series, we also provided a classroom guide, tying the show to Colorado content standards.

Our actors not only stuck around to talk to the kids, they also pushed our summer reading program -- a potent strategy for keeping reading skills sharp. And we saw a 10 percent jump in our attendance that year.

We were also fortunate enough to work with Douglas County's DC8. They made a great video on the project, and their thoroughly professional presentation almost certainly helped us win.

I'm also proud to say that this was an extremely cost-effective effort. By the time we were done, we provided this outreach at less than $1 per child -- a truly frugal way to begin to build another generation of readers.

My warm congratulations to our staff (and our many teachers, principals, and other folks) for producing innovative and successful programming for our community.

As for John Cotton Dana, his vision for a modern library looks as good at the dawn of the 21st century as it did at the dawn of the 20th.