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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March 29, 2007 - Librarians Should be Like Diogenes

Why do people rob banks? Because that's where the money is.

That old joke provoked some interesting thinking for me.

Right now, our staff handles a lot of reference calls. Some come to us by telephone. Some come to us over the Internet. Many questions we handle in person, face to face.

But there's a flaw. Do you see it?

On the one hand, yes, the library is the place where the answers are.

But it's not where the questions are.

Last year, we responded to over 300,000 questions. So that's over one per county resident. But please. Tell me that each of us had only one question. I have more questions than that in an hour!

I have questions about politics and public finance. I have questions about history. I have questions about biochemistry and physics. I have questions about child rearing and aging and brain development. I have questions about matters large and small.

Some of those questions can be answered in seconds, maybe. Others could entangle me for the rest of my life.

In some ways, the truly dedicated reference librarian would wander the streets like Diogenes with his lantern. Such a librarian would interview passersby on their deepest quandaries, then produce, on the spot, either the right fact, or, at least, some promising leads for those who seek, not just an answer, but knowledge. (Instead of a lantern, these wandering librarians would be armed with professional training and some kind of wireless communication device back to the mothership of the library.)

But as I've noted before, it's not just individuals who have questions. Groups do, too. And the plain truth of the matter is this: groups tend not to approach the library for answers. Even when they meet in our rooms, it simply never occurs to them to take their big questions out to one of our reference people.

So either the library has to be content with a tiny slice of the potential demand for our services, or we have to do the unthinkable: leave the library. Go out among you. Listen. Ask questions. Then dig out the answers, and take them back to you.

Recently, the Parker Library has begun to try some approaches that will do just that. An effort involving local businesspeople, elected officials, library patrons, and arts and cultural fans is getting organized around the idea of "downtown development."

They have a lot of questions: what makes for a successful, pedestrian friendly area? What have we learned about the necessary market area for a performing arts center? And so on.

Patt Paul, the manager of the Parker Library, is working with her staff to try to develop a schedule that will allow the library to keep track of community meetings, interview key players, gather, organize and publish (perhaps on a website) information that will not only be of use to the people in Parker, but also be helpful to the other communities in our county that are dealing with these issues.

Can we add value to the information-seeking of the people who pay us?

You can bank on it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007 - Steal from the Best

"Stealing from one person is plagiarism. Stealing from many is research."

One of the jobs of leadership is to keep an eye on the competition. Librarians, as I've written before, tend to be very open about what has, and has not, worked for them. So word gets around.

Library experiments fall into a couple of broad divisions. They are interesting, or they are useful.

Into the interesting category fall things like eBooks. In theory, particularly for a tech savvy audience like the folks in Douglas County, this seemed like a shoe-in. Surely people would flock to download electronic texts to their computers, probably at 2 in the morning.

But it didn't happen. We bought several hundred e-texts, and they've hardly been touched. People don't want to read books on their computers. They want to read them on their iPods. (It hearkens all the way back to one of my favorite sentences: "Read me a story, daddy.")

Then there are things that are useful. Two experiments, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, have transformed the way we do business.

One of them was the self-check library. Particularly combined with two other innovations -- Radio Frequency ID tags (RFID) and aggressive bookstore-type displays of popular materials -- self-check has greatly expanded both the capacity and the use of public libraries. Materials move faster, allowing us to have a bigger stock. We can give more space to materials because we need less space for big desks.

A second experiment has been the reference contact center. Advances in telephony have made it far less expensive to set up a countywide central switchboard, allowing us to concentrate on answering a question quickly, with a minimum of transfers. This has allowed us, paradoxically, to put even more librarians on the floor.

I've never been interested in innovation for innovation's sake. The true base of our services remains largely untouched: the public wants and expects books from us. But not just books.

According to our most recent statistics, our checkouts break down into rough thirds. The first third is children's books, mainly picture books. The second third is books for grown-ups -- adult fiction and non-fiction. The third third lumps together things that are not books -- music and movies, mainly movies.

Reference services -- real people answering questions -- continues to grow in Douglas County. Online reference may yet take off bigtime. To try this out yourself, just click on "Ask a Librarian" from the main tabs on our website.

But right now, we still have way more traffic going to reference people face to face than via computers.

Over the past several years, we've spent a lot of time and attention growing our program offerings. All of this helps us to make libraries into places that are even more fun to go to.

We've also detected, and have tried to plan for, an increased interest in public meeting space generally.

You may have noticed that most of our libraries now function as art galleries -- bringing a much-appreciated focus to the creativity of our patrons.

I have another innovation that, as near as I can tell, very few libraries address: answering the community reference question. I'll talk about that next week.

But for this week, consider this column a call. The people who read this column travel far and wide -- and have a tendency to shop the local libraries. So I'd like to know. What library innovations have you seen that strike you not just as interesting, but as genuinely useful?

Email them to me at jlarue@jlarue.com. Or call me at 303-688-7656. Don't think of it as stealing. Think of it as research.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007 - Savants Fascinate

I've always been fascinated by "idiots savant" -- people who are, for instance, lightning calculators, or able to tell you, the instant they hear your birth date, what day of the week that was. That's the savant part.

But the "idiot" part means that often these remarkable super-abilities are coupled with disabilities. No doubt some folks with super-abilities learn to hide them. It may also be that such abilities are linked to accidents of biochemistry, and thus are coupled with various kinds of physical or mental impairments.

Whichever the case, savants often have trouble communicating with the rest of us.

For instance, take Kim Peek, one of the real life models upon whom the movie "Rain Man" was loosely built. Peek was born with a water blister inside his skull. It damaged the side of his brain that handles language. Doctors predicted that he would never be able to walk or learn. One doctor offered to lobotomize him, the better to accommodate institutionalization.

In 1988, other doctors did a brain scan. Peek had no corpus calossum, the membrane or nerve cluster connecting the two sides of the brain.

But he learned to read at 16 months. In fact, he can read two pages at the same time -- one with each eye. And he remembers everything.

However, were it not for a dedicated father, Kim would have trouble negotiating the complex social rules that come easily to most of us.

I've just finished an autobiography of another savant. The book is called, "Born on a Blue Day," by Daniel Tammet. Like Peek, Tammet is autistic -- but it's a kind of autism (Ausperger's) that allows Tammet to function very well, although it takes some effort for him. Tammet has a host of savant abilities.

He can talk about them.

He is also "synesthetic." This means that his experience of senses is intermingled. Tammet begins his story this way: "I was born on January 31, 1979 -- a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number 9 or the sound of loud voices arguing."

Tammet is also a "power multiplier." Give him two numbers, such as 53 and 131, and they form distinct shapes in his mind. Immediately, he sees another shape that precisely fits between them. That shape is the number 6943.

Tammet achieved some fame recently when, as a fundraiser for an epilepsy foundation (Tammet also suffered from epilepsy as a child), he memorized 22,514 values to the right of the decimal point of pi. He recited them without flaw to an audience.

How? Easy. He just visualized the rich, colorful landscape numbers paint in him, no more complicated (for him!) than recalling some interesting houses along a favorite street.

Yet another of his talents is languages. Once, for a documentary, a TV crew followed him around for a week as he tackled a new language -- Icelandic. And at the end of a week, he was interviewed ... speaking Icelandic.

Epilepsy. Autism. Synesthesia.

Lightning calculation. Prodigious memory. The gift of tongues.

Tammet's story continues. But at present, life is good. He has found love (another man), and a career (web-based language instruction, available at www.optimnem.co.uk).

Finally, Tammet's tale provides a rare glimpse into growing up different.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

March 1, 2007 - screenagers live online

I had the pleasure recently to hear a talk by Lee Rainie. He's the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The folks at Pew do a lot of research, and lately have begun to focus on a group dubbed "screenagers." These are people between the ages of 12 and 20 who spend a lot of time in front of various screens -- TVs, computers, iPods, cellphones, etc.

Below are some of Pew's findings.

Seventy percent of American adults now use the Internet. For teens, it's 93 percent.

Here's one that made a lot of community relations people sit up and notice: once somebody gets broadband access, the Internet becomes more important as a source for news than either newspapers or TV.

Newspapers have been fighting the battle for literacy for a long time. Frankly, TV was taking them to the cleaners. This is the first time since the fifties that any medium has displaced TV as a primary source of news.

Three quarters of American adults and 63 percent of teenagers have cellphones.

More than 55 percent of American teens now have, and use daily, digital cameras. The images they capture pop up in all kinds of places: web pages, iPods, cellphones, PC screensaver, and more. To take that a step further, content is converging. One format, many uses.

But the hardware is diverging. The dream of the one device for everything remains a dream.

And just when you thought you knew where things were going, get this: 10 percent of Internet users don't use email. At all.

Here's a watershed: in 2005, laptops began outselling desktops. It probably won't go back the other way. This means that wireless access is far more important than ever, especially to a generation that really can't imagine being out of "touch."

Members of the Millennial generation, born wired, are sometimes referred as "digital natives." They grew up in the post-Internet world. Older folks are referred to as "digital immigrants."

But native or immigrant, the digerati are finding each other on the Internet. The average broadband user belongs to 4 communities, for an average of 2.3 years each. These communities might be the kind that spring up for patient support -- somebody going through, or providing care for, a difficult illness. They might be gaming communities. They might be Facebook or MySpace, the so-called social networking sites.

But despite some of the excesses you may have heard about, two-thirds of social networking site users are pretty selective. They carefully limit access to their profiles, often to people they already know.

Belonging to an online community does not displace "real" communities. In fact, "virtual" networking seems to lead to increased "actual" networking -- although sometimes, younger people aren't quite sure how to cross that bridge.

There are lots of implications in all of this for librarians. At least on some level, we have to go where the digital natives hang out. They can't or won't find us until we do.

And I've been giving a lot of thought lately to working a new generation into more blended experiences, connecting them to a larger community that desperately needs their collaborative energy.

Maybe we have something to give them, too.