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, April 26, 2007

April 26, 2007 - eBooks Fail to Capture Public Library Market

On the one hand, how could they fail to be popular? Electronic books (ebooks) would seem to have clear advantages over paper. No more dog ears or gum wrappers -- you just create an electronic bookmark, or search the whole book for some phrase.

Some of the ebook readers -- whether the now vanished RocketBook or Sony's new entry into the market -- can hold a dozen titles or more. So in one paperback size package, it might be possible to cram, for instance, a whole summer's worth of light reading.

For the businessman, an ereader might contain a traveling professional tool chest of manuals; for the student, a semester's worth of textbooks. This would be far preferable to the 30 pound backpack my middle school-age son carries around.

Yet ebooks are regarded, in the general consumer or public library market, as a failure. They've never taken off. Why?

There are several factors.

First, most ebooks are currently accessed through computer monitors. I know a lot of tech savvy people, but I have yet to meet anyone who has read an entire book this way. Onscreen resolution is far "dottier" than print on paper. Moreover, backlit text tends to hypnotize the eye. People blink less, which leads to eye fatigue. Good posture at a computer isn't as comfortable as slouching on the couch with a paperback.

Second, there is no ubiquitous, cost-effective reader. The Sony reader, featuring "electronic ink," seems to have solved the resolution issue. Its text is clear, legible, and with one button, jumps up to large print.

But the Sony ebook reader also costs between $350-$500. I bought one to put it through its paces, but found that I was reluctant to take it on a trip. It's not a big deal if I lose a paperback. But I'd hate to lose a $350 electronic device. Or have it run out of battery power. Or get caught in the rain. And Sony has yet to capture significant market share.

Third, the publishing industry continues to struggle with "digital rights management." This involves various schemes to prevent the copying and redistribution of electronic content. That just adds inconvenience to a process that already involves computers, cables, and battery rechargers.

Because of these factors, ebooks tend to serve as online reference tools. People use them more the way scholars and researchers do -- as always available, searchable storehouses of text snippets.

But this raises a fourth barrier to adoption: the search interface. For the average public library patron, it is far easier to search Google than to log into some ebook website, select a title, then search it.

The experience of the Douglas County Libraries parallels that of other Colorado libraries.

* We bought a set of ebooks through a cooperative purchase -- some 500 titles from netLibrary. The titles were chosen to appeal to the "quick research" mind: cookbooks, how-to manuals, sports encyclopedias and trivia, computer manuals, business guides, gardening, and pet care books.

* We advertised them through our usual sources (newspaper, fliers, website).

* We integrated them into our catalogs. So clicking a link in the catalog would take the patron to the full content online.

* We monitored their use, and quickly discovered that although the catalog link helped, a single publisher seemed to account for most of our ebook activity: Cliff's Notes. I'm guessing that our audience was high school students, the night before the big test on a book they'd never gotten around to reading. If the other titles were print, we would have "weeded" them from our collection after the first year. They didn't appeal to our patrons.

* We added other packages of ebooks, in particular, a collection of titles by the Gale publishing company. It had two compelling features: a good collection of authoritative reference titles, and an interface that allowed searching of the whole collection at once. I think of it as Google on steroids: focused and reliable. It is used, though perhaps mostly by our own staff.

So where are public libraries today?

It is clear that the digital book content most in demand by public library patrons is not text, but audio. It is also clear that the most desired audio format is that used by the Apple iPod, which has captured significant market share.

And it's clear that the ebook, for the general public, is still a good idea that has yet to translate into a compelling product.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

April 19, 2007 - Batten Down the Latches

I admit that I don't get it. Why would somebody steal something they can borrow for free? Particularly when most of us have too much barely-used stuff as it is?

I hasten to add that the loss rate of library materials -- about 2%, according to our last inventory -- is surprisingly low. It's higher, I'm told, in retail.

But there are two kinds of materials that get hit pretty hard. The first is DVDs. DVDs are popular, accounting for 22% of all our checkouts. The most popular ones, the "Your Lucky Day" titles, have had loss rates from between a low of 22% to a high of 31% (depending on the branch). That means that almost a third of some of our DVD titles get swiped. It costs us thousands of dollars.

Libraries have tried to come up with a host of strategies. There's the big DVD dispenser, as seen at McDonalds. But we have way too many DVDs to make that practical.

There's the big security system approach: big gates, and magnetic strips or tags. But that's expensive, and the experience of many libraries suggests that not only do many kinds of tags make it harder to play the DVD, it really doesn't solve the problem.

There's the "ask for it at the desk" model, where staff fetches it for you. But that leads to big slowdowns at the checkout line, and more staff than we can afford.

So we've settled on an approach that we hope will provide a minimum of fuss, but a maximum of result: locked cases.

Our DVDs come in slim plastic cases. Effective last week (you probably saw the signs all around the checkout areas) you have one more step for DVD self-checkout -- slide the case through a little grooved device, called a decoupler. It looks like a big, black, knife sharpener.

The side of the case that opens now has two little icons: a green "unlocked" picture, and a red "locked" picture. Slide the case through the decoupler one way, and it locks. Slide it the other way, and it unlocks. It's easy, and you can tell at a glance if it worked.

But if you don't do it, the case really can't be opened without destroying it. And destroying it will probably destroy the DVD, too.

We can't make theft impossible. So we're trying to make it inconvenient.

The locked cases will involve only two kinds of library materials: DVDs and our much smaller collection of video games.

We started this one last year. There's a lot of research that there are in fact some benefits to gaming. Of course, there aren't as many benefits as there are to reading, in my judgment. (Sniff.) But we won't have as many games as we do books, either.

We did a trial last year, and our titles -- for PlayStation 2 and Xbox -- went out like hotcakes. In fact, they were rarely on the shelf.

Unfortunately, some of them got snapped up so fast the people taking them neglected to check them out. So round two of our experiment will attempt to hang onto them a little better.

In case you were wondering, our video games are rated E and T only (Elementary and Teen). We're not buying M or AOs (Mature, Adult Only).

My apologies for another small step in the attempt to get public materials home for viewing. But that's the way crime works: a few people inconvenience us all.

The payoff, in this case, should be that you have more to choose from.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 12, 2007 - Shsh!

A couple of weeks ago, I called for comments from the public about successful or useful library innovations.

Thank you! Many of you took the time to submit often brilliant analyses of various trends and implementations. All of you, without exception, were kind even when making criticisms. Douglas County patrons continue to be among the savviest library users I've run across.

But your communications also pointed out two troublesome trends. They deserve a straightforward response.

Most of you felt that one of our big changes -- the move to self-pickup of holds, and self-checkouts -- was generally positive. Yet many of you also expressed a sense of loss. You like our staff, and in some of our libraries, reported that you don't see as much of them as you used to.

It's true. We adopted self-check as a strategy to keep up with the incredible jump in demand for materials. Self-check means we don't need as many people in front to handle that volume.

Our PLAN is to take the folks liberated from that work and put them out on the floor, assisting the public in finding materials. You should be seeing more of them, not less.

But in the short run, here's the problem. Our volume of business has jumped by about 23%. We don't have self-check IN (at least not everywhere, not yet). So we're using our staff in the backroom to check in those materials. See attached picture for a look at a not-uncommon morning scenario!

You don't see as many of our staff because they are digging us out behind the scenes.

We're working on it. The second piece of our productivity challenge is to install technology that check in the materials as they hit the book drop. That means we'll just have to sort and shelve, greatly speeding things up. We hope to have these changes in place by the end of the year.

I appreciate your support of staff, and trust me, they'd be happier out front, too. We'll get them there. The message you wanted me to hear, I think, was that library service means the availability of staff. I couldn't agree more.

The second issue is a library perennial, returning, I think, with the spring.The library is getting louder.

There are several factors here. A previous generation of librarians was very stern. The very stereotype of a librarian, of course, is "She Who Says Shsh!"

A lot of us who grew up in that time felt that this image actually drove many kids away from the library, never to return. We vowed to be more welcoming as professionals. And we are.

Perhaps as a consequence, today's public libraries do indeed have many more young people in them. Children's departments are larger and more active. More young families use libraries at the beginning of the 21st century than ever did even at the half way mark of the 20th.

When I was a kid, about a third of the households in my town had even one active library card. In Douglas County, 84% of the households do. More people means more noise.

But that's only half of the story. The other half, to be perfectly frank, is again about our staff. We're too loud!

It's true. A little peace and quiet is a reasonable expectation for the public library. Staff literally set the tone. We can't guarantee perfect silence; today's public libraries are gathering places, true hubs of community activity. But when you hang around in a busy place all day, your voice tends to start to escalate. Guilty as charged.

The public also expects, when somebody abuses the quiet enjoyment of our premises, that our staff will do something about it. That's fair, too.

So this is part request, and part promise. The request is that you need to remember that you share public space with people who are trying to read and study. The promise is that we'll start shshing ourselves, and reminding you to lower the volume knob when YOU forget.

And again, thanks for caring.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

April 5, 2007 - When You See the Stork, It's Spring

About a month ago, I got a "martenitsa" in the mail -- a red and white bracelet of string with a couple of wooden beads. Per instructions, I tied it to my wrist, where I've worn it for weeks.

The martenitsa is a Bulgarian tradition. I wear it in honor of the Dora Gabe Library, in our sister city of Dobrich, over by the Black Sea. I visited there several years ago now.

There are lots of stories around the martenitsa. In Bulgarian folklore, according to Wikipedia, "the name Mart is related to a grumpy old lady whose mood shifts very rapidly." In essence, Grandma Marta represents winter, who is often crankily unwilling to retire.

At the time I got the token, I would have agreed. Winter seemed tenacious.

The martenitsa, a pagan tradition, is typically a gift from a friend (as mine was), and is supposed to be worn until the first sign of spring. One such sign is a stork.

It happens that I'm writing this from the Phoenix area, where I'm sitting in an Internet café (Caffeine Online, in Mesa). It's a sort of vacation, although my wife has spent a lot of time attending to various family business matters.

But yesterday, I saw a white crane rising from one of the flooded canals here.

After such a sign, you're supposed to take off the martenitsa and tie it to the branch of a fruit tree. It turns out there are a lot of fruit trees here, too. This is citrus country, as my allergies can attest.

So that's my task for the day: find an awakening orange tree, a harbinger of spring. Bless it with a brightly colored tassle from Bulgaria, to appease the stubborn wrath of winter.

I'm doing more than observing international traditions, of course. Much to my son's disgust, I've already visited one library here, and may try to squeeze in another. Maybe somebody's thought of something we haven't.

I also poked around Tempe's Changing Hands Bookstore, an independent that just won the Publishers Weekly 15th annual Bookseller of the Year award. It's been in business for 33 years. Tucked away in a suburban shopping center, and surrounded by a mix of offbeat restaurants and a grocery store, it's a popular place.

I'm noticing lately the new function that libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops have assumed in our society. The laptop crowd, many of whom are tourists, circles around, then lands, loads up on caffeine, and scouts out community options.

They email and chat with their friends and family, check in at work, and compare the choices for shopping (Fry's Electronics and IKEA) and culture (Rembrandt and antique cars at the Phoenix Art Museum!).

As always, I'm also aware of urban design. The Phoenix area now bristles with freeways -- but is also rolling out light rail, downtown condos, and other signs of transit-oriented development.

Traffic mostly serves, it seems to me, to separate people, one to a car, bumper to bumper with strangers, but eventually, people try to find a way to meet up with each other again, whether it's by hanging out in bookstores and coffee shops, or by sending martenitsas through the mail.

Which reminds me. Time to tie one to a citrus tree. It's spring!