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, August 30, 2007

August 30, 2007 - Architectural Competition a Tough Call

Elsewhere in today's paper, you'll read about the results of our architectural competition for a performing arts center and library in Parker.

The town and the library district teamed up on this project to get some help in crafting a vision -- and nailing down the costs. By getting not just one but three architectural teams to tackle the opportunities and challenges presented by the program and the site, we hoped to wind up with several independent estimates. That, in turn, would give us an intelligent range of choices.

The winner would get the contract (providing, of course, that we could find the money their estimates would tell us we needed).

The other two firms would also get something: $10,000 apiece. That's $10,000 for about 6 weeks of work.

But guess what? These extraordinarily gifted and creative people gave us at least $100,000 of value.

We now have a whole grab bag of options to choose from and plan with. We have comprehensive estimates for everything. We have multiple views of buildings and the site.

So I want to publicly acknowledge the truly remarkable contribution that each of our contenders -- all privately held businesses -- made to the public sector.

The folks who picked the winner, drawn from Parker's Town Council and our own Board of Trustees, had the best of all dilemmas: how to choose from three great options. These businesses invested a lot of intense effort on a gamble. We are the beneficiaries of their genius.

In the words of Jeannene Bragg, Town Administrator for Parker, "The committee had to make some tough choices and we would highly recommend any of these teams without reservation."

So let's take a moment to list names and contact information for some architectural firms with strong Colorado ties, whose work we can heartily recommend for quality, for sensitivity, for creativity, for comprehensiveness. Every single one of these firms demonstrated an ability to listen, to analyze, to go the extra mile. And all of their designs had deep insight and merit.

Do business with these people, whether you're in the public or the private sector, and you'll be glad you did. They know their stuff.

My only regret is that I couldn't work with every one of them. It would have been fun. (Note, I realize there are more than 3 names here. Humphries Poli teamed up with Semple Brown. Thomas Hacker teamed up with Sink Combs Dethlefs.)

Barker Rinker Seacat
3457 Ringsby Court, Unit 200
Denver, CO 80216

Humphries Poli Architects
1215 Elati Street
Denver Colorado 80204

Semple Brown Design, P.C.
1160 Santa Fe Drive
Denver CO 80204

Sink, Combs, Dethlefs / Thomas Hacker
Sink Combs Dethlefs
475 Lincoln Street, Suite 100
Denver CO 80203

Thomas Hacker Architects
733 SW Oak Street, Suite 100
Portland OR 97205

Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23, 2007 - Libraries are Windows to the World

This is the third of our guest columns, by Rochelle Stephens, a Neighborhood Library at Roxborough patron

Douglas County Libraries are the windows to the world, generationally.

Since I was a child of immigrant parents, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1940s, money was scarce. The public library was our source of entertainment and enlightenment. Once a week Mom walked (we had no car) some twenty city blocks to the Stone Avenue Library. I would return home with my ten book limit, curl up with my Mom or Dad, and be read to. Eventually I would read independently, venturing into the world of literature. Oh the joy of the Little House on the Prairie series, and Little Women.

Many, many years have passed since having helped my own children with homework assignments at the Thousand Oaks library in California. There, too, prior to computers, the public library was the place for recreational literature, books on tape, and research projects. The library was the place for my children's school assignments, as well as for me, a non-traditional student, completing my college degrees for career advancement.

Now, it's the 21st century. My husband John and I have relocated to Roxborough Village in Littleton, Colorado. Prior to the Roxborough Marketplace, John and I frequented the Bookmobile, eagerly awaiting those "open days" to satiate our reading hunger, books on tape for longer car rides, and even "special request" books and films, borrowed for us from other libraries. One text found its way to us from the Grand Army Plaza Library, in Brooklyn, New York. This library was a favorite stop from my teen years, when I could venture beyond the immediate neighborhood via the subway system.

The Neighborhood Library at Roxborough has become an integral part of our grandparenting. It gives me great pleasure to impart the joy of reading and learning to my grandkids. Kayla, the 5-year old, looks forward to story times. As soon as the program is over, Kayla is busy selecting books and DVDs for the special times with grandma and grandpa. Thanks to library assistance, 13-year old Danielle, got a better than perfect grade with her British Isles middle school project. Learning is accompanied with lessons of responsibility, as we respectfully care for the materials we've borrowed, to be returned in good condition and in a timely manner for the next borrower.

Alas, it is time for John and I to enjoy our latest library picks. For John it's a detective or mystery novel. For me,it's a gardening book (our landscaped yards are a testimonial to responsible water usage utilizing drought tolerant plantings).

I'm within walking distance to the Neighborhood Library at Roxborough. Many times my two dogs, Daisy and J.J. accompany me to make my return drop-offs. I've come a long way, chronologically and geographically from my first library trips as a child. Thanks to Douglas County Libraries, the windows to the world are open to me and my family, to enhance the quality of life we enjoy in Douglas County.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16, 2007 - Take Advantage of the Library - Up to a Point

First, there was the DVD gang of 2002. This family cruised through seven or eight public libraries along the front range, checking out library materials left and right. Then they hocked the whole batch to local pawnshops.

This time, it was mostly one guy who checked out about $11,000 of materials from us over the space of a week or so. (He also hit various other Denver area libraries, some of them even harder than us.)

Mainly, he was after DVDs, too. Instead of a pawnshop, he hawked them on the Internet.

In both cases, there are two important points to make.

The first is something you might not know about. It's a program called the Colorado Library Card, or CLC. If you're a patron in good standing at any public library in the state, you can get a card at any other public library. It's free.

Being a patron "in good standing" usually means just that you've identified yourself (usually through a picture ID, a local address, and a phone number) at your home library, AND you haven't done anything spectacularly wrong there.

Some libraries apply limits to an out-of-area patron. Maybe there's a limit on checkouts. Maybe you can only check out certain kinds of materials. But such restrictions are the exception.

The overwhelming majority of our patrons realize what a great deal they're getting, and they don't abuse it. And they bring everything back, usually on time.

The CLC program is very unusual in the United States. Most libraries don't trust each other's patrons. But in Colorado, we've learned that almost all the time, we can.

The second important point to make is pretty blunt. This latest individual who stole from us got caught. It didn't take very long, either. The same was true of the DVD gang.

We trust people, but we're not fools.

When it turned out that somebody was racking up a couple of hundred DVDs within a few days, our staff noticed it. We compared notes with other libraries, where we saw the same pattern. We consulted our security cameras, and have quite an excellent picture of the thief, as well as all of our computer records.

Now this person has been arrested, and is looking at some serious consequences. What was his crime? Stealing from the public, then trying to rope other people into the deed over the Internet.

That didn't work too well, either. The first person who bought one of our items -- with all our markings still on it -- immediately reported it to us.

I've been asked by a few media representatives if we're now going to crack down on everybody, just because one individual took advantage of us.

No. We're not. The Colorado Library Card has been running for over a decade now, and it works very well. We place a high value on individual access to information.

Let me emphasize this: while there are many problems in the world, people using the library too much really isn't one of them.

We also value patron privacy. But when borrowers turn into thieves, libraries talk to each other. That's because we have another value: good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Incidentally, we got back the items swiped by the DVD gang. We'll probably track down most of the current batch, too.

So here's the bottom line for would-be masterminds: Taking advantage of the Colorado Library Card is smart. Stealing from us isn't.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

August 9, 2007 - reform needed not just for schools

I've been reading lately about the latest round of CSAP scores -- the state mandated tests that rank schools by student test performance. The consensus seems to be that scores aren't moving up fast enough.

It reminded me of a session I attended last June at the American Library Association conference, held in Washington, D.C. A former school librarian and now consultant, Dr. Michael Schmoker, is part of the school reform movement -- from inside the profession. He called his talk, "The Opportunity: From 'Brutal Facts' to the Best Schools We've Ever Had."

Schmoker's title comes from a book I admire very much, "Good to Great," by Jim Collins. Collins, a business researcher, argues that organizations only do well when they first confront the brutal facts of their environment and performance.

According to Schmoker, the brutal fact about schools is that in much of the day, in most of the schools in America, there just isn't much instruction going on.

That seems incredible. But, by way of example, he deconstructed what must surely be a common classroom occurrence: the teacher asks a question and calls on the person who raises his or her hand to answer.

But why? asks Schmoker. The student with the hand up is the one person in the room least in need of instruction. There are many other students whose hands are down, whose eyes are down, who are utterly disengaged. There are, in fact more of these students in the class than there are their handwaving counterparts.

Then Schmoker described something else: a case where, in a terribly underperforming school, suddenly one teacher makes a difference. His class math scores are zooming when everyone else's are static. So the principal walks into the classroom to see how come.

Is it because the teacher is some kind of genius, a star? No. He is doing something the other teachers are not: following some relatively straightforward instructional steps.

I'm paraphrasing, but the idea is, roughly, this: the teacher presents the information in a couple of different ways. Then he or she breaks the big group into smaller groups to try to apply the new idea, to practice. Then the students have to demonstrate the concept somehow. And we're not talking about just the folks who raise their hands, but the ones deliberately avoiding eye contact. Then the teacher repeats the process, clarifying any confusion, errors, or lack of understanding.

When these steps take place, so does learning. And every teacher already knows this.

So why doesn't it happen?

Let me be absolutely blunt: the reason is not unique to schools. It happens in every organization, every business large and small, in churches and secular institutions. Even in libraries.

Over and over, organizations train their people to follow a procedure or practice. When staff or students don't follow that practice anyhow, the answer isn't "more training." It isn't waiting till the test scores or stock prices coming out and then flagellating or firing everybody.

The best way to make sure that best practices are being followed is for supervisors to wander around and see. Then talk about what they see. Then remind everybody that we already know what works. We just have to do it.

The culture of accountability isn't about surveys or national tests. It's about the daily battle to stay focused on the task at hand. It's about not being sucked into all the other distractions, time-wasters, and artful dodges that so often fill our days. It's about being honest about the times when we don't hit the mark, and redoubling our efforts.

Guess what? That's hard. And it's why the vast majority of our private and public sector organizations are, by definition, "average."

Thursday, August 2, 2007

August 2, 2007 - Architects Vie for Parker Project

When I was in high school, I read a book that changed my life. It was Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Among other things, it was about an architect who designed absolutely original, and highly functional, buildings: private residences, housing projects, gas stations, skyscrapers.

You wouldn't think reading about that stuff would be thrilling. But it was.

Man, I wanted to be an architect. I even got a summer job in an architect's office.

Alas, much like another career plan that didn't pan out (theoretical astrophysics), I just didn't have the genetic predisposition to succeed in that field. Imagine: they wanted me to have artistic and mathematical ability. Who knew?

But I do have an appreciation for art and math. And in architecture, I think I've learned to figure out when something is derivative, or unique, a mishmash of conflicting and poorly articulated aims, or an elegant and incisive solution to real problems.

I've been fortunate to direct libraries in a growing county, so have had the chance to work with lots of architects over the years. But one of the projects we're investigating now is just about the most exciting I've seen.

The Town of Parker and the Douglas County Libraries have teamed up to sponsor an architectural competition. The point of the competition is to select a team that can create a compelling vision of something that just might transform the town and the library.

What is the project? A civic center consisting of a 45,000 square foot library, and a 500-750 seat performing arts center. The two would occupy a currently vacant 9.6 acre parcel of land.

But this isn't just a public project, unconcerned with its surroundings. Our intent is to build a vital public hub, connecting everything from existing pedestrian trails to the still growing commercial establishments of Mainstreet. We see this project as an essential anchor to a thriving downtown, a place of public pride, and genuine civic engagement.

Our current Parker Library, desperately undersized for the eager readers of the community, has over 1,000 visitors per day. That kind of traffic -- of all ages, all day long -- can be a tremendous economic boost to the right neighbors. In recognition of that, the Parker business community has been tremendously supportive of the project. The Town of Parker has even committed land to the library side of the development, for which we are deeply grateful.

But to make this vision a reality, we need two things: a preliminary plan, and thoughtful estimates of cost. And that's where the competition comes in.

The competitors are among the finest architects in the region -- and beyond. The finalists are:

* Barker Rinker Seacat
* Humphries Poli Architects, with Semple Brown Design
* Sink, Combs, Dethlefs and Thomas Hacker Architects

Each of them has an extraordinary body of work. And on August 8, they will be doing public presentations of their ideas for this project from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Parker Town Hall. Designs will also be on display at both the Parker Library and Town Hall, beginning on August 7.

Public comments are strongly encouraged. They will feed into a decision, by a joint committee of Town Council and Library Trustees, on Tuesday, August 21.

Maybe, like me, you don't have what it takes to design a great building. But you just might have what it takes to recognize one.

We hope you'll take the time to participate in the evolution of a community.