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, September 27, 2007

October 27, 2007 - No Holds Barred: Lifelong Learning, the Library, and Me

Here's another wonderful literate essay from one of our patrons. Enjoy!

No Holds Barred: Lifelong Learning, the Library, and Me
By Lisa Hardman, a Highlands Ranch Library patron

As a weekly patron at the Highlands Ranch Library for the past twelve years, I find myself circling back through its doors again and again like a homing pigeon returning to its loft. Searching the stacks for solutions is a hobby of mine—my approach to navigating through life’s particular challenges and changing situations.

From the days when the library was modestly housed in a small strip mall to its current location in its splendid and spacious structure, the Highlands Ranch Library has provided a home for my inquiring spirit. To me, a lifelong learner and a busy stay-at-home mother of five, the library is more than a brick-and-mortar building. Its services and materials provide a mental lifeline, an intellectual retreat, and a continual source of knowledge that nourishes my rich, inner life and keeps my mind active, engaged, and invigorated.

Over the years, I have turned to the library when I have needed advice or help in various undertakings. For example, before deciding to home school my children, I read extensively on the subject, weighing all the pros and cons. For the next six years, the resources I borrowed from the library provided me with the support group, rich curriculum, and teacher training I needed to succeed.

When I started an adult ballet class several years ago at the age of 36, borrowing “The New York City Ballet Workout” DVDs and The Joffrey Ballet School’s Ballet-Fit book helped me become a better dancer.

While studying drama in a college literature class last semester, I checked out several video productions of “Hamlet” and the audio CDs of “The Cherry Orchard” to enhance my understanding of the plays we were studying.

Months ago, while working on a Beethoven piano concerto, I found a recording that helped me figure out how a particularly difficult passage in the piece should be played.

While struggling to find a way to connect with my older daughter, I encountered the book The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh, and Learn. Together, my daughter and I formed our own mother-daughter book club and four years later, it is still going strong.

And within the past year, reading books such as Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, and Writing Motherhood: Tapping into Your Creativity as a Mother and a Writer, have helped me see that my dream of being a writer is not only possible but even compatible with my current circumstances.

Of course, these are only a few of the ways Douglas County Libraries has improved the quality of my life over the years. With access to millions of items, my education never has to end and can always be customized to my continually fluctuating whims and ever-changing mind. Always accessible, portable, and free, the library accommodates every season of life.

Every time I leave the library hefting my oversize tote bag filled to the brim with books, CDs, and DVDs, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction, expectation, and gratitude. I am the richest woman on earth because I live in a county where I have ready access to information that enriches, empowers, encourages and shapes me, granting me the limitless freedom to grow and soar.

To quote our library director, Jamie LaRue, from past Douglas County News-Press columns, cultivating a rich, inner life is about “storing up treasures that endure.” It’s about “a series of experiments and explorations. And the public library is the laboratory. Literacy is more than a life skill. It's a life.”

What would I do without the excellent resources available through Douglas County Libraries? A better question might be, “What can’t I do without the library?” The realm of inexhaustible possibilities keeps me coming back for more, week after week. My holds await and with them, the immeasurable impetus of ideas.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

September 20, 2007 - why the demand?

This is a fact: the demand for library services is growing faster than our population. On the one hand, that's good: Douglas County likes its libraries. Nationwide, library checkouts are growing by about 2 or 3 percent annually. In Douglas County, they have grown by 124% over the past five years.

By contrast, our population growth, which is impressive by itself, has only jumped by 44 percent in the same period.

But why have our checkouts increased so much faster than our population? Incidentally, that discrepancy applies to the use of our Internet and computer resources, reference questions, programs, and meeting rooms, too.

It's a fair question, and deserves an honest answer.

I think there are three reasons.

1. Douglas County demographics. Our patrons are both highly educated, and, relatively speaking, have lots of children still at home.

People that have worked their way up to at least one college degree, and often on to Master's or Ph.D.'s, tend to value that investment.

Parents with small children go through a kind of awakening, too. They discover that "teaching" isn't something that only happens at school. It starts at home. It should continue there, too, if only because adult behavior sends such a strong signal to children about what matters.

Together, that explains both the remarkable use of picture books by our patrons, and the high use of non-fiction by adults. Our patrons value education.

2. Our collection. The library's computer catalog tallies a wealth of management data. We know exactly how many books, videos, and music CDs get checked out, and we can break those numbers down by subject, by date of publication, and more. Our librarians have learned to work way ahead of publication dates to order materials, and to predict demand with remarkable success. Our behind-the-scenes staff get those materials out on the same day they hit the book and discount stores. We've also gotten very good at displaying these materials so they catch your eye.

I wish I could say that I invented this insight, but I stole it from Denver Public's Schlessman Library: the right "mix" for a popular library's collection is roughly 1/3 kid's books, 1/3 adult print, and 1/3 movies and music. We've been testing that out for several years now, and it works.

Some folks worry about that last category. By carrying audiovisual materials, aren't we either (a) diluting the mission of the library as a purveyor of books, or (b) directly competing with movie and music stores?

My response: (a) libraries aren't just about books. They are about the active pursuit of knowledge, about the building and understanding of your community. Movies and music are a big part of our culture.

(b) I know of no library that put a bookstore out of business. If anything, libraries help stimulate the market for all of these things, keeping people interested when they can't afford the latest release, or helping them pick out the things most worth buying.

3. The need to belong, and to contribute. The third reason for our astonishing growth in use is that our library has consciously responded to a primal human need.

The county has grown so fast. So few people actually grew up here, that they're still trying to figure out where they live. People connect at programs and meetings. They notice each other at the Internet stations or in study rooms. They chat as they browse the new materials.

The library is a community hub, a way to explore the past, and help invent the future, of your neighborhood, town, or county.

All of these things add up to a library that enjoys remarkable use. People expect a lot of us.

It can be a challenge to keep up. But it sure is fun.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

September 13, 2007 - Why don't we charge?

Not long ago, we finished up our public meetings around the county, collecting responses to our long range plans. One of the questions that came up a couple of times – and then came up again from a staff member recently, was this: why don't we charge for some services as a way to raise money?

Several candidates for new fees were mentioned. We should charge those teenagers who want to use video games. We should charge people who use the Internet for longer than half an hour. We should charge businesses for the use of our meeting rooms. We should charge the people who use our study rooms. We should charge people who put items on hold, but don't pick them up.

Part of me can't help but notice that people usually want to charge other people for services, not for the services they use themselves.

But here's a better answer. We do charge.

Libraries aren't free. They are prepaid. When some one says, "let's charge businesses for meeting rooms," they're really asking to charge them twice. Residential property owners already pay annual taxes. Even renters pay – it's part of their rent. Business owners pay even higher taxes.

Internet use, holds, and study rooms are all services that we have decided are reasonable expectations of a modern public library. We factor those costs into our budgets.

Once, someone told me that he thought we should charge a nickel for checking out books. Then he multiplied our circulation by a nickel. "Look at all the money you'd make," he said. Then, we could reduce his taxes!

But of course, it wouldn't work like that. The mothers who check out 40 books a week for their kids, and thereby get them hooked on reading forever, would stop, or check out only 5. Students wouldn't check out an extra book for their homework. People would stop placing 20 holds they didn't pick up, yes – but they also wouldn't be coming to the library as often, or feel as good about it. Bottom line: fewer books in fewer homes.

Another suggestion was to charge $5 per library card. Raise the price, raise the perceived value! But I think it more likely to be a disincentive: mom would buy one card, and use it to manage the whole family's library use. That's sensible. But it would also deprive children of the joy they would feel (I know I did) in that pride of ownership. I am somebody, known to the library, a citizen with rights.

Charging for meeting rooms seems to make sense -- until you realize that almost all of those meetings are held by non-profits. They wouldn't be paying someone; they would meet at people's houses or church basements. Meeting at a public library involves them in a larger community, helps them gain visibility, helps them connect with other groups. It's a strategy that builds community.

So it seems to me that fees for library services, on top of taxes, are a sure strategy to reduce library use, decreasing the opportunity of the library to make a positive impact on people's lives.

Ultimately, the point of the public library is access. The purpose of public taxation is to spread the costs of library services among all, and thereby remove a barrier to education, entertainment, and participation in our community, especially for the folks who might otherwise not be able to afford it. That accessibility is behind the idea of "promoting the general welfare," providing a resource predicated on equal access to the benefits of our society, and the opportunity to better yourself.

So for the record, I'm opposed to trying to nickel and dime our community to the point where they stop using us. It just doesn't seem to do anyone any good.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

September 6, 2007 - thank you, ladies

Back when I was in library school, I did a research paper on the founding of Illinois libraries. It turned out that over 97% of them were formed by women's groups, mostly in the late 1800s.

Women's groups, as a whole arm of societal effort, were mostly the result of women's being locked out of the work force. There was a lot of untapped intelligence, energy, and organizational expertise in those women. But there were few approved outlets.

So, in the name of culture, in the name of education of the young, in the name of the establishment of wholesome influences on the citizenry, and in the name of the drive to be useful, many of these groups latched on to a new movement: the public library.

That impressed me again when I first got to Douglas County. Our libraries were also founded by women -- Nicky Mead and Ellen Buboltz, among others. Even in 1990, something like 78% or more of our patrons were female. (We ask a couple of demographic questions when people apply for library cards. Gender is one of them. Birth date is another. We never share that individual data. But it lets us match up patron data with census information, and try to figure out who we're leaving out.)

I just checked that information again, and guess what? The boys are catching up. As of this moment, 60% of our patrons are female, 40% male.

Is there a gender difference in library use? In general, I think not. Both men and women read a lot, watch a lot of movies, listen to a lot of music, and attend public meetings. Many men use the library as a virtual office, as a business start-up consultation partner, as a leads group. But this isn't the 19th century; today, a lot of women do the same.

Yet in one area, women still predominate: bringing preschoolers to storytime. Some dads do, too, of course, but not nearly as many of them.

More than a third of our business -- that's a third of over 5.5 MILLION checkouts per year -- is children's picture books. Long before these children get to school, the moms of Douglas County have already taken strong steps to expose their children to storytelling and literature.

I've written before about the significance of this effort in getting children ready to read. But sometimes I think there's something even more important.

Listening to lots of stories about other people's lives has a profound influence on the development of an essential human characteristic: empathy. Don't dismiss the significance of that. Empathy is at the heart of all kinds of moral character.

People who lack empathy go by another name: sociopaths.

When you listen to a story about children facing terrible circumstances, whether the grim tales of Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, or the adventures of Harry Potter, or the wonders of Narnia, you begin to imagine yourself inside someone else's life. You begin to grasp the profound influence of one person's actions on another.

The ability to understand that you are a human being, surrounded by other human beings in a variety of life circumstances, is one of the most fundamental life lessons. It leads to kindness, to courtesy, to helpfulness, to good citizenship.

Again, there are many other things that the public library is about. But it's worth taking a moment to thank the continuing contribution of Douglas County moms to something that doesn't get talked about enough: the creation of a civil society.