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 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.

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