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, October 25, 2007

October 25, 2007 - my turn to share my story

This week's column comes from a Highlands Ranch resident who discovered a surprising secret: some of the best writing we've got is in the children's room.

b/y Manijeh Badiozamani, Ph.D., a Highlands Ranch Library patron

A lot of parents take their young children to the library. I did the same when my son was young. And since we moved across the country from Iowa to Illinois, to Indiana and then to Idaho (exhausting all the “I” states), we had the privilege of visiting many different libraries. This may not sound like a big deal, but what I want to share is how I myself benefited by going to the children’s libraries.

Having a graduate degree in any particular field usually means we know a good amount about that specific field. It also means that we probably have researched and learned a great deal about one specific topic. It was only after I earned my Ph.D. that I realized how much more there was to know. Having had my early schooling in another continent, I also recognized the fact that there were times when I was at a disadvantage when it came to having certain background information. It felt like hitting potholes here and there on the education highway. That is when the children’s libraries came to my assistance.

Basic knowledge about any topic is always the starting point. For example, when I felt the desire and the need to learn about the history of the United States, I dashed to the children’s library, and gave myself a crash course in the U.S. history in simple language, because the facts don’t change. Or, when I became interested to learn about all the U.S. presidents and their wives my first stop was at the children’s library. I had no idea Abigail Adams argued the cause of women’s rights with her husband, John Adams, in 1776, and that it was Eleanor Roosevelt who transformed the role of First Lady and made it acceptable for the First Lady to have a life of her own. From Martha Washington to Laura Bush, and all the First Ladies in between, I gained the basic information about these women and their contributions, great or small, to our nation through the children’s section of the library.

To learn the simple and basic version of any topic such as history, geography, government, economics, law, art, religion, or even foreign languages, one can start at the children’s section. We can always expand on the information and augment the basic knowledge by reading more sophisticated material from the grown up section. For example, I let Gore Vidal expand my knowledge by taking me into the minds and private rooms of Presidents Washington, Adams and Jefferson, or let Cokie Roberts teach me about the /Founding Mothers/: the women who raised our nation.

When I see young mothers take their children to the library - particularly if like me they come from diverse cultural background - I think of all the basic information that is right there at their finger tips. I’m a grandmother now and my grandchildren live in Seattle but I have no qualms about walking into the children’s library all by myself. The staff is always friendly and ready to help. I pretend I’m an elementary school teacher who is getting ready to assign research work to her students – only I’m the student.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

October 18, 2007 - Shall Library Funding be Increased?

Imagine that you run a business, and that you're doing very well. By every measure that matters, the demand for your services is on the rise. In fact, over the past five years, it's up by124 percent.

Not only that, your market share is growing. Eighty percent of the households in your target area are solid customers.

But you've got a problem. In order to keep up with that growing market, you need to invest in some capital improvements. You need more service outlets, particularly in the fastest growing areas of the county. That takes more cash than you've got.

What do you do?

Well, most businesses would go to their bank for a loan. And the loan officer would ask some questions:
• what's your business plan?
• what have you done to contain your costs, and position yourself for growth?
• what's your credit rating? How have you managed your finances?

Depending on those answers, and depending on the character of the business owner, the loan officer will grant the loan, or not.

That's how it works in the private sector. In the public sector, it's a little different. In the public sector, the people are the bank.

In August of this year, the Library Board of Trustees voted to place a question on the ballot: shall library funding be increased, through a property tax measure, by 1.25 mills annually?

For every $100,000 of market value, homeowners will pay about 83 cents a month. It's a bargain.

The money would be used to build and operate several libraries: first, a new Castle Pines North storefront library of about 6,500 sf (where our bookmobile has been), then a 45,000 sf library in Parker (replacing the 20,000 sf building there), and several years from now, a 35,000 sf building in Lone Tree (replacing the 10,000 sf building). In addition, some previously unfinished space in Highlands Ranch (both interior and exterior) will be completed, thereby adding two large new spaces to the building. Together, that should handle things for about a decade.

But that's not all. We'll also beef up our new materials at all of our libraries. We'll upgrade our Internet and public computer access.

Over the past two years, the library has reinvented itself, tightening its belt, finding new ways to display materials, and make our checkout/checkin processes more efficient and cost-effective. Our Foundation has solicited private donations. We have established productive partnerships with other entities, public and private. (The land for the Parker and Lone Tree libraries will be donated.)

As a result, the library managed to sustain 23% growth in business over last year. But our staffing has been almost flat.

The last time the library approached the voters was 11 years ago. Since then, the library has managed to keep up with the phenomenal growth of the county without any debt whatsoever.

So that's the business plan, that's what we've done to hold the line on costs, and that's our financial history.

And that's as far as a public entity can take it. Now ... it's up to the bank.

That would be you.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

October 11, 2007 - who endorses the library?

I was at at a restaurant recently, where I was approached by a young father who had something he wanted to tell me.

He had three children, ages 9, 7, and 4. One Saturday, he gave them a choice. They could do anything they wanted: go to a movie, go for a mountain hike, eat out, or -- but then they stopped him.

"No, dad!" they said. "We want to go to the library!"

He shook his head, then grinned. "It's their favorite place."

That, my friends, is the moment librarians live for -- learning that we've hooked the next generation, learning that the future is populated with people who enthusiastically embrace literacy in all its manifestations. It gives me hope.

That's a powerful endorsement.

But it's not the only one.

Over the past several weeks, I have been making presentations to a variety of business and political entities.

On August 23, 2007, the Library Board of Trustees voted to place a question on the November 6 ballot. That question is a mill levy increase of 1.25 -- about $30 a year for most households.

Thirty dollars is the cost of a single hardback non-fiction book these days. For that price, Douglas County residents will get two new libraries in Parker and Lone Tree (on donated land), and a new storefront library in Castle Pines North.

Everybody else will get far more than one new book. They will get literally thousands of new materials, as well as improved Internet and computer access. It's all our attempt to keep up with the apparently insatiable thirst for library services in Douglas County, maintaining standards of space that we've tested, and know will work.

And we've gotten other endorsements: the Parker Economic Development Council, the Parker Chamber of Commerce, the City of Lone Tree, the Castle Rock Economic Development Council. We've made presentations to other municipalities and business groups as well, and hope to get their support in the coming days.

Why would both businesses and government agree about the value of a strong library system?

From an economic standpoint, libraries are good business. The fastest growing sector of our economy is the small office/home office business. They get their start at the library. Libraries provide direct assistance in helping people figure out how to live AND work in their own communities.

Bridging business and government is the great value of the library as a bustling public place. We are anchor stores, and advocates not only for reading, but for a whole panoply of cultural offerings. Those activities get people out and about, forming new connections and civic awareness.

I have believed passionately in the value of the library to the individual since that miraculous day when I saw my first bookmobile as a child. As I've gotten older, I've learned that libraries not only build new possibilities for each person, but for whole communities.

We are a social asset, a building block for a stronger, more vibrant town, city, and county. We're not the only one, of course. But we work hard to contribute to the efforts of others, too.

But quite aside from my own endorsement, or the resolutions of other bodies, I still think it doesn't get any better than this: the kids of Douglas County think we're cool.

-- LaRue's views are his own.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

October 4, 2007 - $1 Invested Yields $5 Return

It starts long before the library opens.

At some of our libraries, patrons can be found in our parking lots at 7:30 in the morning. Why? To "park" on our free public wifi.

The doors open at 9 a.m. Always, there's a line.

Some race to the Internet computers. Others head to the newspapers, hold shelves, or reference desk.

By 10 o'clock, we get the storytime surge: moms and kids.

By 11:30, the lunch crowd starts to arrive. People race in to grab their books from the hold shelves. Other people browse, or sit and read.

By 1:30, we get a trickle of seniors, back from their morning workout and lunch. The business people arrive, cracking open their laptops, maybe researching a business plan to take to their banker, or maybe meeting someone for a quick sales conference.

By 3:30, school is out, and the students sweep in to get their homework out of the way, or research some project.

After 5, people swing by on their way home from work to pick up a video for the family.

By 7, folks are arriving to participate in our many public meetings: home owner's associations, reading groups, cultural programs, martial arts, Pokemon, non-profit group meetings, and on and on.

We close at 9, but we're sometimes still shooing people out the door at 9:15.

It all adds up to something that matters to a community: a pulse. Libraries generate a steady stream of traffic, all day long. We pull in people of every age and interest. And there's barely time to clean up after one crowd before the next one settles in.

As I've written before, that makes libraries a terrific downtown anchor store.

A recent report, conducted by the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library, put some numbers to the economic impact of the library. Eight libraries in Colorado were studied: Eagle Valley Library District, Mesa County Public Library District, Rangeview Library District (Adams County), Denver Public Library, Montrose Library District, Fort Morgan Public Library, and Cortez Public Library. And us.

Here was the main finding: for every $1 of tax dollar received by these institutions, they returned at least $4 back to the their communities. At Douglas County, the figure was $5.02.

The numbers were calculated in various ways, all based on last year's expenditures and activities.

First, what would it cost to secure the same services from other alternatives? In 2006, local taxpayers contributed $16,983,799 dollars to the library. But to have purchased or rented the books, movies, music, Internet access, meeting room space used by our public last year would have cost $66,283,529 from anybody else.

A second factor was "lost use." According to the study's surveys, some people simply wouldn't have pursued the information they needed, sacrificing it because they didn't know where to look, or because they thought they couldn't afford it. Value of lost information: an estimated $2,965,705.

A third factor is direct local expenditures, contributions made by the library to community businesses and individuals in the form of purchased goods and services: $582,830 last year.

A fourth factor is predicated on the contribution of library staff to the economy. At least some of the folks we employ wouldn't be working, for at least some part of the year. That cost is estimated at $10,042,081.

Finally, there's a factor called "halo spending." And that ties straight back to the "pulse," above. Based on our survey information about what else people do when they start out for a trip to the library, people spent an estimated $5,362,720 in neighboring businesses. A good 23% of those purchases would not have happened without that excuse.

Divide the total economic value ($85,236,865), by the cost, and you get $5.02.

People don't usually think about public services in terms of return on investment. But the return is real -- and at 5 to 1, it's significant.