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, November 22, 2007

November 22, 2007 - First Impressions: It’s All About The People…

by Barbara Dash, Library Trustee

As a Douglas County resident for eighteen years, I have a long-standing appreciation for the programs and services offered by our libraries. But it wasn’t until three months ago when I became a new trustee on the Douglas County Library (DCL) Board of Directors that I had a chance to peek behind the curtain and find out how our library system really works. What I’ve discovered is that it really is all about the people – who do some remarkable things.

It quickly became apparent to me just how important the selection of a 7th trustee to fill a Board vacancy was when all six incumbent trustees and the Library Director participated in the interview process. I’ve gotten to know these new colleagues as wonderful, highly capable and dedicated individuals who take their Library Board responsibilities, including fiduciary obligations, very seriously. They’re committed to assuring that the library serves the best interests of our communities in the most effective ways possible. The Board holds itself accountable under Colorado Library Law, its own bylaws and annual performance goals, to the taxpayers of Douglas County and to each other.

Another group of 300 or so volunteers doing remarkable things for the good of our libraries are citizens who range from students to senior citizens and help with projects or regular assignments.

At the helm of the DCL system is the library director, Jamie LaRue. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for this pivotal leadership position. He’s an astute business man who is keenly aware of his charter to steward taxpayer funding, delivering the highest quality services in the most efficient and cost effective way. In fact, Jamie has essentially built the library into a large successful business enterprise, establishing the same standards and best practices that I’ve seen in industry. He’s also highly respected by other Colorado library leaders, and just this month he received a prestigious intellectual freedom award for the 2nd time.

Working right along side the library director are more remarkable people – his staff. Through the years of unprecedented population growth in Douglas County, they’ve constantly assessed needs for library services, which have increased in both volume and complexity. To meet those needs, the director and his staff are leading the entire library workforce through comprehensive organizational change. They’re deploying automation to achieve process efficiency and redesigning work to better utilize staff skills. In the end, it’s a win/win – for library workers who benefit from job enrichment and for patrons and communities who benefit from the expertise of professionals who have kept up with the times.

One of my most exceptional experiences is remarkable because it hasn’t changed. I received the same welcome and high level of service as a library patron as I have since I’ve been on the Board. It’s clear that a strong commitment to service excellence along with a passion for continuous learning and pride in their work are fundamental values that we see demonstrated every day in the work of the entire library staff. They simplify access to the vast inventory of library materials, offer an amazing array of specialized professional services, and create multi-purpose learning environments. Our Douglas County libraries have truly become community gathering places where all are welcome. What comes through loud and clear is that the enormous value of all these services for taxpayer dollars is one of the greatest bargains still around – to say nothing of the promise of greater returns for the knowledge gained.

There’s one more very important group of people who make the library what it is. That’s all of you who come to the library, utilize its services and programs, support it and give us your input. You inspire us and challenge us to continually strive to be the best.

I like these first impressions and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to serve with all of my new library colleagues.

Barbara Dash

Thursday, November 15, 2007

November 15, 2007 - Perspectives on a library

This month's guest column is from the ever bubbly Vonja Hunt, of Lone Tree.

Perspectives on a Library

By Vonja Hunt, Neighborhood Library at Lone Tree patron

Li-bary (pronunciation as a child).

No matter how you cut it or say it, libraries today are definitely an inviting necessity in our lives. And inviting they are! A far cry from the dismal drear of the ‘60’s library that shaped my world.

Libraries today take your breath away. They’re oxygen to the mind, soul and spirit. If the Lone Tree Library Life Support System were cut off from my life, gag me! And drag me away! What would I do?!?

Having the capability to place holds from my home computer on the vast varieties of current magazines, books, music CDs and DVDs. Well. Does it get any better than this?

In high school I worked just so I could have money to purchase music albums. And how disappointing it was when you spent your hard earned money and didn’t like the music once you got it home and listened. Being a creative type, I experimented and purchased a variety of music.

In my book, I simply can’t fathom not having the neighborhood libraries that we have today. Who enjoys paying taxes, yet it’s money well-spent when you get an incredible bang for your buck at the library.

Douglas County Libraries is a truly great library system. Trust me. I know! Every summer when I visit relatives back in Illinois and am forced to use their library, it comes with considerable frustrations. I feel like Dorothy in Oz - the B/W portion. And they call that a library?

For one thing, there is no limit on books I can check out in Colorado. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound of self-check. Finished. Take the receipt, bag em up, and go. No more lines. Can it get any better than this? Probably. Jamie LaRue is always working on innovation. Now that’s freedom, not limited merely to 4 magazines, books or movies as they are in Illinois.

Music CDs in Illsville – not on your life! Just ain’t happenin there! And the selection in Colorado is bountiful! Someone actually spends alot of money on great materials at Douglas County Libraries. Hallelujah!! It just gets better and better. If they don’t have it, they’ll get it for you! Material acquisitions are music to your soul and patron satisfaction.

Another great thing about Douglas County Libraries are the people. Having lived in Douglas County since ’93, you really get familiar with library folks. And you’re also sad when they leave. Still miss Claudine Perrault’s smiling face and cheerful banter. Hope she’s enjoying Estes Park! And I miss Mary who came long before Claudine. And Laurel. And Michelle. But faithful Ling is still at Lone Tree.

Sharing childhood library experiences with my kids, clearly they view me as a broken CD, but it’s good for them to appreciate what great library resources we have.

As a kid, my friends and I had to purchase Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books because the library didn’t deem them as worthwhile expenditures. That was tough on a kid living in a blue collar world. My friends and I would each buy different books and we became a library to each other. Without allowances, we had to scrounge for money by hook or crook to buy them. Douglas County Libraries are patron-and-kid-friendly and these issues simply don’t exist today.

WHAT a difference! If I could time travel back to my childhood, I would share with librarians what a great library actually looks like. Instead, I’ve joined the old-timer’s club and suffice it to say, today’s libraries have progressed beyond what I could ever have hoped or imagined for my own children.

Douglas County Libraries…the Top Gun of Libraries - the ‘best of the best’. Continually striving for growth, stagnation isn’t in the library vernacular. And it shows! It just doesn’t get any better than in Douglas County! For kids today it’s their natural habitat and my dream come true.

Perspective. My 14-year old son’s off-the-cuff view of a library is “a place where I can get Harry Potter without having to buy them (books and movies) and get my music CDs.” Hmmm.

Forgive me, Frank Capra, but “Youth is wasted on the wrong people!” (It’s a Wonderful Life.) And that’s two perspectives. Frank’s and mine.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

November 8, 2007 - thanks

I'm writing this on November 1, five days (at least) before I'll know the results of our mill levy question. But the column will run after election day.

So although I don't know how it all comes out, I'd like to take the occasion to express my profound gratitude to the many people who assisted in the campaign.

It begins with two levels of volunteers: the Board of Trustees, and the many volunteers within and without our organization who give so freely of their time and attention. Their thoughtfulness, and their willingness to carry the message of library plans and programs, are deeply appreciated. The library belongs to the public.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, I have seen firsthand, and heard from many, many members of the community how very impressive our staff is. From the shelvers without whom our entire system would fall apart, to the cataloger in the back room, to our facilities people, and to the many people who work with the public every day, we have been fortunate enough to find the most service-oriented people I know. They are wonderful, and our patrons have told me so repeatedly.

Most people have never worked on a political campaign, so they don't know how much work it is. Here's just a glimpse:

* fundraising. The library can't pay for political mailings and yard signs. That has to come from private citizens. Douglas County is fortunate to have many civic minded business people, willing to invest in plans that they believe will improve their communities. Particularly in the Parker area, many small business owners stepped up to the plate, contributing both money and time to begin the arduous process of public communication and persuasion. Moreover, many of them didn't even wait to be asked -- which, judging from what I hear from my fellow library directors, is very rare indeed.

* mailings. The science of electioneering is predicated mostly on direct mail. These mailings have a very brief life, often sorted through right on top of the trash bin. The mailings have to be clear, attractive, and concise. It's not easy to boil down a complex long range plan to an oversize postcard.

* sign distributions. Many thanks to the individuals who gave their free time to hand out or hammer in signs all around the county.

* public talks. There is a network of civic clubs throughout Douglas County, all quietly doing very good work. They graciously provided a platform for their members to hear about important community issues, and always treated library advocates warmly. They make our towns and county better.

* endorsements. I am humbled by the long list of groups who carefully weighed the library's case, and gave it their blessing. Some came from the business community -- chambers of commerce, economic development councils, and local media. Others were elected officials in charge of various levels of government -- county, school district, towns and cities.

* response to questions. I have also been heartened by the many people who directly contacted me to make sure they understood precisely what they were being asked to vote on. I suspect this happens more often than people hear about: a citizen phones up an "official" to ask just what the heck they're up to -- and then actually listens to the answer, and thinks about it. (They don't always agree, of course.) That, my fellow citizens, is democracy in action. And I know that I was not the only person answering questions. This same task was assumed by off-duty staff, our Board members, those business and elected officials I mentioned, and many others who follow the library closely.

There is also so much going on in the world, so many things competing for mindshare and money, that just letting people know what your institution needs requires endless perseverance and patience.

Not every campaign wins. In any contested race among candidates, someone loses. But here's one thing I have learned over the past months: there are many good, earnest, smart and hardworking people at all levels of our community. Taking the time to have these conversations with them makes me appreciate the people of Douglas County all over again. It has also been part of my continuing lifelong learning.

Thank you, all, not only for your contribution to the library, but also for your many contributions to the community we share.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

November 1, 2007 - the wisdom of crowds

In 2004, James Surowiecki wrote a book called "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations."

The basic idea is this: if you quickly poll a bunch of people about what they think is true, the mean of their guesses is usually close to right. Surowiecki marshaled a lot of evidence to prove the point.

I tested this recently at a gathering of high level librarians. By that, I mean the folks who run state libraries, or are deans of university library systems, or manage multi-state library networks. I asked, "Which technological trend or idea, in your judgment, will have the biggest effect on libraries over the next 5-10 years?"

I didn't give them any time to think about or discuss it -- just respond.

Both to my surprise and theirs, three clear trends emerged.

The first was "open source library systems." For the past 20 years or so, the library automation market has been doing what markets do: compete and consolidate. Now, only about four main software systems remain. And all of them frustrate librarians.

Why? Because none of them is as good as the two big search systems that most people use most frequently: Google and Amazon.

That's a shame. Librarians were among the first information scientists, the first to use automated billing, the first to build comprehensive computer inventories, the first to seize the Web as a tool for public information.

But despite our early lead, today's library systems have fallen behind. They're clunky. They don't allow our patrons to post comments on our holdings. They don't consistently pull up the most popular titles for a search term.

We trusted to the commercial market, and it let us down.

Oh, and incidentally, both Google and Amazon didn't write all this software themselves. Nor did they buy it.

Instead, they used the "free" software created by programmers, then given to the world. The Linux operating system. The Apache web server. The SQL database system. And so on.

Meanwhile, some folks down in New Zealand used longstanding library standards to build another absolutely free system that does most of what the big commercial systems do. It's called "Koha."

It turns out that a lot of librarians are just sick and tired of paying for second generation systems when the rest of the net has moved onto the fourth generation.

Not surprisingly, the second big trend was open source software generally. It's moving into the mainstream, and a lot of librarians think that its deployment in the public sector makes a lot of sense. For a long time now, the public good has been held hostage to the business plan of people for whom "the public good" doesn't mean much.

Today, there are open source office suites (see Openoffice.org), open source browsers and email clients (Firefox and Thunderbird), open source databases (SQL), open source IM clients (Pidgin), and much more. It's not only free, it's good. And it's not only good, it begins to open a whole new world of international communication and collaboration.

The last trend was "the convergence of mobile devices." In brief, librarians believe that handheld devices, and the instant availability of high quality information, are bound to affect the way people use information.

I should point out, of course, that we know without question that the growth of information appliances not only doesn't kill the desire for books, it seems to drive it up. But just possibly, getting the world's library in the palm of your hand is a worthwhile goal.

So what's my point this week?

Many people believe that there are just two kinds of markets in the world: for profit, and not-for-profit.

That's false. There's another market: an international meritocracy. That meritocracy is predicated on values that do a good job of capturing the purpose of the public library.