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, January 24, 2008

January 24, 2008 - where are we going?

Last week, I talked about who we are and what we stand for. This week I'd like to focus on where we're going.

Despite the hysterical predictions of pundits that the book is dead,
that public places are obsolete, and that everything can be found for free through Google, the plain truth is this:

• according to the numbers, the main thing we do here at the Douglas County Libraries is check stuff out, and most of that stuff is print. Last year, we checked out almost a million more items than the year before. Call me crazy, but a growth rate of 18% seems pretty lively.

• the next thing we do is welcome visitors. Our gate counters approached 2 million in 2007. I wonder how busy we'd be if we weren't obsolete?

• the third most popular use of the library is online. The library spends over a quarter of a million dollars annually for topnotch commercial information. These sources were used hundreds of thousands of times last year by Douglas County home schoolers , entrepreneurs, family historians, car mechanics, hobbyists, and our own reference librarians.

Did I mention that NONE of those data conduits is tapped by Google?

The choice isn't print or electronic, free or commercial. It's both.

So I'm not just making things up here: the future of the public library looks bright to me.

But where, specifically, is the library going? What stays the same? What's new?

The same: books. Well, let me rephrase that. Once upon a time, we bought books. Now, we've learned to buy books that get used. A lot. We've also gotten pretty sharp about using displays to push those books . There was a time that we could keep things on the shelf that went out just once every couple of years. We don't have room for that any more.

Two years ago maybe 25% of our collection was checked out at any given moment. In 2007, some of our libraries hit 50%. That's helped relieve some space pressure -- but things are much busier than they used to be.

The same: smart staff. No, it's better than that. Even smarter staff. We've put machines in the back room so we can put our people out front, people who really know what we've got, and have the time to help you find it.

The same: music and movies. New: as time goes on, you'll see more downloadable or streaming options.

The same: free community meeting space. New: more tools to search and reserve that space. Also new: displays of materials that follow you into those meetings, and directly relate to your interests.

The same: a rich electronic catalog. New: a catalog that does a better job of integrating dissimilar kinds of data. For instance, if you search for the subject of "autism" you should get not only all the things we can check out to you (books, movies, and music), and not only articles from our electronic medical journals, but also programs or meetings on the topic -- and maybe contact information for local speakers or experts.

I have two more ideas that I'll take up in the next couple of weeks: tools for would-be authors, and the importance of the library in something that needs a whole lot more attention in Douglas County -- civic engagement.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

January 17, 2008 - who are we?

Every now and then, I think it prudent to let the readers of this column know what the library is and what it stands for.

The Douglas County Libraries is an independent library district, established by the voters of Douglas County in 1990. Its boundaries are identical to those of the county itself. The vast majority of library funding comes from a property tax (of four mills per year), also established by county voters. In 2008, annual library revenues will be just over $21 million.

The library is governed by a 7 member Board of Trustees, who are appointed by the County Commissioners to represent the three commissioner districts. Beyond that appointment, however, the County has no other say in the funding or operation of the library.

We have the following service locations: the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, the Highlands Ranch Library, the Lone Tree Library, the Louviers Library, the Parker Library, and the Roxborough Library. We also have a bookmobile that visits Castle Pines North, and a sprinkling of other neighborhoods.

We have a pick-up point through the good graces of the Cherry Valley Elementary School. Thanks to generous underwriting by IREA, we also offer a books by mail program to our patrons in Deckers.

These facilities house our ever-expanding collection of materials (books, magazines, movies, and music). At this writing, all of our libraries together own 729,981 items -- a little over 2 per county resident.

Our facilities also provide for a jam-packed schedule of library programs, including everything from storytimes for very young children, to book discussion groups for grown-ups, and everything in between. The library also hosts literally hundreds of free community meetings every month.

In addition to these bricks and mortar locations, we have an impressive online presence: www.douglascountylibraries.org. With your Douglas County Libraries card you can manage your library account, and unlock a host of powerful databases. Those databases allow you either to do your homework online, or conduct surprisingly in-depth community or business research, all 24/7. If you get stuck, we offer online reference assistance, where you can ask for help from real live humans.

What is our purpose? The job of the modern public library is simply expressed: we gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual resources of our culture.

"Intellectual resources" means all of those books, magazines, movies, music, and electronic resources I mentioned above -- but not just that. It includes our smart, capable staff, whose combined expertise is staggering. We employ a little over 330 people, and their service ethic and intelligence is the foundation of our reputation and effectiveness.

The glory of the public library -- and along with Denmark and Finland, nobody does it better than the United States -- is that we are highly optimized to respond to individual inquiry. We don't push any agenda. We don't have a curriculum. We reflect the chaos and contradictory perspectives of (mainly) the nation -- but with enough information from and about the rest of the world to remind us that we are not alone.

At the public library, even the youngest and the poorest have equal access to the great conversation of the human species. Knowledge is indeed power, and the library -- as the premiere advocate for literacy in our society -- is the bootstrap we use individually and collectively to lift ourselves from ignorance.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

January 3, 2008 - who can you trust?

Recently I ran across an article debunking some longstanding medical myths. Among them is the idea that "We use only 10% of our brains." In reality, according to WebMD Medical News, "Most of the brain isn't loafing. Detailed brain studies haven't found the 'non-functioning' 90% of the brain."

I found that strangely comforting. OK, we could be smarter, but not 10 times smarter.

Then I read a very pleasant book, written in a light, breezy style, by one Cordelia Fine. But it was on a delayed fuse. The title of the book is, "A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives."

Here's the bottom line: the evidence suggests, and there's a lot of it, that you are not in charge of your life. Almost all of your decisions, likes and dislikes, and even so-called "voluntary" movements are under the direct control of your unconscious.

And your unconscious is not to be trusted.

Psychology is getting positively frightening these days. Experiment after experiment is showing us a host of unflattering truths about ourselves.

Consider this sampling from the table of contents:

* The Vain Brain: for a softer, kinder reality. Your memory is a work of fiction. Other people may make mistakes. You were misled by circumstance.

* The Immoral Brain: the terrible toddler within. We want what we want. And what's more, almost everybody can be coerced, by just the mildest of authority figures, into committing abominable acts. The author recounts the famous "Milgram obedience studies," in which "about two-thirds of ordinary men and women will obediently electrocute a fellow human being."

* The Deluded Brain: a slapdash approach to the truth. We believe a host of things that simply aren't true. What's more, we are susceptible to the most obvious ploys. Here's an example: if I ask you if you're happy with your social life, you'll tell me that you mostly are. If I ask you if you're unhappy with your social life, you'll tell me that you mostly are. How I ask the question has a lot to do with how you are "framed" to answer it. Clearly, this has profound implications in the worlds of media, business, and politics.

* The Pigheaded Brain: loyalty a step too far. We don't consider the evidence, then make up our minds. We make up our minds, and arrange the evidence to fit. Or better yet, we are impervious to the evidence. Fine, an Australian, cites the certainty among many Americans that Iraq had something to do with 9/11.

* The Secretive Brain: exposing the guile of the mental butler. Subtle measurements have determined that even in simple tests like "raise your finger," the motor signal begins long before the conscious mind is aware of it.

* The Weak-willed Brain: the prima donna within. Having trouble dieting?

* The Bigoted Brain: "thug....tart...nerd...airhead." Once again, psychology shows us how very difficult it can be to rid ourselves of foolish and destructive prejudice.

But is it hopeless? No. Fine makes several useful points.

First, the unconscious may not always be reliable, but it's often useful. Think of driving to work -- a task that when you were learning to drive took everything you had. Now, you can listen to the radio, talk with friends, and devote your consciousness to other tasks, however inappropriate. The unconscious, most of the time, handles things with remarkable ease. Life would be difficult without it.

Second, you actually can dig into your brain and correct its more egregious errors. People have succeeded in conquering their wanton urges, or resisting mind control, or combating prejudice. It takes work, though.

Third, far from "only using 10% of our brains," our brains are so quick, so busy, so sly, so relentless, that it would be more correct to say that we're only AWARE of about 10% of our brain.

And that's the way it wants it.

LaRue's views are his own.

January 31, 2007 - let's grow authors!

About a year ago, I pitched an idea to one of our vendors: give us tools to grow new authors!

I'm not talking about the library abandoning our core business. But more and more of our tools are electronic. Maybe we could leverage those assets to capture folks who don't want just to consume new books and articles, but to create them.

How might that work?

Step One: Recruitment. Our website would have a banner: "CALLING ALL (would be) AUTHORS!" You follow that link, and it says something like this: "Got an idea for an article? A poem? A book? Or do you just have to get that school paper written? Follow this link!"

Step Two: the Interview. Now, a series of questions would help the budding author narrow things down. OK, it's an article. General audience, or professional? Formal or informal? Research-based or opinion?

Or if it's a poem, we would ask if it is formal (academic or structured, e.g. a sonnet), or humorous, or a more free form, personal statement.

I'm not suggesting that this interview would be conducted by a live person, by the way. Instead, I envision an automated decision tree -- the kind of diagnostic software you're beginning to see in doctor's offices.

Step Three: Templates. Other screens would guide you to sample outlines for producing some specific kind of document. That might be the skeleton of a process: here's a checklist of some recommended steps to writing (for example) an article for a general interest magazine. Print out the guide -- or maintain it online as you work through it.

Or it might be a collection of "Best Practice" documents -- some models of generally accepted quality in the area of book abstracts, short stories, and so on.

Step Four: Research. For non-fiction works, maybe now the library presents some guidelines to our resources. That might be a subset (health, science, education, business, etc.) of our online magazines files. Or it might be a pre-structured catalog search for certain kinds of books.

For fiction, we could offer (for instance) a recommended reading list of romance or science fiction short stories.

Step Five: Networking. Once you get a draft together, you want to share it. We might offer some options: come to one of our writers groups and meet your colleagues!

Or, "here is a list of local readers who would be happy to read and comment on your draft" -- possibly professional readers or copy editors, maybe for a posted fee. The idea is to connect you either to an amateur or a professional community of people who also want to write, or help you write better.

Step Six: Publishing! Again, there are several possible outcomes. Perhaps the completed work is submitted to an agent. The tools might have all kinds of tips about marketing your work. Maybe we have links to agents, or places where agents can scout sample bits of somebody's work. Some sample contracts and fee arrangements would be useful.

Or suppose the library becomes the publisher! That might be actual print, in partnership with a publisher or local print shop.

Or it might be online only -- cataloged, downloadable to an eReader of some kind, or just available from our website. And from there, the public (or publishers or agents) might again track down and comment on the works.

So you tell me: would such a tool be a good thing for libraries to push?

Here's what I think: it WOULD encourage thoughtful readers to discover the best libraries have to offer.

But it might do something better. It could be that the greatest writer of the 21st century is right here in Douglas County. Maybe she, or he, just needs a little nudge from a trusted party.

Your local public library.