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, February 28, 2008

February 28, 2008 - reading is paying attention

Hank Long, a buddy of mine who happens to be the director of the Englewood Public Library, sent me a provocative trio of articles about reading.

The articles included, "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading," by Howard Gardner; "Not Reading An Iota in America," by Randy Salzman; and "The Dumbing Of America: Call Me a Snob, but Really, We're a Nation of Dunces," by Susan Jacoby. All appeared in the Washington Post on February 17, 2008 (and elsewhere).

Gardner notes that every time there's a big change in media, the leading lights of the day both celebrate the human gain, and mourn the human loss. Plato, for instance, arguably one of the masters of the trendy new art of writing, "feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar side effects of 'Googling')."

Theologians also worried about literacy. Back in the 15th century, people started reading the Bible themselves, instead of asking priests to interpret it. One of the consequences of literacy was the Protestant revolution.

On the other hand, libraries preserved the stories, both myth and history, that would otherwise have been lost. Literacy encoded learning.

Salzman, meanwhile, wrote about sitting in a juvenile court waiting room, a place without books, where the dispirited parents and children sat staring, vacant. As for himself, Salzman had brought, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It was about Muslim women in Iran who read -- and by reading, faced being jailed, beaten or raped.

Salzman recalls "Charlottesville bookstore owner Kay Allison and her wonderful work in Virginia with 'Books Behind Bars,' a prison book-donation program. Allison says she gets about 20 letters every day from prisoners who write to her in awkward block letters, desperately seeking books. Every day. Using their literal 'down time,' they seek to recover reading and thinking and connecting to the world outside -- not unlike the women in 'Reading Lolita.'"

Finally, here's an arresting passage from Susan Jacoby:

"People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping 'I'm the decider' may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio 'fireside chat' so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president."

Here's the kicker: "According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it 'not at all important' to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it 'very important.'"

Jacoby's point is that Americans barely have any attention span left. She blames video.

She cites a Harvard study that "between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds."

I find myself more in agreement with Gardner. I don't think we're all getting dumber. I think we're still trying to wrap our neural networks around a host of inputs undreamnt of by our DNA.

We're smarter in some ways, not so smart in others.

But after pondering all this, it's hard not to agree with both Salzman and Jacoby: it can't hurt to pay more attention.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 21, 2008 - ignorance is not a goal

After over half a century of life, study, intense social interaction, and careful thought, I have concluded ... that I don't know very much.

In my more optimistic moments, I think that might be good. Maybe I've finally UNlearned some things that were stopping me from seeing the world as it is.

In less optimistic moods, I think the truth is both simpler and scarier. The universe is a chaotic system. It CAN'T be understood.

But usually, I do think that learning is possible. I just don't think I'm a great example.

Take languages. I studied French for 3 years in high school. I got pretty good, I thought. I could read magazine articles and novels.

But I've mostly lost it (although my wife and I are talking about signing up for classes with the Alliance Francaise). When we went to Quebec City last year, I was nearly illiterate. I didn't like that part, although I DID like Quebec City.

My wife, I'm sure, will quickly surpass me. She took 5 years of French, and then she majored in Russian (which took her only 3 years). And when I met her, she was cataloging books and microfilms in 5 languages.

But that's ok. If you don't study things because other people are smarter than you, you never learn anything. There's always someone smarter.

Recently I got a call from a patron who accused me of working to make America a bilingual nation, by which he seemed to mean that the library has offered some Spanish language celebrations and classes over the years.

Let me make this perfectly clear: the library is overwhelmingly focused on the provision of American English materials and programs.

A tiny fraction of the over 150,000 items we added last year were in languages other than English (just 246 items in our juvenile area). Among our thousands of public programs are also a few that focus on other languages. But the vast majority are about getting preschoolers ready to learn to read ... English.

So we are not engaged in some deep conspiracy to displace English from our shelves or our culture.

On the other hand, here's the plain truth: when it comes to global competitiveness, Americans are doing a truly terrible job on the language front. The public library strikes me as a logical place to try to turn that around.

There's good news in our society. Our public schools have an exciting new Chinese language program. Might it be worthwhile to learn about the language spoken by more other native speakers than any on the planet? (Particularly if you might want to explore Asian business opportunities?)

A lot of folks in Colorado have business dealings, or take vacations, in Mexico or South America. They want to speak the local language there.

A tenet of my faith as a librarian is that reading about other people's lives -- other ages, other times, other cultures, other tongues -- is precisely how we grow as both individuals and as nations. The strongest nations don't live in isolation. They talk to each other.

Our language itself has become the world's most popular SECOND language worldwide exactly because of that: we steal other people's words. We have the only language on the globe that has, or needs, a thesaurus.

The way to make English strong is not by refusing to speak anything else. It's by enriching it with everything useful we can glean from everyone else, and using those assets in new ways.

Ignorance is our natural condition. But we don't have to settle for it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14, 2008 - "Hey boss, I want YOUR job!"

My wife does something that's very smart. When she starts to feel sick, she takes an herbal concoction designed to boost her immune system. As a result, she rarely GETS sick. She just starts to, then gets better.

I have a different approach. It might be a function of my gender. I deny that I am getting sick, until eventually I'm so ill that I can't get out of bed.

That's usually when I finally condescend to drink the herbal concoction -- at which point, of course, it does me no good at all. It's too little, too late.

Lesson: It is easier to maintain health than to lose and regain it.

This is true for institutions, too. It is better to be alert to the equivalent of sniffles than to wait for the unmistakable symptoms of crisis.

I'll be honest. Last year, Douglas County Libraries had sniffles -- the foreseeable need for more space. The preventive medicine was, I thought, relatively painless -- a modest tax increase that would have kept up with growth, with a minimum of disruption. However, the campaign failed to summon enough supporters to the polls. Reality is what it is.

Now, I fear that the institution I serve will endure more decline, more sickness, and its recovery will be correspondingly more painful and expensive.

That depressed me. So to cheer myself up, I decided to invite our staff to schedule a series of private interviews with me. It was time to touch base with our people.

I asked everybody three questions. Why did they want to work here? What did they think we should be working on over the next couple of years?

Finally, I wanted to know what THEY wanted to be doing in 3 to 5 years.

And cheer me up it did. Working for the library are the smartest, most interesting people I've ever met.

We have former ministers, geologists, professional dancers, and teachers. We have people passionate about civic dialog, people eager to reach out to seniors, teens, and toddlers.

They are convinced that we can make our communities more interesting, more challenging, and richer in every respect.

And I believe them. Why not? They do it every day.

I was also delighted to discover a new generation of folks pursuing a career in librarianship.

They came to us, I hope you'll be as pleased to learn as I was, because we have a reputation for innovation.

We've earned it. Our staff has, and puts into practice, more good ideas in a week than some libraries come up with in a decade.

Some of our staff are pursuing traditional Master's programs in librarianship. Others are attending online programs. Some staff are receiving financial assistance from us for their schooling. Some aren't -- but should be.

All of them are eager to do something to improve the lives of the people in their communities. They want to be well paid,
by the way.

They believe that a library career shouldn't have to be a supplementary contribution to a family income, just because so many librarians are women. They are skilled professionals, brimming with entrepreneurial energy. They think their job merits a primary income.

They're right.

One young woman looked me in the eye and said she wanted MY job!

We both laughed, but I was very pleased.

I am now old enough to understand that few things can be guaranteed for the future. The only real, true pleasure of the administrative life is this: you get to see people grow.

I am thrilled to learn that there is a whole cohort of staff who care deeply about their work, believe in its importance and significance, and would be only too eager to shoulder me aside to get to the work sooner.

That's an attitude I completely approve of.

And it gives me hope. The last generation of voters denied the early illness of their library. The next generation might want to hang onto its health.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

February 7, 2008 - Chris Gates and civic engagement

My fundamental idea of librarianship has changed a lot over the years. I began with a simple love of books. Books did and do make me happy.

When I became a director, I focused on trying to understand the remarkably complex background of library operations. (Any business is complex when you really dig into it.)

As the leader of any organization must, I eventually re-focused on the process of securing sufficient resources to accomplish our plans. That required me to take a look at the larger context of the library environment.

At first, I saw the community (everybody "out there") as tools to help the library do its job.

About a decade ago, I had an epiphany. I realized that I had it exactly backward. It is not the job of the community to help the library. It is the job of the library to help the community.

We do that in two ways. The first is through personal transactions -- our responses to individual questions.

But we are also a social asset, serving the larger community in a number of other ways. One way is as an anchor of downtowns, a destination whose traffic greatly benefits those around us.

Our community meeting spaces also provide an essential opportunity for people to find not just library resources, but each other. We provide something that is in all-too-short supply in our world: common and neutral ground, public space available to all, and staffed with good listeners and researchers to help inform our conversations.

I believe the future of public librarianship lies precisely in this sphere of community integration. Every community has issues, questions, projects. Libraries aren't the only assets that can be deployed to assist; but they are, or can be, powerful ones, especially when partnered with others.

There is a swing in societal movements that parallels my own. One generations focuses only on itself. Eventually, either that older generation, or a new generation altogether, comes along to say, "but what about the rest of us? What about the larger community in which we all live? What kind of environment are we making not just for ourselves, but for those who come after us?"

And that question is the beginning of what some call "civic engagement."

Civic engagement has many dimensions. One of them, in a presidential election year, is obvious. Question: Who will decide the nation's leadership? Answer: only those who vote. If you're not registered to vote, or if you're registered, but DON'T vote, then you abdicate that decision to the people who do vote. You surrender to others the ability to decide your own future. And you live with the consequences of those decisions.

But civic engagement means more than politics and voting. It means taking actions, together, that result in a community worth living in, in which many can and do thrive.

That engagement will involve, on occasion, some conflict. There are competing visions of the future, and sometimes they have to be argued out.

The point, however, is not conflict. It is, finally, about cooperation, about processes of analysis and action to effect useful change.

On February 20, 2008, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., at the Castle View High School, the Partnership of Douglas County Governments is bringing in a provocative and exciting speaker, Chris Gates. There will be a little socializing from about 8 to 8:30 a.m. But Gates will start promptly at 8:30.

His address, a give-and-take conversation with the community, is free and open to the public. Many elected officials, and currently serving public board members, have already been invited. But Partnership members hope and believe that many other interested citizens will attend.

To ensure that everyone who wants to attend can be comfortably accommodated, please RSVP either by calling 303-660-7401 or emailing vhirschf@douglas.co.us.

Chris Gates is the first Executive Director of PACE, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. For 11 years before that, he was President of the National Civic League, a national, non-profit organization with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C. In addition to membership on various national boards, Gates is the founder and Chair of the Colorado Institute for Leadership Training, a former board member of Leadership Denver, and a member of Denver’s City Club.

Gates has been doing a lot of investigation of civic engagement around America. His findings will challenge your understanding of what's worth giving your time to.

What kind of community do you want to live in? And what will it take to craft that community, together? Isn't it time that you joined the conversation?