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, March 27, 2008

March 20, 2008 - who needs reference librarians?

Some of today's reference librarians are worried. You can see it in a recent editorial in Library Journal, by editor emeritus John Berry. I've heard it from my own staff in a recent round of talks with them.

They see a profound shift in the way we do business. To some, it looks like a de-skilling of the profession (without the hyphen, that looks like "desk-killing" to me, which might be accurate): doing away with circulation desks, putting more people "on the floor," shifting to paraprofessionals tasks that were once reserved for those with advanced degrees.

Together, it seems to add up to a more retail orientation, and a de-valuing of the education librarians worked so hard to achieve.

I understand the anxiety: when people's jobs change, they get nervous. They want to do well, and sometimes, the new "frame" isn't clear.

I'm one of those directors who wholeheartedly supports moving to what I think is a 21st century model of library services. But I absolutely reject the notion that the intent is to devalue my own profession. To the contrary.

Librarians are right: we ARE seeing a profound shift in the way we do business. It is a bottom-up transformation. It will end by greatly increasing the real and perceived value of librarians.

It begins with our adoption of new technologies: self-check, automated returns. These technologies haven't been cheap: but they are cheaper than people. And they do the mechanical, repetitive tasks that machines are good at, but take a steep toll on human beings in cumulative injuries.

Using machines to do such tasks is sensible: it frees up people to do what machines can't do -- use intelligence, provide direct service to other human beings.

But what did we do with the people who no longer had to stand behind circulation desks? We gave them additional training (and pay), and put them out where they could provide that service.

But that encroached on "traditional" reference territory. And to a certain extent that's accurate: people without library degrees are indeed talking to patrons, recommending books, building displays, and assisting with various library tools.

What then, is the job of the reference librarian?

I believe there are several:

* expert backup. Many of the questions we get aren't hard. In fact, about 84% of them are handled very quickly. But that last 16% is genuinely tough. For those, we really need experts, with the experience, training, and tenacity to track down accurate information. Reference librarians then become team leaders of newly integrated circulation and reference staffs. They're still in our building, and they still talk to real patrons.

* filling the gaps in our collection. Most of our new materials arrive in a never-ending flow: we've worked up purchase profiles based on what we've learned about the interests of our community. But there are gaps, both in our print and our electronic collections. We look for our professionals to help us identify the core works, classics, or altogether missing topics and perspectives.

* community reference work. I've touched on this in the past; I believe it to be the frontier of professional reference work. In brief, we need to send our experts out of the library, into the community, to listen closely for the questions, sometimes crucially important to the community, that it just doesn't occur to anyone to take to the library.

We're learning a lot about this. It does require a mix of new skills and old. For instance, our librarians are trained to conduct individual reference interviews. But how do you interview a community group -- and extract clear and meaningful questions?

Then, we go back and do the research -- an old skill. But then, we have to package it, and present it either in public or on our website -- and that's a newer skill.

This transformation won't happen overnight. But it will happen. Why?

Because we know it works. The new model results in significant and continuing growth of use -- that's added value.

For reference librarians, the more passive strategy of the past -- waiting for people to come to us -- simply means that we're not doing our best to provide the quality reference services the whole community has paid for.

Who needs reference librarians? We ALL do. But they might have to show up at your meeting before you realize it.

March 27, 2008 - Meet Aspen Walker

[After almost 7 years, my previous Executive Assistant, Patti Owen-DeLay moved on and up to another job. I'm very pleased to introduce my new assistant, Aspen Walker. As you'll see, she brings a lot to the job.]

In 1997, I graduated with a Bachelor of University Studies. This degree path allowed me to peruse and pursue many a passion, including literature, writing, painting, and philosophy. I had diploma in hand, but nary an idea about what to do with the rest of my life.

Luckily, I was guided by two aims that took precedence over just any paycheck: I wanted to serve others, and keep growing and learning for the rest of my life. I made career choices based on these objectives, but something was missing.

Then, in 2002, I started working for the Community Relations department at Douglas County Libraries. Finally, my opportunity for right livelihood stood up and stared me right in the face: I am destined for a life in libraries.

I should have known. A fifth-generation Douglas County native, I grew up on a mountain ranch a few miles west of Sedalia. The nearest friend was miles away, and my childhood was very isolated. I played in the woods, rode my horse, and read, a lot. I loved coming down the hill to visit the Louviers or Castle Rock (now Philip S. Miller) Libraries to check out fat stacks of books. My baby book has a reading program certificate from the Castle Rock Library, back when it was located on Gilbert Street.

In high school, some of my paintings were exhibited at the Philip S. Miller Library, and I spent many an afternoon studying there. Then, as today, I loved books of all kinds, and routinely devoured one a day. My teachers said I should study English. None of us ever made the jump to librarianship.

Throughout my life, I have used the local library in many of the ways most of us do: to excel at a job or in school, learn a new craft, discover everything I could about having a baby, make sure my kids became great readers and students, overcome adversity, connect with others, and to have fun and relax. It just took awhile for libraries to occur to me as a career path.

Today I live in a colorful, creaky old house in Sedalia, with my husband (a gifted musician and guitar teacher), and two beautiful, witty daughters. I am halfway through a Masters degree in Library and Information Management, and I am feeling right at home.

My new job, serving as assistant to Library Director, Jamie LaRue, is a much-appreciated opportunity. I get to practice my penchant for organization, while gaining an invaluable look at the inner-workings of libraries from one of the best library directors around, at one of the highest-rated library districts in the nation.

I look forward to a long library career in public service, as well as the promotion of life-long learning, intellectual freedom, and community building. I am eager to continue using my skills in community relations, fundraising, and event planning, while exercising my enthusiasm for knowledge, information, and service as a public librarian.

I try to steer clear from holding a lot of rigid and fixed beliefs. Strong beliefs cause much turmoil, especially convictions that exclude and ignore the importance of different ways of thinking. I absolutely love to explore viewpoints, ideas, and philosophies, but I try to remain objectively rooted in the understanding that most things are pretty subjective. In addition to some deep-seated ideas about the importance of kindness, honesty, service, respect, and persistent learning and growth, there is one thing I am absolutely willing to believe in: libraries.

Aspen Walker is the Executive Assistant to the Library Director at Douglas County Libraries (DouglasCountyLibraries.org, 303-791-READ).

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13, 2008 - evaluate performance, not people

Every other year, the Public Library Association has an annual conference. This year it will be held in Minneapolis, at the end of March.

It happens that several of our staff will be presenting at the conference this year, evidence that Douglas County Libraries is well-regarded across the nation.

One of the presentations is a partnership: Eloise May, the director of the Arapahoe Library District, and I, are teaming up with two Board members (Howard Rothman from her library, Mark Weston from ours) to talk about the topic of "evaluating the director." This presentation is directed mainly at the other citizen trustees of libraries around the country.

Eloise did a lot of the research, pulling in representative samples from various kinds of libraries: municipal, county, independent district. Then we've tried to make sense of the different approaches.

One of the clearest summaries we've found was written almost 20 years ago by Nancy Bolt, Colorado's former state librarian. She described three broad approaches to annually evaluating the chief administrator of a library:

1. Traits. Here the focus is on individual personality characteristics. For instance, the director is rated on punctuality, or communication style.

This might be helpful for a first time director. But after a board works through this once or twice, it quickly becomes obvious that most people don't adopt a whole new set of behavior traits over the course of a year.

Trait-based evaluation may help a board get to know the strengths and weaknesses of a new leader (and might help the new leader identify some skills that need work) -- but that doesn't necessarily determine how well the organization is doing.

2. Job description. Here the focus is on comparing director tasks to the job description as created by the governing body. Of course, it does make sense, from time to time, to make sure that directors are spending their time on the duties for which they are being paid, and that those duties are accurately described somewhere.

On the other hand, this approach doesn't usually capture strategic initiatives or planning goals. It's generic, by necessity over-broad. ("Prepares an annual budget." But to accomplish what?) A list of tasks is useful for lower level jobs, but tends not to work so well for administrative positions.

3. Organizational performance. Here the idea is that directors are not being judged as people, or by how well they fit the description of duties, but by how well the organization is doing according to its long range plan.

The Board (or other governing body for some libraries) sets the direction: we want to accomplish X by some date.

The director is then judged by whether or not X got done by that date, or can at least measure significant progress to that end.

To our surprise, a great many of the evaluation processes being used in the library world fall into the first two categories. It's the kind of approach that CAN lead either to irrelevancies, or to the status quo, as opposed to the accomplishment of clear business objectives.

To be fair, of course, a leader who has rapidly deteriorating behavior traits, or fails to perform some key part of the job description, needs to be confronted about that.

But the truth is, in both the public and private sectors, we get distracted by tasks and personality quirks. We lose sight of the fact that successful organizations actually set big goals, and work to achieve them.

And that should be the primary focus of leadership evaluation.

Monday, March 10, 2008

April 10, 2008 - power corrupts

"Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat."
-- John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, 1981-1987

I'm just going to come out and admit it. I, as director of the Douglas County Libraries, abuse my position.

I -- and let me be clear about this, I have NO intention of changing -- have let people know in our receiving department, our cataloging department, our circulation department, that I, Jamie LaRue, Library Director, get the comic books first.

That's right. Before anybody else. Before any tax payer in the county. I don't care WHO is waiting for them. I'm first in line.

I could try to pretty this up. When I was a kid, all kinds of other authorities tried to take my comic books away from me.

I remember, back in fourth grade, that I would try to hide them in my notebook, and my teacher (when I failed to respond to a question) would seize my comics from me. I never got them back.

My father, when I was away for a summer, literally burned (I figured out later) about $20,000 worth of comics (in 1972 dollars). I had the first 16 issues of Spiderman. The first Thor. The whole first several YEARS of the original X-men. I had the Carmen Infantino Flashes.

I remember the moment when I sat down with a price guide, and pointed out that my entire college education (and a big chunk of his second house mortgage) could have been entirely funded from just one of the grocery bags full of comics my dad consigned to ash one day. He was stunned. For all the good it did me.

Adults -- cruel, insensitive, foolish adults -- have repeatedly stolen or destroyed priceless treasures, key volumes in my personal library, at MANY moments of my young life.

Not that I'm bitter.

But I'm not going to go there. Finally, and I realize that a lot of people don't get this at all, I'm not a child any more. Yes, I've been victimized. But I am a victim no more. There comes a time when you have to reach deep inside yourself and find your inner adult.

But here's the thing: My inner adult likes comic books.

So, as director, I directed the investment of library funds in the collection of whole bunches of them.

I will say that we've ruined the comics for investment purposes. We slap barcodes, markings, covers, etc. on them to help them stand up to repeated use. That absolutely devalues them for collecting purposes.

But that's not the point. I firmly believe that some of the best writing in the world today -- and some of the finest artwork -- still takes place in the world of comic books.

As I have noted to several concerned parents, when I was just 5 years old, I was the only kid on my block who could spell "invulnerable." That's worth something.

I'll also point out that comics speak to young adults at precisely the moment that they lose interest in libraries. Comics surprise and re-engage them, reconnecting them to a world that combines word and image in a way that is far more demanding, far more literate, than TV or film.

I hasten to assure you that I'm not absolutely corrupt. I work hard to ensure that I add just one day to the distribution of our comics. There are times when I come home with 20 of the latest issues, and, sparing NO personal effort, work through every single one of them in a single night.

My wife has learned that, on those nights, I really can't be called upon to do anything else.

But there it is. I have been given great power, great authority. And I have taken total advantage of it to read the library's comic books first.

As Thor, the Norse God of Thunder (as interpreted by Stan Lee), might put it, "So mote it be."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

March 6, 2008 - real men aim for maximum gadgetude

I believe I know what most red-blooded American men want. It's not what you think.

And it isn't easy. There are many obstacles to be overcome to achieve the ultimate aim of maximum gadgetude.

First came my need for a computer. My first PC (a Kaypro II) was called "portable," in exactly the same way a sewing machine is portable. It folded up to a compact package weighing about 30 pounds.

I was, I now realize, obsessive. I didn't just go in and buy one. I researched countless magazines. I prowled computer stores. And because, back then, I was just starting out in life, I had to take out my first loan. For a gadget.

The next gadget that obsessed me was years later. I bought the second model of the Palm Pilot, which ran on two little batteries. It took me six weeks of use to cram my life into its modest dimensions.

Since then, I've upgraded twice. It's painful, when you realize that you have the oldest model in the meeting. The displays, the speed, the apps, are so much better these days. And that's bound to make you more productive, right?

A PocketPC? Please, I have my standards.

As time went on, I felt new stirrings. First, it was a laptop, although I persuaded myself that it was for my wife. Oh, the beauty of a MacBook!

When I tired of carrying a laptop around in my travels, I hit on a new strategy: an Internet Tablet. I settled on the Linux-based Nokia N800. And it was almost perfect, needing only an Igo Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard to complete me as a man. For a while.

(Or, of course, there's the N810.)

I watched in amusement and sympathy as the drive for maximum gadgetude took root in my son, Max. He needed an iPod Touch. He needed it so bad. His latent research skills (he is the child of two librarians, after all) wakened: he read every review, in paper and online. He was on a first name basis with the good people at the Apple Store, where he made biweekly pilgrimages.

Finally, Christmas!

Then, there was wii -- what passes for physical exercise these days, albeit in a virtual universe.

Just lately, my wife ran across an ad for something so brilliant I wish I'd thought of it first. It's called a MusicPad Pro. For just $899, you can have an electronic book capable of storing, displaying, and allowing notations on, all your sheet music. Pop it up on the piano or music stand, tap a button to turn the page. One device, tens of thousands of works.

I gotta have one. I gotta.

The Sony eBook: I felt pretty cool sitting there on the plane with 8 novels packed into a slim and elegant case. Until the flight attendant told me I had to turn off my book for landing.

So I was forced to pull out a science fiction magazine, picked up from one of our library booksales for pennies. And I thought, as I flipped through it, handled it, sniffed it, read it comfortably, then left it behind in my hotel room later for the next person... you know, this print stuff?

It might catch on.