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, April 24, 2008

April 24, 2008 - more use, less space

You probably didn't know this: some libraries aren't big enough to hold their own stuff.

Several years ago, I got it into my head to look at what percentage of our materials were checked out at any given moment. I was impressed to discover -- at least about five years ago -- that the answer was "around 25%."

Then I realized something else: if those materials came back, we had nowhere to put them. We depended on at least that level of use to allow us to buy anything new.

As everyone who uses the library is surely now aware, we've made some changes over the past couple of years. We've studied up on the merchandising used by successful bookstores. We've gotten a lot more ruthless about the materials we keep. If they're not used, they don't last. We don't have room for them.

At a couple of our neighborhood libraries -- our laboratories for defining the 21st century library -- we set very aggressive goals. If we do a really good job of matching our materials to public demand, we thought, we ought to be able to check out fully half of our collection.

And guess what? Last week, our Neighborhood Library in Lone Tree hit 60%. It is the first of our libraries ever to hit that mark.

For most libraries, 20% of the inventory drives 80% of the business. If you look at a library's most popular items (of which some 80% might be checked out), they tend to be what's new. The bestsellers. The Oprah choices. DVDs and music.

But not only just what's new. There are also perennial classics, particularly in the children's areas. Series. A few beloved authors who find new generations of fans.

The question of the Neighborhood Library was: what if we made the 80% of hot items a full 80% of the stock?

Answer: then you check out 60% of the whole collection. (And who knows if we've hit the top?)

I've been checking around with my library colleagues, and this is mighty unusual. Most of the libraries in the United States never rise above approximately 25% of their collection in use. Some are in the 10% range -- or under.

So do I judge this experiment a success? I do.

It seems sensible that a heavily used library is of more value to the public than one that isn't.

It is also the case that a library with lots more of its items in motion, can provide more items overall. Why? Because there's more room to display them, at least until they get snatched up again (and they get snatched a lot quicker from displays than they do from spine-out bookshelves).

This percentage of use is not as high in our regional libraries. Why is that? Because we're not quite as ruthless in our inventory control.

At Roxborough and Lone Tree, a book has to go out at least 7 times a year to earn its space. But at our other libraries, we've tried to hold sufficient space for items that might be called definitive in some non-fiction field, or classics (such as the gloomy "Ethan Frome," or, and don't ask me why, the maddening and incomprehensible works of Faulkner).

It does seem a reasonable expectation that a library should also preserve "the best" of our culture's intellectual works. Libraries serve not only the function of popular entertainment, but also of education and lifelong learning.

But I'm left with a curious mix of emotions. On the one hand, I am very proud of our staff (and it takes the whole staff) for reaching this impressive new level of service, wringing ever more use out of every square foot we've got. That's a victory worth celebrating.

On the other hand, all of this innovation put off, but didn't solve, our core problem. We have more patrons, with higher expectations and demands. But our facilities are maxed out.

Bottom line: We have less library space per patron this year than we did last year. That means less "stuff" for everybody, whether those items are popular or not.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

April 17, 2008 - library goes green

A LONG time ago, my wife and I wrote an article about "green librarianship." Just then -- back around the late 1980s -- a lot of information was coming out about "sick building syndrome," and the toxic effects of some chemicals.

Since then, I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to practice the principles of green librarianship.

My continuing interest in this topic is based on an administrative realization. People imagine that the costs of library facility operations are all about their construction. That's not true. The cost is in operations.

I think designing our buildings to be green is not just a good thing to do, it demonstrably saves taxpayer money. I've written in the past about "LEED-certification" (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; the levels move up from silver to gold to platinum.) We hope to be pursuing LEED-certification for all our future library buildings.

We've even invested in LEED-accreditation for our Facilities Manager (I believe he's one of the first in the county, if not the first), and he's already saved us money.

There are also some retrofits – making an existing building greener. Some examples: we put solar panels on our Neighborhood Library at Lone Tree, cut back water use in our restrooms, retrofit some of our older and inefficient lighting, and added occupancy sensors for lighting controls. It adds up.

Another thing we've done at our buildings is to ensure a good supply of fresh air. That drives up heating and cooling costs, but it keeps public and staff healthier. Our Heating/Ventilation/Air-Conditioning system also has some sophisticated software that helps us manage our energy use better.

Yet another approach is recycling. We have an in-house recycling program for all kinds of waste. Incidentally, soon we will no longer offer plastic bags for people to stuff their checkout materials into. But we encourage you to bring your own bags.

We also offer (for purchase) a large canvas bag with the library logo on it. We're working on a smaller bag that we'll sell for $1 each.

In April, during National Library Week (April 13-19), we're offering some "GO GREEN programming" -- on the topics of homemade natural cleaning products, recycling with worms, and organic food. Check our website for details (DouglasCountyLibraries.org).

Do you have some tips for going green? If so, send them to gogreen@dclibraries.org. Maybe you've discovered or learned something that really makes a difference in your own home or business. Share! We plan to post the best of what we gather.

Incidentally, Douglas County Libraries is not the only Douglas County organization working on this effort. In fact, all members of the Partnership of Douglas County Governments have put "going green" -- sustainability -- on our mutual agenda.

We have been blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful natural setting in the county; respecting that asset in our construction and operations preserves the very thing that brought many of us here in the first place. It also represents a more enlightened, long-term view of the real costs of government.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

April 3, 2008 - we're building (virtual) communities

There was a time when people wrote letters to their friends and families, providing a highly detailed record of people's lives and times. Those letters are archived in libraries and museums today.

But historians are worried about something you may not be: how do we preserve the record of our own times? How do you archive a phone call? Who saves email?

Enter the "blog." The blog, or "web log," is an online journal, available for perusal and commentary by the public.

You might be thinking: okay, I can see why someone might want to keep a journal. But why on earth would you want to put it out on the World Wide Web? Come to that, who would want to READ someone else's journal?

Well, people can post responses to blog entries, or even subscribe to a "feed" to keep up with events in the lives of friends and family. Moreover, blogs let you link to other interesting things on the Web.

But there's more to it than that. For one thing, there's a lot of interesting reporting and commentary going on out there -- outside of the control of the corporate media giants.

For another, there's that issue of gathering and preserving information about our own life and times.

Recently, I spent some time with a demo of our utterly redesigned website. Our staff will get to see it first (in April); we have some testing and tweaking to do.

But when we roll it out for the public (in May, we hope), you'll see a site that is very like a blog.

By that, I mean several things:

* it will look fresher, more modern, and be much easier to navigate and search through.

* people can gather in small groups and interact using web tools and space that the library provides. Think of it as a virtual community center.

We're calling this part of our new website "Community Groups." The idea is to provide people a place to organize and interact around a hobby, event, or topic of interest.

One person from each group will be the moderator and will be authorized to "approve" all other group members. Groups will be provided a blog, wiki, poll, calendar, and a small upload space for images -- the tools of Web 2.0.

Who are we welcoming into our virtual community?

The list includes soccer groups, carpooling moms, play date groups, the Downtown Parker Development group, the church choir, the cub scouts, the quilters, the recyclers -- the familiar people that we see in our library meeting room’s everyday.

Take the parents of the Barracuda swim team. They would join the group and logon to post information such as swim meet locations and times, contact numbers, snack schedules, images of the last swim meet and a poll for end-of-the season coach gift ideas. The parents can sign up for RSS and receive new posts through e-mail.

With the addition of these blog-like features, the library website becomes something new: a library branch, open 24 hours a day, and run by the community itself. And in the process, it writes its own history.