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, May 29, 2008

May 29, 2008 - DNA tells the history of mankind

For our 25th wedding anniversary, I gave my wife a framed version of a beautiful photograph she took of a pond in Berlin.

She asked what I wanted. I said I wanted to have my DNA tested. After 25 years, I said, you deserve to know who I am.

So she ordered the testing kit from National Geographic's Genographic Project (see www.nationalgeographic.com/genographic), and I dutifully swabbed the inside of my cheeks with the scraper. It will be some four to six weeks before I hear back. It cost about $100.

So those rumors about Indian ancestry -- truth or myth? Are there any other surprises? I chose to follow the paternal line (my paternal grandmother's father was supposed to be full-blooded Cherokee).

National Geographic also sent a quite wonderful DVD about the genetic history of the human race. Dr. Spencer Wells is a most engaging host, who gallivants around the globe exploring and explaining human genetic change.

Here's the broad thesis of modern genetics: we are all Africans.

A single genetic pool -- the San Bush people (the only people to use the "clicking" language) -- is a small and handsome tribe from east central Africa. Some 60,000 years ago some of them left their homeland, possibly because of drought. We know this: the oldest surviving strands of our genetic history (especially mitochondrial DNA, which goes back another 40,000 years) are in their neighborhood.

The next archaeological evidence of early humans appears in ... Australia! That's a little surprising -- it's 10,000 kilometers of water away. Rolling back the genetic clock and matching it to the global history puts that at a time when glaciers had sucked up a lot of water. The migration probably followed coastal routes (Africa to Middle East to India to west Pacific) that are now back underwater, so there's no intervening evidence.

But there was a final 250 kilometers of travel over water from Malaysia to Australia -- about which I can only say, "these people REALLY wanted to get away from their parents."

The DVD that National Geographic sent me is fascinating. This geneticist goes to Australia, where he is told by an aborigine that we westerners may wonder where we came from, but his people KNOW. They came from Australia.

But in an obscure, isolated village in India, there's a distinct genetic marker -- tracing back to Africa, and inherited by all Australian aborigines. But there are no Australian genetic mutations that show up traveling the other way (from there to anywhere else).

Conclusion: Australians are Africans.

There's another migration: Africa to the Middle East. From thence, to India again, and northeast (following migratory paths of animals) to central Asia.

From there, the genetic history of mankind abruptly forks: west to Europe (to move into lands where the glaciers had receded) and northeast again into Asia, thence to the Bering Strait, and over the land bridge to the Americas. That would be where my Cherokee DNA marker shows up -- or not.

The way this works is that my sample will now be nothing more to National Geographic than a coded number. And I'm the only one who knows the code, so it's anonymous. But I can look at that data, unlocking it with my private code, and follow all the migratory paths of my fathers. (It's another $100 to track your mother's DNA.)

I swear there is something in us -- collective unconscious, genetic memory, or something else entirely -- that remembers all these roads.

But I feel this deepening understanding in a way I haven't before: we really are just one family. It's pretty cool to have proof.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008 - we are all immigrants

I want to tell you about a magical book. It's a book that tells several stories at once, filled with tragedy and humor and love. It does this utterly without words.

The book is called "The Arrival," by Shaun Tan. It is, technically, a "graphic novel" -- a sort of hardbound comic book.

The cover looks like a worn leather folio, with a drawing of a man encountering some kind of bizarre animal. Just inside the covers is another arresting image: 60 faces, of every ethnicity.

The story begins in what I think of as "the old country." A man is packing up a photograph of his small family. Soon, we see them all walking through the city. Around them there are shadows: the tails of dragons, snaking through the gray streets.

The man boards a train, pulling away from the fingers of his wife and daughter.

Soon he is on a ship, along with many other emigrants. For several pages, we see nothing but clouds. Finally, he arrives to a country that is utterly bewildering. There is a big harbor, with statues in the water. There is an enormous hall.

The man is examined. Strangers look in his mouth, in his ears (with an odd instrument, something like a protractor). He collects stamps with mysterious symbols on them. Eventually, he is issued what may be a passport.

Next, the man tries to find his way in this utterly strange place. He looks for lodging. He encounters peculiar animals (like the one on the cover) -- first threatening, then increasingly familiar and friendly. He seeks work. He shops for food -- and nothing looks like anything he has seen before.

Along the way, he meets others, asking for help through pictures he draws in his notebook. And he hears their stories: of lands they too fled, where there were faceless giants who vacuumed people right up into the sky, of guards who seized books and imprisoned young girls, of the utter devastation of war.

There are moments of play and warmth; he meets another young family and they treat him to a meal at their home.

One day, he sends an envelope back to his own family, with money in it. Seasons pass, told in a kind of time lapse photography. And at last, his family arrives!

In the last few pages, we see the man's young daughter wandering, enchanted, through the new land. Finally, she meets another new arrival, and points the way, smiling.

The artist, in an afterword, thanks many people for the four years of research it took to produce "The Arrival." He writes, "Much of this book was inspired by anecdotal stories told by migrants of many different countries and historical periods, including my father who came to Western Australia from Malaysia in 1960." The drawings of the great hall were based on photographs taken at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954.

What makes this book so powerful? It has the altogether remarkable ability to capture the deep experience of the immigrant.

As you "read" the book, you know that you're literate, as the man is literate in his own language. But you can't make any sense of the symbols in the new land. You're as confused and thrilled as he is.

To convey a host of disparate stories with great insight and tenderness, but without a single recognizable word, is an act of genius.

What makes the story universal is that quite aside from which nation you came from, or which nation you wound up in, all of us travel from one inner state to another. All of us risk much, lose much, and learn much. Ultimately, we all depend on each other for attention, for compassion, and for help.

"The Arrival" is available from the Douglas County Libraries.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

May 15, 2008 - your reputation is a recruitment strategy

The numbers tell the story. Some 80 million Baby Boomers were born; 40 million Gen-Xers.

A 2004 report from Colorado's Library Research Service made several predictions:

* More than 20 percent of responding Colorado librarians expect to retire within the next five years. Of all responding school librarians, about half indicate plans to retire within five years—more than three times the proportion for public librarians and almost five times the proportion for academic librarians.

* Many librarians who responded to this survey are not waiting until age 65 to retire. Almost 30 percent of those who expect to retire within the next five years are ages 45 to 54.

* Retiring librarians will take with them substantial administrative skills. Of these prospective retirees, one out of five expects their job to be combined with another or eliminated. Almost one out of five expects to be succeeded by someone with less education.

Of course, these kinds of findings are not unique to the library world. Many organizations are looking around and noting that there's more gray hair in the room than there used to be. Not long after that, leaders realize that there are likely to be FEWER people with gray hair in the not too distant future.

This may be seen as more of a problem by old-timers than young professionals. It is the conceit of the old to imagine that they've learned something. It is the conceit of the young to imagine that they can do twice as much as their seniors. There's some merit to both.

But what can libraries, or any other organization, do about this demographic shift?

* recruit new talent. It's clear that there may be something of a bidding war for the best and brightest. There are at least two pools of candidates: young people just starting out, and older folks unhappy with their current jobs. The strategies for those target audiences are a little different. But it's clear that an investment in tuition assistance is smart in either case.

* retain the best. It's a truism in retail that it's easier to hold on to a customer you've got than to find a new one. Likewise, once organizations latch onto promising employees, it makes sense to define some growth paths for them -- to move them into leadership positions sooner rather than later.

One way to do this is through the creation or adoption of leadership development programs. Here at Douglas County Libraries, thanks to the good work of many bright staff members (Missy Shock, Art Glover, Pam Nissler, and others), we have developed a "Leadership Journey" project. It's focused on working with a series of employee cohorts to help them grow as individuals, and as leaders. The "curriculum" identifies skills we know matter: personal productivity, an awareness of various social styles, emotional intelligence, thriving on change, creative problem solving, and more.

Along with that is an important commitment: to give our people the opportunity to use those skills. We'll need them.

Another factor in holding onto good people is understanding what drives them. Librarians report some consistent things about why they love their jobs, with just two things topping the list: service to others and intellectual challenge. Another big factor is something the studies call collegiality: we genuinely like working with each other.

One of our Board members, David Starck, told me not long ago that in any customer survey, there's really only one question that matters: would you recommend our services to your friends? That gets at another quality that might be the strongest recruitment and retention policy around: your reputation as an institution.

That reputation today will have a lot to do with your reputation tomorrow.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

May 8, 2008 - dyslexia is diversity

"Despite the fact that it took our ancestors about 2,000 years to develop an alphabetic code, children are regularly expected to crack this code in about 2,000 days (that is, by six or seven years of age), or they will run afoul of the whole educational structure -- teachers, principals, family, and peers. If reading is not acquired on society's schedule, these suddenly disinherited children will never feel the same about themselves. They will have learned they are different, and no one ever tells them that evolutionarily, this might be for a good reason."

So writes Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development at Tufts University and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her book, "Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain," is an exploration of just what the brain is up to when we learn -- or don't learn -- the skill of reading.

Her fundamental insight is this: we were never born to read. There is no one part of the brain that was wired to handle it.

Genetic scientists have pinpointed (through the evidence of mitochondrial DNA) the arrival of Eve around 170,000 years ago. But reading -- the ability to decode scratches as language -- is a far more recent invention. Probably, it made its appearance no sooner than about 10,000 years ago.

This means that reading is not innate. It is a learned behavior. Brain research -- the ability to watch which parts of the brain light up as we read and understand -- has revealed that it is also complex.

Wolf offers up a lot of surprises. Get this: you use different parts of the brain to read Chinese than you do to read English.

That makes sense once you think about it. Chinese is ideographic, based more on abtract symbols than on letters standing for sounds. So decoding Chinese uses parts of the brain originally dedicated to the processing of visual imagery; reading English repurposes regions of the brain that process sound.

But English is not consistently phonetic. Other languages -- Finnish, German, Romance languages -- are more regular, that is, the letters match up better with the sounds. In those languages, children are pushed, sooner, to become fluent -- to read smoothly and quickly.

Each language has people who struggle with reading. But those reading problems are different according to the language, and manifest themselves at different ages. There is no one explanation for the trouble.

Wolf ultimately makes two points.

First, the skill of literacy is a marvel of neurological interplay. It activates all kinds of areas of the brain to make sense of writing. And when that skill is mastered, fluency gives us the time to think ahead, to think new thoughts, to grow in ways we simply could not grow otherwise. It's magic.

Second, but we are not all wired the same. Again, every culture has people who struggle with learning to read. But they are not "disabled." Famous dyslexics include Leonardo da Vinci and Tom Edison.

When dyslexics do learn to read, they literally have to build entirely different neural paths than the rest of us. Generally, they seem to use more of their right side of the brain, which isn't really set up for the precisely timed and synchronized tasks required for reading fluency.

But that kind of thinking has other compensations. In an evolutionary sense, we must need those kinds of brains. Reading is an important skill -- but our species depends on others, too.

In short, "diversity" doesn't just refer to differences in skin color or culture. Even within a single family, it can refer to fundamental differences in the circuitry of our minds.

LaRue's views are his own.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May 1, 2008 - Bollywood comes to Douglas County Libraries

Chris Virgil was telling me about one of the benefits of working in the part of the library that prepares new materials.

"I see things I didn't even know existed," she said.

"Like what?" I asked.

"Like Bollywood," she said with enthusiasm.

Bollywood, for those of you who haven't heard the term before, refers to a genre of movies made in India (from the name of the capital Mumbai [formerly Bombay] and Hollywood).

Chris told me that they had everything. Drama. Action. Romance. Comedy. Tragedy. Often within a few minutes of each other.

Oh, and music. Such music!

I remembered that my daughter had sent me a link to a Bollywood video clip once. (If you're interested, look for "Chaiyya Chaiyya" on youtube.com.) That particular song was infectious. Even irresistible.

So I was intrigued. I asked Chris where I should start. She recommended "Main hoon na," starring Indian superstar Shahrukh Khan.

It was absolutely entrancing. I've watched three Bollywood movies now, and they never go where I think they're going. For instance,"Main hoon na" begins with what appears to be a tense political/action scenario: an assassination of a general, and the introduction of a sort of supercop.

Next scene: some very hot college girls dancing and singing across campus.


Then there's the fascinatingly feminist story "Paheli," about a woman who is abandoned by her money-obsessed husband the morning after their disappointing wedding night. But it turns out that a ghost has fallen in love with her, and is capable of shaping himself into the husband's likeness.

OK, you think you know how that might play out: the ghost will pretend to be the husband until he's discovered. That's what Hollywood would do. But no. He instead makes an immediate full confession: he's a ghost, but he's really in love with her. Will she accept him? Cue music video and comic father-in-law.

Oh, and the whole thing is narrated by two wooden puppets.

Part of the allure of all this is that there are cultural practices at work that are completely mysterious to me.

There is also a bewildering tension between the frankly physical, even erotic dancing of the Indian women -- and their utter modesty. In these first two movies, in which romance plays a strong part, no one ever even kisses. (And that reminds me that Richard Gere was almost banned from the country when he kissed one of his Indian co-stars in public -- innocuous in Hollywood, but something of a scandal on the sub-continent.)

The third movie was "Rang De Basanti." A blond Englishwomen quits her job because they won't let her make a historical film based on the fight for Indian independence.

So she goes to India and hooks up with a charming but clueless group of young men. Oh, and the blond Englishwoman speaks flawless Hindi (although there's always a smattering of English words and phrases in these movies, which do nonetheless require subtitles to keep up with the action). We follow them around the countryside for awhile, drinking and dancing, see them get drawn into making the film, and the next thing you know, there's an engagement, then there's a political scandal involving high level corruption, and ....

Well, you see what I mean. Half the time I'm watching these movies, I'm in kind of a stunned glee. I never know what's next.

If you haven't seen a Bollywood movie, I recommend it. Search for "bollywood" in our catalog.

Also keep an eye open for our upcoming partnership with the Internet-based castlerockradio.com. Chris and another library convert, Suzanne LaRue, will be talking about Bollywood in more depth.

There's a whole new world out there.