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, June 26, 2008

June 26, 2008 - "Why do I not know about this?"

A few weeks ago, I put out a call for stories about how the library changed lives. I'd like to give you a taste of some of the wonderful responses we've gotten.

This one is from Hannah Fenstermacher:

"I grew up with the library having a consistent presence in my life. My mom was a library fan, and I remember going to our small town library each week to pick out new books. I continued to enjoy libraries as I went on to college - and then when I moved to Castle Rock - the library was one of the first places on my list to visit. While I have always enjoyed libraries - and always been an avid reader - I am not sure it was necessarily life changing until I had a baby last August.

"I believe new mothers generally have a couple things in common - they're pinching pennies, they're malnourished of adult interaction, and they're wondering how the heck they entertain this new little person ALL DAY LONG without going crazy. I fell into all three of those categories - particularly because previous to having our daughter, Freya, I was always on the go and surrounded by adults all day long, whether through school or work. I decided to begin working part-time from home when Freya was 4 months old and began interviewing babysitters to watch her a couple hours a week. One of these daycare providers mentioned 'baby storytime' to me, and asked me if I had ever been. I said no, and thought to myself, why do I not know about this??

"I began attending baby lapsit storytime on Tuesdays at the Castle Rock library with Geri in November 2007 when Freya was nearly 5 months old. We were hooked! It has now been about 6 months . . . and we never miss a Tuesday .... Nowhere else can you come into a safe environment, where your child can shake rattles, listen to stories and interact with other children where there is no cost involved. Nowhere else does Geri say every single time, 'You are wonderful people - if no one yet has told you how wonderful you are today, I am telling you now.' No where else can you interact with other parents, who are also there because they care about their child's development and want to have other parent interaction.

"A 30 minute period once a week may not seem 'life changing' to most people .... But, I truly believe that when I leave storytime, I am a better mother. Not only because I have exposed my child to reading and everything wonderful that goes with it - but because I have had a break in my day where there is guaranteed fun, happiness and support."

Over the past months, we've been taking advantage of recent research on brain development to better establish something called "early literacy." If you read to your child, you probably already follow these simple steps -- but you may not know it.

By taking the time to understand those steps, like those followed by such warm and loving staff as Geri, you can be a far more effective teacher for your child.

For more information about this wise investment in the development of your child's brain, see our website at http://www.douglascountylibraries.org/AboutUs/Literacy. Look for "early literacy."

Douglas County Libraries -- keeping moms sane and making kids smarter. It's the right thing to do.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

June 19, 2008 - library launches new website (DouglasCountyLibraries.org)

I've learned a few things over the years.

1. Almost everything important requires teamwork.

2. Significant achievement should be celebrated.

3. Nothing is ever finished.

In light of these three principles, I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge a big moment: a new library website.

In accordance with the first principle, I'd like to thank Moira Ash (Web Administrator), Bob Pasicznyuk (Associate Director of Virtual Services), the Contact Center staff (Sabrina Speight, Don Dickenson, Lois Karbach, Carey Lambert, Jacque Moore, Janet Nelson, Carol Parry, Tanna Crowley, Kayla Hickman), Laurie Van Court, Hutch Tibbetts, Linda Sturgeon, our Community Relations staff, Roy Johnston, and the many others who helped us hone the user profiles, assemble databases and tools, and generally assist in rolling out a 21st century web presence.

Our website is a kind of library branch -- open 24/7, boasting a host of services, and staffed by real people, even if you can't see them. Our technical and support staff are among the best in the world, and their work together is impressive.

The library was the first website ever to flower in Douglas County, back a dozen years ago now. Our latest website went live on June 10, 2008. This one is based on Drupal, a complex and powerful Open Source "content management system." It allows not only the creation of complex websites, but permits, and incorporates, user comments. This marks a change in how we add content to our site, distributing the work among many minds.

I hardly know how to describe the incredible richness of our site. It really is much like a visit to a library.

Front and center (the blank spot at the top of the home page) is our catalog -- the crowning achievement of America's public libraries. Or you can switch from "catalog" to "website" to do a search -- and pull in a host of other resources, including local community members. Just below that is a link to manage your account -- holds, what you've got checked out, renewals, and so on. Just these two options deserve a column of their own.

Also on that first page is a navigational tool (the "tabs" along the top of the screen), and some key links on the left pane (everything from contact information, to our program calendar, to our site about voter information).

The rest of the page is given over to highlights. It will be different every time you load it.

Right now, you'll see links to "eLearning2Go" -- online training, including everything from office software to college, career, and test preparation. The library website: a virtual classroom. How cool is that?

But here's that second point: celebration! The unveiling of this website reflects at least a year of preparation -- and more. Well done! Fireworks! Cakes and candles! Dancing in the street!

And now the third point: the library's website, it goes without saying, really isn't done. It never will be. Anything this infernally complex has incomplete parts, quite aside from the fact that the public keeps expecting new and better things from us. Bear with us as we fill in the outline, tweak the system, and generally respond to both public and staff scrutiny.

In weeks to come, expect to see our website continue to evolve, I hope toward greater simplicity. (And let's add another principle: 4. Simplicity isn't easy.)

But perfection is a fool's dream. Let's take a moment to breathe a big sigh, and say, "Wow."

DouglasCountyLibraries.org -- you're just a click away from one big neighborhood of knowledge.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

June 10, 2008 - "discovery packs" prevent sibling torture

When I was a kid (one of five), my parents could afford only one vacation a year: a car trip from north of Chicago to my mother's folks in Ohio. It was usually in the hottest month of the year.

The interstate highway program was still under development back then. For years, the trip took 10-12 hours, as we stuttered, stoplight by stoplight, on the two lane roads through Chicago, then Gary, Indiana (whose sky was always red, even at night), and across Indiana.

Eventually, with I-94 and I-80, the trip got whittled down to six hours, allowing no more than two potty breaks.

Imagine five kids in the back of a Ford four-door. No seat belts. Six hours. Pre-air-conditioning. Parents who smoked more or less constantly, interrupted only by the usual threats: "Don't make me stop this car! Do I have to come back there and separate you two?"

It's a wonder any of us survived.

I brought comic books and science fiction novels, because it didn't bother me to read in the car. But we usually had to fall back on dumb Interstate games -- finding a license from the farthest away state, looking for words on billboards, extra points for being the first to spot a VW bug, and so on.

These days many cars have built-in DVD players, or parents bring portable ones. Or they have other electronic devices to distract the children from the excruciating mutual torture that so often attends confined sibling interaction.

Allow me to offer another tool for those family drives. Jordana Vincent, one of our Collection Development Librarians, told me recently about one of our cooler new products. They're called "Discovery Packs."

You can find them in, and check them out from, the children's room at all of our libraries. You can recognize them by their fun and friendly logo (designed by Jake, one of our in-house graphic wizards).

Each Discovery Pack contains several picture books, a DVD, and a toy of some sort. Each pack has a theme. Right now, we have eight: Space, Dinosaurs, Fire Safety, Time, Horses, Pets, Fairies and "Move It!" "Move It!" is focused on exercise and healthy eating. In addition to the books, it includes activity mats, a Mousercise CD with workout music, and a Denise Austin Kid's workout video.

Of course, you probably won't have your children doing actual exercises while they're strapped in, but the point is that these packets are a convenient and entertaining way to not only divert your child from the boredom of the road, but also to insinuate a little learning.

We live, after all, in a multimedia world these days. This kind of thoughtful rounding up of items along a theme is another example of the added value of librarianship. You swing by, grab a discovery pack, and you have something that can keep a child (and parent) interested. When you're done, back into the bag, and hand it back to one of our friendly librarians.

And of course, Discovery Packs are good for home, too!

I'm always delighted to see the many creative solutions our staff come up with. So give this one a try with your preschoolers, and let us know how it works for you. Let us know, too, about any other ideas for themes your children might like to explore.

And remember, whether on the road or at home, the mind you save ... may be your own.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

June 5, 2008 - how has the library changed your life?

Libraries change lives. They sure changed mine, and more than once.

For instance, back at the end of fourth grade I went to the downtown library. I saw Mrs. Johnson, the first librarian I had ever met (way back at the bookmobile, which was another life-changing experience). We got to talking, I don't remember what about, but I do remember that she gave me a book called "The Dialogues of Plato."

That might seem like an odd thing to give a 10-year-old. But there are at least two explanations.

First, I was an odd 10-year-old.

Second, Mrs. Johnson believed in the Great Books. "You can read?" she thought. "Then you should read about Socrates!"

She was right.

The first dialog I read posed a deceptively simple question: "What is wise?" Then followed the most amazing conversation. Everything the student said was questioned, and questioned again, and again.

Until then, I had no idea that thinking, that talking, could be so much fun.

The other kids in my class were interested in ... well, I'm not sure what they were interested in. TV? Sports, some of them. But I know what I was interested in.

The examined life.

It could be that that particular moment in history, at that particular place, was just the right place for me to be. Not far away was the University of Chicago, and the Great Books Foundation. Their premise was that people of all ages -- but particularly the young -- would be significantly improved not just by a passive exposure to classic literature, but by a lively and even aggressive engagement with it.

I don't know about improved, but I was definitely engaged.

And it changed my life. That book, and my response to it, defined my character. It made me hunger for real discussion, for exposure to challenging ideas, and the chance to debate them, learn something, grow.

I'm guessing this is true for some of you, too. Recent forums the library has sponsored (our "Great Discussions" facilitated community programs about a host of global political issues) have generated rave reviews.

It's not surprising. I know of lot of people lately who find commercial TV and radio news, with its reductionist sound bites, little more than annoying. The world is more complex, more nuanced, than lends itself to 5 second "coverage." Why not spent an evening exploring a tough topic with other thoughtful people? And where better than the library?

But all of this thinking about how just one book, introduced at the right time by a canny librarian, can capture your imagination, can shift the whole direction of your life, has made me curious about the rest of you.

Because I'm now a librarian myself, collecting stories is part of my job description. So I'm soliciting yours. Has the library transformed your life?

I'm not just looking for childhood stories, although I'm interested in those, too. I know we've helped people disgusted with their current jobs find, or create, better ones. I know we've provided medical information that just might have saved somebody's life. It's possible that someone met the love of their life here.

Let me know. Please email me at jlarue@dclibraries.org, or call 303-688-7656. I'll share the best of them, with your permission.

It just might be that these kinds of transformations are the whole point of living. And libraries.

LaRue's views are his own.