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, August 28, 2008

August 28, 2008 - board resolves to ask for mill levy increase

On August 21, 2008, the Library Board of Trustees adopted a resolution to place a mill levy increase question on the November ballot. That ballot will ask for voter approval for 1 (one) mill. 0.4 mills will be retired when the building projects are paid for -- which is estimated to take about 20 years. One mill is $7.96 per year on each $100,000 of home value.

What are the projects? A neighborhood library in Castle Pines (in leased space), a new Parker Library (on donated land), and a new Lone Tree Library (also on donated land). They would open in 2009, 2011, and 2012, respectively. Castle Rock and Highlands Ranch would also see some building improvements, as funds are available, but not later than 2012.

The proposal is different from last year's in three ways.

* It's cheaper. Our public feedback revealed a lot of concern about the economy. We heard you. Despite rising construction costs, we lowered the anticipated expense by scaling back the projects, and phasing in their construction. The library has always taken an aggressively conservative approach to public expenditures.

* Part of it sunsets. When the capital is paid off, that part of the mill levy -- 0.4 -- goes away. The rest will be used to operate the expanded facilities.

* It's urgent. Last year, our planning was far enough out that no big changes were immediately necessary if we failed to address district demand. That's changed. For one thing, the promise of donated land in Lone Tree -- a significant savings for all -- will be withdrawn if the voters turn down our proposal again.

For another, the inequities of service across the county are becoming more pronounced. In the 12 years since our last tax increase, the county has not grown equally. Today, Parker has a library half the size of the library in Castle Rock, but serves a population almost twice as large. Castle Pines has no library at all. Lone Tree has quite a beautiful building, but soon will serve an area far beyond its capacity.

Trustees represent the entire county. If the voters want us to live within our existing revenues, then we'll have to redistribute the resources more fairly, diminishing some services across the county to invest in necessary infrastructure. That's painful and disruptive. And, I hope, it is also unnecessary.

As I've always said to my staff, crisis planning is a sign of bad management. It can be averted through sound planning. Averting a crisis is precisely what we're hoping to do. The increased cost for most households will be about the cost of one hardback book per year.

A copy of the Board resolution, and the complex ballot language (don't blame us -- there's not a lot of leeway in how we have to ask for things) can be found at DouglasCountyLibraries.org.

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to give encouragement, criticism, and thoughtful input to the Board's decision. The Trustees are an extraordinarily diligent group of people, and invested hours of their volunteer time to address community needs in the most responsive way.

Ultimately, the library isn't mine, isn't the staff's, isn't even the Board's. It's yours. You have a choice about its future, and its ability to serve you.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

August 21, 2008 - love story leads to children's room gift

by Sheila Kerber, Manager, Philip S. Miller Library

Mark Twain once said, “Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”

I would like to introduce you to a remarkable couple who have slowly grown their love for over fifty years. Douglas County Libraries' Philip S. Miller Library is the beneficiary of a generous bequest from Dr. Robert C. Sullivan in honor of his wife Bobbi. Above the door in the Children’s department a plaque will read: "Through this door come tomorrow's leaders" and below "Children's Room dedicated to Roberta D. Sullivan from Dr. Robert C Sullivan."

Last Tuesday I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Dr. and Mrs. Robert C. Sullivan who celebrated 52 year of marriage on June 30 of this year. This is a real love story.

In 1954, Robert was getting ready to graduate from Williams College when he went to Smith College one afternoon with a car full of friends for a blind date. Robert remembers "there was a long walkway from the house to the curb where we were in the car. The first two girls came down, and they looked like were going to Siberia. Their heads were down. Then Bobbi came down. She was skipping, and her red hair was flying in the breeze, and she had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I said, to myself, I have to get to know this girl. And I did."

Robert and Bobbi dated for two years while Robert began medical school at George Washington University, and Bobbi finished her music degree at Smith College. They met in New York on weekends, and Robert worked construction during the summers in Grand Rapids Michigan so he could be near Bobbi. Finally on June 30, 1956 they married. The wedding took place in Bobbi’s backyard in Michigan. That same evening they began driving to Washington, D.C. so Robert could resume his medical studies at George Washington University.

Bobbi began teaching music at Mount Ranier Junior High School in Maryland. She entered the school the first day with a bust of Beethoven under her arm and discovered a lifelong passion for teaching and for the arts.

Bobbi gave birth to six children: Robin, Brian, Timmy, Celia, Elinor and Catherine. Their lives were not without hardship. They lost their third child, Timmy, to a virulent flu epidemic in 1965.

After Robert completed his medical degree, his much beloved Uncle Robert encouraged him to come to Denver for his internship. The Sullivan family was in Colorado three months when they knew they wanted to live in Colorado forever.

When I asked Bobbi and Robert what they liked best about one another. Robert said "She is enormously fun to be with. She is unpredictable and there is always something to enjoy about her." Bobbi's answer to the same question was that Robert was such a decent and generous person. "He is very interesting to live with. There is not a dull bone in his body."

When I asked them what they learned from their parents, Bobbi’s parents taught her that honesty was important and that it is important to "finish what you start." Robert’s parents taught him the value of hard work.

I asked them if they could have pursued another profession what might they have chosen, Bobbi would have been an oceanographer and Robert would have been a pilot.

When I asked them what they are most proud of they both answered, "Our family. We have five wonderful kids and twelve grandchildren, and we are very proud of them all."

They both enjoyed every moment of raising their children. They also loved their careers, Robert's as a surgeon and Bobbi's as a music teacher, but they both agree that family comes first.

I wish you could have seen the remarkable way they still look at one another as they shared the story of their lives. It is so obvious that they have a deep and abiding love for each other. They truly laugh often and love much.

Douglas County Libraries feel very lucky that Dr. Sullivan has expressed his deep affection for his wife by giving so generously to the children of Douglas County. Please drop by and see the lovely plaque which will stand as a permanent testament to the love of one man for one woman.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 14, 2008 - we need to think bigger

When I was 18, I came up with a basic life philosophy. I called it "the expandable egg."

Imagine a chicken in the egg. One day, the young chick is aware of pressure. It's uncomfortable, then constraining, and finally intolerable.

So the chick starts to kick and peck. It breaks out of the egg.

And immediately: Wow, it's big out here! So the first instinct is to seek shelter. Under mom, away from mysterious threats.

But eventually, the chick gets bolder, and starts exploring. After a while, she learns all kinds of shortcuts to the best or hidden food. What was immense and unknowable becomes familiar.

And then, it becomes too familiar. Constraining. One day, the chick pokes through the fence, and --- wow, it's big out here!

Learning is an egg that gets bigger and bigger.

It applies to using libraries, too.

In Douglas County, many, many children are first exposed to libraries through storytimes. Here they fall in love with one of our staff, discover fascinating stories, learn fun finger plays and songs.

Not long after that, they move on to the picture books, driving a hefty percentage of our business. In 2002 the entire checkouts of our district, adult and children's materials alike, were about 3.1 million items. Last year, we checked out that many items just for children! We don't have the most children in Colorado. We don't have the most children's materials. But we did check out more children's materials than any other library in the rest of the state.

After picture books, young readers start finding the series they love: American Girls, or Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events." Or they discover a passion for airplanes or bugs.

Then they become aware of the larger environment of the library: young adult books, comic book series, adult books, reference materials, online resources.

And then, sometimes, they move around Douglas County, checking out (pardon the pun) all of our locations. More often, perhaps, people's library experiences remain centered on just one of our buildings -- except for the materials they place on hold, which can and do come from any of our libraries.

I sometimes wonder if people understand the real charge of the Douglas County Libraries. It's all there in our name: our job is to meet the library needs of the entire county.

Our Library Board has chosen a regional model. On a square foot basis, larger libraries are much cheaper to operate than smaller ones. We have also chosen to try to place our libraries in or near downtowns; our contribution of street traffic is a potent boost for business and community building.

But it is also the case that because we leverage countywide support, each of these municipally-based libraries is much larger and better equipped than a city would be able to afford by itself.

For instance, the town of Castle Rock's Philip S. Miller Library was paid for in part, and has a continuing subsidy from, the communities of Highlands Ranch and Parker. That's a good deal for the people in Castle Rock. Right now, in the very crowded Parker Library -- which is half the size of the Philip S. Miller Library, but already serves more than twice as many people -- it's not such a good deal for Parker area residents.

Counties don't always grow evenly; there was a vacant and correctly store in Castle Rock when the library's reserves were sufficient to grab it. There is no similar property for sale in Parker, nor are our reserves now large enough to act on such an opportunity even if there were.

It can be a challenge to keep the whole county in mind. But I think it prudent to remember that library service, and funding, is based on the whole egg.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

August 7, 2008 - are successful libraries worth reinvestment?

Consider the following. Based on a comparison of library statistics between 2002 and 2006:

* Visits to libraries increased by 10 percent across the country; at Douglas County Libraries, 65 percent.

* Circulation (checkouts) grew by 9 percent nationwide; at Douglas County Libraries, 74 percent.

* Nationwide, the number of Internet-capable computers increased by 38 percent; at Douglas County Libraries, 126 percent.

* Our circulation of children's materials (in 2007) is the highest in Colorado at 3,122,000 and is 48% of our circulation. That outstrips the 42% that was reported as the highest in the country in 2006 -- at a library in Vermont.

Here are a few local stats:

* Over 80% of our households have at least one active library card.

* Independent research has revealed that the return on investment for the Douglas County Libraries is just over $5 per tax dollar invested.

* A recently completed poll by Hill Research reports that we have an approval rating among our citizens of a staggering 93 percent.

Despite all the above, that same Hill Research poll says our odds going into a 2008 election with our current proposal are: fifty-fifty. Plus or minus four percent.

I hasten to add that this even-steven split isn't about some kind of perceived problem with us. There's a lot of concern about the economy out there.

That means the library will have to think long and hard about both what it can afford, and how it can meet vital capital needs in these tightening times. Message received.

But just because I have the kind of brain that can't stop asking the next question, I've been pondering the difference between the public and private sectors. Those of us in government often hear this suggestion: run it like a business!

If our library were a business, the market would call for investment. Double digit growth in use every year, and a proven record of tight fiscal management? By any measure, the Douglas County Libraries is successful: performance-oriented, forward-looking, an industry leader. In the business world, you'd snap up more stock.

In the public sector, reinvestment means a tax increase. One could argue that the dividends are reckoned as service. But more often, people think "things are fine! Why give the government more money!"

They don't think: "I like the outcomes of my investment, and if I invest more, I'll get more of those outcomes."

What are the outcomes of a successful public library? Children who love books. A community that gathers together at neutral ground to talk, to connect, and to plan. An economic engine for downtowns. A hand up to new and expanding businesses. A place where everyone, regardless of age or formal education or wealth, has free access to the intellectual resources of our culture. Is that worth reinvestment?

Back in the private sector, crisis is greeted with a drop in the value of stock. But in the public sector, crisis is often used to justify the urgent need for new funds.

So here's the puzzle. We reward businesses for success and punish them for failure. But we reward government for failure and punish it for success.

Isn't that weird?