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, October 30, 2008

October 30, 2008 - early literacy means global competitiveness

About twenty years ago, I went with some other librarians to the Greeley mall. We were going to stage a "read in."

The idea was this: we put up some library signs, then stepped into a sort of reading corral. When small children would come by, we'd invite them to listen to a story. We'd taken a bunch of kid's books with us.

Shortly after I arrived, a little boy walked along who was about the same size as my daughter Maddy was back then. I suppose he was about a year old.

Utterly without thinking, I treated him just like her. I picked him up, spun him around, dropped into a cross-legged position on the ground, and opened up a book in front of him.

And two things immediately became apparent. First, I could sense from the corner of my eye the mother freezing up. "Uh oh," I thought. "I just snatched this boy right from under her. Bad idea."

But the other odd thing was that it was perfectly clear that nobody had ever read to this child before. He didn't know where to look.

You know how long it takes to learn how to follow the rhythm of reading a book? Opening the book, starting on the left, moving to the right, turning the page?

It takes two pages.

And within two pages, this little boy was acting just like Maddy: Relaxed in my lap, head turning smoothly with the pages. He was interested.

We finished the book, and I think read another one. Then I handed the boy gingerly back to the mom. He smiled happily at me, and at her. I apologized to the mother: "I didn't mean to frighten you. He's just the same size as my daughter."

And the mother said something that has stayed with me over the years: "I had no idea he was ready." She had somehow thought she would start reading aloud to him when he was older. How old, I don't know.

Early exposure to books is important. There are some significant correlations in behavior and attaining fluency.

For instance, one of the best predictors of 4th grade fluency is the ability, by about kindergarten, to recognize the letters in our alphabet. Children who have trouble learning to read in 1st grade are quite likely to have trouble in 4th. As I noted here a couple of weeks ago, reading scores in 3rd and 4th grade are reliable predictors of the prison population.

There's good news: several studies have demonstrated that one of the best predictors of academic success is a strong school library program.

But within the state, many school libraries are in crisis. The average copyright date of a book in Colorado's school libraries is 15 years. Many have no librarians.

We know exactly what to do to improve reading scores in Colorado -- but, in most schools, choose not to. It baffles me.

Then there's this even more alarming statistic from the 2008 Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy. Alone among the first world  (democratized, free market) countries, the United States' current generation is less well educated than the previous one.

That's worth restating. In other developed nations, the current generation is better educated than their parents. In our country, the trend is in the opposite direction.

Today, 1 in 3 young adults will drop out of high school.

We know that low literacy is correlated with family poverty. It seems likely to me that it is also correlated with our ability to compete in a global economy.

Following the mall encounter, I remember being very glad to see that young mother show up with her toddler at our library. She learned something important: the time to start investing in your child's future is now.

I hope our nation is as smart.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

October 23, 2008 - personal appeal for 5A

About 70% of the currently registered voters in Douglas County requested mail ballots this year. I've already got mine. And like an estimated 70% of that group, I'll fill it out and return it in three days.

So by the time you read this, the election, at least in Douglas County, may be over. But please do not let that stop you from voting! We won't know the results until November 4, and every vote counts.

It really does. Last year, the library lost its measure by just 210 votes out of 42,000 cast. Only thirty-four percent of the voters showed up last year. A little more than half of them -- so 17% of our voters -- decided the question.

I'll be honest. Although I went into last year's election, as I go into this one, understanding that the universe persists in doing what it does, not what I want it to do, that loss was surprisingly painful. I found it personally disappointing that the election was lost in my own home town of Castle Rock.

As one of our newer facilities, reflecting the many things we've learned in recent years, the Philip S. Miller Library is a model of 21st century librarianship. It is deeply integrated into the life of our community, demonstrating its value in many ways every single day.

But I have concluded the obvious: library use does not automatically translate into library support. Our demand is at least 9 times greater than the national average. Yet we narrowly lost an election right after our period of greatest gain.

We can cite our return on investment study all day long. An independent agency demonstrated that we return $5.02 in services, goods, and value for every tax dollar. But some people simply cannot make the jump of thinking of taxes as investments -- even when the dividend is a community they can be proud of.

We can point out our astonishing services to children. We provide thousands of programs every year. We check out more children's materials than any library in the state, when we are not the largest library, or have the most children, or even the most children's books. But if you don't have children yourself, you may not appreciate the value of early literacy.

We can underscore the point that our negotiation of donated land collapses if the library loses this election. That would make any future expansion many times more expensive, in locations not nearly as well centered. But people who haven't negotiated such agreements think, "how hard can it be?"

Eighteen years ago, Douglas County's libraries were reckoned dead last among Colorado's library systems. Today, according to a recent national ranking, we are among the top five in the entire United States. That speaks volumes (hah) about the keen interest of our citizens in competent and responsive service.

But in the 12 years since our last tax increase, we've developed some capital needs that require reinvestment.

Like everyone else, I've watched with concern the recent economic thrashings on Wall Street. But I also know this: library use takes a big jump at such times, further straining an already overstressed system.

I know, too, that tomorrow's jobs will not find their beginning on Wall Street. They'll start on Castle Pine's Monarch Blvd., Castle Rock's Wilcox Street, Highlands Ranch Parkway, Lone Tree's Lincoln Ave., Parker's Mainstreet, and Roxborough's Rampart Range Road.

They'll start with someone researching a business idea at the library.

I believe that while public libraries are not the only tool communities can or should use in order to thrive, it is one of our best.

Douglas County Libraries has worked hard to earn the thoughtful support of our citizens, and has made its case in detail to anyone who would listen.

In turn, we have listened to voter concerns, and tightened our proposal accordingly. We reduced the request to a single mill. We will sunset 40% of the increase when our new buildings are paid off.

Humbly, I ask for your vote in support of the future of your library. That vote will ensure stronger libraries for our entire county, to the immediate benefit of all our communities.

Please, say YES to libraries in 2008.


LaRue's View are his own.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 16, 2008 - libraries build brains and community

After a recent talk I gave in Illinois, a Trustee asked me to help her understand the role of the public library in the 21st century. I said I thought it boiled down to this: libraries build brains and community.

Building brains has two parts. First, and most important, is the total immersion in language that has been proven to develop thick clusters of dendrites in the brains of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Those clusters of nerves are the biological basis of intelligence.

I've been doing a lot of reading about brain development and literacy. The two are tightly connected. Children who hear lots of stories, demanding attention, empathy, comprehension of new words, prediction of events, are not only smarter, kinder, and more competent human beings, they are also prepped for one of the most wondrous accomplishments of humankind: learning to read.

At our recent literacy summit, Douglas County Libraries invited the many literacy workers in the county to better coordinate all our services. I heard an interesting fact: prison planning is based on reading scores in 3rd grade. That is, the lower the literacy rate (and 3rd and 4th grade reading scores are solid predictors of that), the bigger the prison needs to be.

Let's put that in perspective. The current mill levy proposal by the Douglas County Libraries would increase taxes for a $300,000 household by about $24 a year -- the cost of one hardback book. The cost to incarcerate one person is about $25,000-$35,000 a year. Investing in the brains of infants saves money. And more than money.

But the growth of our intelligence doesn't stop with our admission to kindergarten. (Usually!) Libraries not only support the formal studies of young people K-12, we pick up on the other side of school, too. Whether you read for leisure or learning, libraries provide access to the most powerful tool for learning the human race has found: the book.

I've had some folks tell me that reading online is just as good, maybe better, than reading paper.

Not yet.

When we read online, we read snippets, visual sound bites. We read data. But to make real sense of that data, we need context and explicit connections.

That's what books do: set the environment, tie the factoids together, apply it back to that environment. The Internet is still mostly about data. Books are about knowledge.

Libraries, by their collections of print at all levels, by their advocacy of literacy in general, build our brains as long as we live, moving us from ignorance to knowledge, and, with luck, from prejudice to wisdom.

The second task of libraries is building community. This has several dimensions as well.

One way we build community is by providing basic research (competitive market analysis, business plans, funding strategies) for home-based businesses. That activity -- local business development -- has been for many years now the fastest growing sector of our economy.

Let's underline that point. Where will we find tomorrow's economic engine? Hint: it won't be on Wall Street. We'll find it right here in your local community. Your local library will be part of it.

We build community in another way by providing free public meeting space so the people can meet, discuss, share their learning, plan together. We're an anchor store not only for actual visits -- over one and a half million last year! -- but for the mall of the mind.

To put it another way, books are a great resource, but people are a resource, too. Getting them assembled and organized in a common and neutral space is much like organizing a collection of books.

It is my fervent belief that public libraries are an essential part of our community infrastructure, fully as vital as roads, and police, and fire protection.

It takes brains to know where you're driving to, it takes literacy to stay out of more than one kind of prison, and it takes knowledge to build a community that withstands the persistent flames of ignorance and fear.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

October 2, 2008- librarianship is a good life

I recently returned from the Illinois Library Association in Chicago, where I had the privilege of giving the keynote address. I was raised in that area and began my career there. So I had the chance to see a lot of old friends, colleagues, and early professional influences.

One of those influences was Dr. Fred Schlipf. Several decades ago now, I took an administrative practicum with him. He was then the director of the Urbana Free Library in downstate Illinois. Recently, he retired, although he still teaches at the university and does building consulting.

I showed up that morning, wearing my only tie (I was putting myself through grad school, and most of my clothes came from Salvation Army), and was told that Dr. Schlipf was in the children's room, downstairs. I went to join him. About halfway down the stairs, I realized that the previous night's rain had flooded the basement.

And there was Dr. Schlipf, jacket off, pants rolled up, a bucket in one hand and a mop in the other. He beamed at me: "Welcome to the administrative life!"

That's a pretty good introduction.

He also taught me something about how libraries should be run. He had me work a week in each department, learning what they all did. Then he asked me where I thought I'd seen any problems.

It wasn't in the "technical services department," where materials were ordered and processed. The backlog was 4 items, and they were a little embarrassed about that. (They got it cleaned up by the end of the hour.)

It wasn't in circulation, reference or children's (aside from the need for tighter seals on the walls, and a new pump). But there was a slight confusion of mission and practice in his local history area. Or so it seemed to me.

He asked me what I thought should be done about it. He asked, in fact, for a proposal. So I wrote one up.

Then he put me in charge of it. I got to call a series of meetings, work up agendas, and try to implement some changes. And I felt that working with his staff, we did just that.

That experience has served me in good stead through the years. To this day, I, too, value providing such "administrative practica" -- helping newcomers to the profession get a glimpse of the inner workings of an institution committed to excellence.

It not only brings a fresh set of eyes and perspective to our own issues, but it gives people the chance to see that change is not a wave of the magic wand; it's a process. It takes time, and tact, and persistence.

While in Chicago, I also got to have dinner with a woman I hired, years ago, as the supervisor of shelvers in Springfield's public library. She is, today, a library director herself, and her library won "Special Mention" in "the Best Small Library in America" competition this year.
Her name is Ann Hughes, and her library is in Glen Carbon, Illinois.

It's an obligation of those who received mentoring that mattered to pass it along, although Ann never needed much mentoring.

I returned just in time to see Dave Barry's hilarious address for the Douglas County Libraries Foundation's first annual Author Extravaganza, the excellent work of Margie Woodruff, Elizabeth Huber, Jennifer Pavlik, Kristin Hayek, and many others, including a host of volunteers.

My point: there are a lot of wonderful libraries and librarians out there, making a difference in their communities. It's a good life.