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 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.

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