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, February 26, 2009

February 26, 2009 - we need to be more like Elwood

Recently, I appeared in a play, the Parker Arts Council's "Harvey." Written by Colorado author Mary Chase, and the well-deserved winner of a Pulitzer Prize, it has always been one of my favorites.

All of the roles are wonderful, with surprising depth and humor. I landed the part of Elwood P. Dowd, the man who pals around with a 6-foot-one-and-a-half rabbit. Since most people don't see this rabbit, they assume that Elwood is "touched."

And well he may be. The rabbit, Harvey, is a "pooka." According to the play, a pooka is "From old Celtic mythology. A fairy spirit in animal form. Always very large. The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one at his own caprice. A wise but mischievous creature. Very fond of rum-pots, [and] crack-pots."

My thinking about the character went through several changes. First, I thought Elwood was enlightened. He was always fully present, kind and courteous. But Elwood also does a lot of drinking in this play -- so maybe he was a "rum-pot," albeit a curiously gentle and friendly one.

Then I got it into my head that he was just enchanted -- had fallen under the spell of a pooka encountered one night, leaning against a lamppost.

Finally, I think maybe it was something else altogether. Elwood decided to put the most magical experience of his life in the center of his life, not at the periphery. How rare is that!

And he also made another remarkable decision, based on a choice his mother had framed for him years earlier: "in this world .... you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant." Elwood says, "For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me." (And now I have.)

Elwood's choices made him perhaps the happiest man in literature. Of course, all the people around him immediately wanted to lock him up.

The wonderful thing about literature -- the powerful thing about it -- is precisely this ability to reveal a world that is subtly changed, enhanced, edited, improved and clarified.

Trying to live within Elwood, if only on stage, made me realize just how rare real courtesy is. It's almost as if many people have made another choice, a decision to be rude.

And isn't that a shame? A moment of rudeness snowballs down the slope of life, eventually sweeping perfect strangers into avalanches of raw discourtesy and random negativity. And yet often in our culture, we mistake such rudeness for cleverness.

Just as my thinking about Elwood has changed, so has my notion of the value of the library. For one thing, our whole business is predicated on courtesy, and a sincere interest in each person we serve.

For another, despite the many thousands of health or consumer questions we answer, the school reports we help write, and the business issues we research, the most profound value of the library isn't information in the sense of facts. Rather, our real contribution is access to visions of ways to be, of possibilities for transformation.

Stories, plays, movies, and music aren't fluff. They are the very heart of what libraries are for: to help people see what is not seen.

"Harvey" -- both the play and the iconic movie starring Jimmy Stewart -- is available from the library. And highly recommended.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009 - now what?

Two weeks ago I described the library's core mission and vision. Last week I talked about some financial challenges we face (along with everybody else). This week, I'd like to talk about what we actually plan to do over the next three years.

Given that the library's central role in our society is to be an advocate for literacy and for lifelong learning, the library will focus first on reading and authors. That strategy has three big components:

* Children's Storytimes. I've written here before that 48% of our business is children's materials, and that we check out more kid's book than any library in the state, when we have neither the most children, nor the most children's materials. How do we do that? By offering lots of children's storytimes. These days, we work hard to underscore the essential traits of something called "emergent literacy" -- getting kids ready to read, and more important, getting them to really want to read. That connection from early exposure to stories, and later fluency in reading, will be explored and strengthened in years to come. We're also launching some longitudinal studies: tracking our storytime kids as they get into school, and demonstrating the extraordinary value of storytime attendance in everything from empathy to academic performance.

* Power Walls. Our cutting edge experiments in library materials merchandising at our Roxborough and Lone Tree libraries have demonstrated that we can move more materials in less space. The technique is the "power wall" -- a face-out display of topics our statistics have told us Douglas County residents most want. We'll be installing them in the rest of our libraries in coming weeks -- Highlands Ranch, Parker, and Philip S. Miller -- to bring this merchandising tool closer to our front doors. Typically, most libraries have about 75-80% of their materials in the building at any time. At our Lone Tree Library, we regularly have more than 50% checked out. Power walls make it easier to find what you want, with less hassle.

* Authors. We do three key things now: our Authors @ Douglas County Libraries (in cooperation with the good folks at the Network DC), our author talks here in the library, and our hosting of writer conferences. We'll be looking for ways to strengthen and coordinate these programs. We know that the interest is keen -- there are a lot of would-be authors in this county. Encouraging people to write books is one way to make sure that tomorrow's library shelves will be populated!

A second big focus of the library is in building community. Our restructuring of staff (after the installation of our self-check stations) means we now have the ability to set loose our reference librarians not only from their desks, but from the library building itself.

Over the next several years, library staff will interview community leaders, and identify projects where we can add significant value (primarily through research and presentation of relevant resources). Each library branch will focus on at least one major regional project, working with other community partners to solve real problems.

Two other projects round out the plan. First is the collection of YOUR stories. Not a day goes by in the library when we don't hear a new and fascinating story about why you came to us, and what you're working on. We'd like to capture and feature those stories. They're an inspiration.

Finally, there's a revolution well underway in the use of mobile devices. The library has a role to play, perhaps as the digital jukebox for the ever-growing playlist of books, music and movies. Perhaps, also, we can do a more efficient linking of our community not just to random bits of information, but to actual knowledge, and online communities dedicated to that purpose.

In all, these projects assure that the library will continue to be what it has always been: a vital heartbeat in the center of our thriving community.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12, 2008 - library considers budget cuts

Before I get into library finances, I should clarify something that confuses a lot of people. Douglas County Libraries is not part of some other government agency. We are not a department of the county, although we share geographic boundaries. We receive no money from them, nor from any of the cities or towns or school district in Douglas County.

Instead, we are an independent library district, created in accordance with state statute, by a vote of the people, in 1990. Virtually all our funding comes from a voter approved property tax of 4 mills. In 2009, that generates (with a few other smaller streams of income) about $21 million.

The largest single expenditure of the library is staff. Staff order and receive our materials, set them out for display, help people find things, answer questions, tell stories, manage our facilities, and more. Together, staff and benefits account for 60% of what we spend.

The next largest category is materials: books, magazines, music, movies, and electronic reference sources. That's 16% of our expenditures.

After that the next largest expense is technology. All our libraries are both wired and wireless. We provide high speed access to the world of data. That's about five percent of our costs.

What remains are mostly those things that are unglamorous but necessary: insurance, lawn maintenance, utilities, and capital projects (replacement of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units, etc.)

For most of its institutional life, the library district has done what we're all supposed to do: save. We have paid for all of our library buildings with cash. We have no debt. In our coffers is enough money to carry the library for the several months of the year before tax revenues are collected and distributed. We actually have the rainy day fund often praised and seldom seen.

But for the first time, the growth of our costs, in an environment of extraordinary demand, has brought us to a 2009 budget where our expenditures are expected to equal our revenue. No more savings.

A more serious problem is that property tax revenues in Douglas County are projected to be flat or falling next year. Our expenditures are not. Moreover, we have significant need for new facilities in Parker and Castle Pines -- and despite our savings, we can neither build or run them.

Faced with that, the Library Board of Trustees issued a prudent and fiscally cautious direction: reduce library expenditures in 2009 by 7-10%. Put the savings in a building fund. I respect that. It smacks of good planning.

Making cuts isn't unusual. Businesses do it. Homeowners do it. In libraries, there are six basic approaches.

* Make across the board cuts. It's simple to just make every department in a large organization absorb a uniform percentage of reductions. The problem is, that's not always possible, and certainly not strategic. Some items -- like utilities or insurance -- aren't discretionary. Some library programs and practices are more essential to our mission than others.

* Reduce the number of library staff. There are a host of ways to reduce headcount: freeze hiring and wait for attrition, buy people out, reduce hours, force days off, or lay people off. We have decided that by freezing hiring and relying on attrition, we can reduce our expenses gradually, thereby avoiding layoffs for 2009, and hopefully avoiding the need in 2010.

* Reduce the number of library facilities. Buildings drive most library expenditures: staff, materials, IT, and maintenance. Just as businesses close franchises that fall below a certain level of activity, the library is considering the phasing out of three of our facilities: Cherry Valley, Louviers, and our aging bookmobile. We're not happy about that, but we are funded by all county taxpayers; it is our obligation to serve the greatest number of them well and cost-effectively.

* Reduce the hours of library operations. The fewer hours a library is open, the less it costs to run it.

* Raise fines and fees. Our fines are among the lowest in Colorado -- a nickel a day for most materials, with a maximum fine of $3 per item, providing you bring it back. Inevitably, people suggest to us that we boost our fines, charge for meeting rooms, Internet use, reserves, or even checkouts. In my experience, however, most of these don't generate a lot of money. What they do is reduce use.

* Seek private funding, whether in dollars, in-kind services, or volunteer labor. We do that now, of course.

The odds are good that we'll do some combination of all of the above, in addition to our usual pursuit of operational efficiencies. The final package to bring us into compliance with the Board's directive will be presented to them at our March 19 meeting, at 7 p.m., at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. The public is welcome.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5, 2009 - library adopts new mission and vision

On January 10, the library Board of Trustees and senior staff met to set a course for the future. In three hours, we adopted a refocused mission and vision statement, reviewed our financial status and goals, and finally, adopted some specific plans for the next three to five years.

Over the next three weeks, I'd like to cover those issues in more detail.

First (this week), what does the library stand for?

Second (next week), what is our financial status in these troubled times?

Third (two weeks from now), what does our mission direct us to do to respond to our budget issues? To put it more positively: what are our plans?

The mission and vision of the Douglas County Libraries can be mostly captured in three phrases:

* our librarians are passionate advocates for literacy and lifelong learning.
* libraries change lives.
* libraries build community.

Almost all the people who work here read more books, watch more movies, listen to more music or other recorded sound, or visit more websites than most people. They not only have the requisite skills of literacy, but they also use them, avidly and often. They pay attention to the world around them, and are eager to share the riches.

We hire such people deliberately. We need their enthusiasm and skills to do something no other institution in America can do: fan the flames of lifelong learning for every age group. We offer programs for children still too young to sit up -- but more than ready to start soaking up language skills. When those children show up at kindergarten, they are raring to read.

We follow them through any and every level of school. We're there for them when they hit the job market. We're prepared to help them tackle the big life issues: planning a wedding, ensuring a healthy pregnancy and delivery, raising children, managing finances.

And we help them find and revel in their own passionate interests: reading mysteries or science fiction, boat-building, knitting, cooking, anime, drawing, poetry, music, foreign films.

Recreational reading, listening, and viewing is not only fun -- it's good for you. Literacy and lifelong learning together mean building a better brain, living a multi-layered and ever-more fascinating life from infancy through advanced old age.

Over the years, I've talked to thousands of people who have a Library Story. It was the moment when something clicked, something came into focus. Something changed.

Often, it was the comment of just one library worker, some spotlight shining on a book. Or it was the one meaningful piece of information supplied at precisely the right moment. Or it was the discovery that there are places in our society that are open to everybody, of any age, any financial status, any viewpoint.

It is a moment of transformation. Those moments make life worthwhile.

And finally, through this connection to place and people, something wonderful is forged: true communities. The new mother finds friends at a storytime. The new homeowner meets up with neighbors at a library meeting. The newly awakened citizen attends a civic debate, then researches local history or newspapers.

Mostly, what happens at libraries is that people check out materials, bring them back, and talk to other people. That's the "what" of libraries.

Our mission and vision is "why:" to develop and exercise our minds and spirits to our fullest capacity, to learn, to grow, to create and contribute to a vital society.

LaRue's Views are his own.