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, March 26, 2009

March 26, 2009 - escape to the library

By Rochelle Logan
Associate Director of Research and Collections,
Douglas County Libraries

“… as soon as her mother had left for bingo, Matilda would toddle down to the library. The walk took only ten minutes and this allowed her two glorious hours sitting quietly by herself in a cozy corner devouring one book after another.” “She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.” From “Matilda” by Roald Dahl

Escape: to get away (as by flight) - - who can afford flying right now? After you've turned off the evening news or put down the local newspaper, you might be looking for something uplifting in your life to get away from the gloom of our economic times. We have so many options these days to find escape and in these hard times, more people are buying beer and wine. Light-hearted movies are experiencing higher ticket sales. We want to watch rags to riches stories like "Slumdog Millionaire" and silliness like "Madea Goes to Jail."

So here is another option for escape or diversion – head to your public library. It's fun AND economical. Those of us who love a book find our own special escape. But the library also offers music, movies, television seasons and more.

Since I was a little girl, I've gone to the library to find fiction books. My favorite story about my childhood library was deciding that I was going to read all the books in the children's area starting from the letter "A." The librarian was very nice and just said that was a good idea. I'm sure I got through about half the books in the "A" section, but it was an important step for me since I realized how much I enjoyed losing myself in a story. Oh yes, and I did NOT finish reading all the books.
I asked some of my friends if they had similar anecdote about their public library. Here are a few stories:

Being new in town eight years ago, the first place I went was to the library to find a book club.  Moving so much, as you know, the library is always first on my list of places to find.

My favorite memory is simply of the relationship with my hometown Carnegie library in Kingman, Kansas. Our town was proud to be one that was chosen to have a library built by Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900's.  I remember trying to open the big wooden doors "quietly," the creak of the wooden floors, the groan of the radiator, the smell of the books and the tall windows.  I love that library and it hooked me forever.  I spent hours there and it never seemed like enough.  I still visit whenever I go home and am warmed by the worn steps knowing that many have passed through those doors with me.

I was taking care of my grandchildren for a week while their parents were gone, when Annie, age 7, came up to me one Saturday morning and announced in a loud voice, "I'm bored!" I looked at her and responded in a shocked voice, "Annie, you can read!  You don't ever have to be bored again in your whole life!" Wide-eyed, she looked at me and said "Oh!" Then she disappeared into her room and came back with a library book. Her parents tell me that the main problem they have now (she's 11) is getting her away from whatever book she's reading to eat, dress, feed the pets, or whatever else she needs to be doing. I guess that was a successful suggestion! They go often to the library to keep Annie in reading material.

When my mother reached her 80's her eyesight was getting poor. She was bored and not able to read like she used to. She had been a voracious reader all her life. I took her to the library to find large print books. This was a turning point for her as she discovered not only that she loved the large print, but also checked out books on CD. Now she likes to talk on the phone about what she's reading. It really brought variety and substance to her life.

Many thanks to the women of the Highlands Ranch Reading Group who sent me their stories. If you have one to offer, please email it to Aspen Walker, at awalker @ dclibraries . org

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19, 2009 - cast out that which does not flourish

Let me start at the hardest spot. Libraries, sometimes, throw books away. We really do.

How could we?! Don't librarians understand the value of the book?

And by book, we mean:

* Your college textbook. You didn't actually read it. The parts you did read, you marked up heavily with a yellow marker, and scores of obscure comments. But that was the year you also met a young woman who gave you a completely different idea of yourself. That's what makes that book valuable to you, so valuable that even though you're convinced that you can't keep it any more, surely it deserves a place at your local library!

* A book published 20 years ago, in a field where things change quickly. It wasn't that long ago that I strolled through a local high school library and found a book published in 1965. It was in the science section. This is an act of profound disservice to young minds.

* A bestseller! Of course, this is from 5 years ago, from an author that had only that one book, and it didn't really make much of an enduring impact.

* A book that's not just a little bit old. It's REALLY old, with a fancy leather binding. It may be worth mentioning that it's a reprint, and, let's face it, smells like a particularly sordid fruit.

Books go through stages in the library:

* Hot. You gotta read it. It's the subject of blogs and buzz. This one you have to look at right now. "What Would Google Do?"

* A sleeper. Some books make points that don't catch the wave of popular culture, but are attuned to a deeper pulse. "What To Expect When You're Expecting." "Cold Mountain."

* A new classic. Boy, this one is just going to last forever. Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching. Harry Potter -- which didn't take off until the third in the series.

* Trash. And here we go. The sad truth of our culture is that a good 90% of the current output is destined for landfills. It has ever been so.

There's good news for that last category. Your trash is someone else's treasure. The library, when it removes items from the shelves, is well aware that there are many other institutions and people who would delight in what we discard. And we send thousands of books every year to charter schools, shelters, home decorators, collectors, foreign servicemen, and outlier school rooms. Others just wind up on the "long tail" of book sellers, for whom almost anything has value, eventually.

I want to be absolutely clear about this. The public library HAS to pull books from our collections. Our shelves are not infinite. If people don't use things, we don't keep them. We can't.

It's true that some things we discard are good. But the passion of the people is for what's new.

But here's this week's point: the process of removing what no one really wants any more is called "weeding."

And what we need to do in the world is ... more weeding.

So many of us seem to feel that everything we do should just get added on to everything else we do. That way lies madness.

Recently, I have learned that the single most significant thing I can do to ensure my popularity is to cancel a meeting. To remove something from other people's to do list.

I'm guessing that many of you feel the same way.

So here's my advice: weed. Strike from your days the tasks that no longer have merit or meaning. Quit the club that consumed your time but refused to feed your soul. Pretend no more to nourish the project even you admit is worthless.

Do as the library does: remember what matters, but cast away that which deserves to fall into darkness. Open yourself to possibility.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009 - get yours news from the library

A few weeks ago I gave a talk up in Golden. Later, a journalism student interviewed me. Was there still a place for the library, he wanted to know, in the age of the Internet?

I told him that I've been asked that by a lot of reporters over the years. But it has a particular poignancy to it now. Before this young man, the last person to ask me worked for the Rocky Mountain News. (The financially troubled Rocky, as surely everyone now knows, recently shut down operations after failure to find a buyer.)

Here's the irony of it. Libraries are actually doing quite well coexisting with the World Wide Web. Often, we assume the role of providing public access to it. Not only that, whenever we add a new Internet station, use of everything else goes up: checkouts of kids' books, adult books, magazines, music and movies, and even program attendance.

That surprises people, although it shouldn't. Why do you use the Internet in the first place? For diversion, for exploration, for social contact. It turns out that libraries are spectacularly good at all of that.

People imagine that newspapers make their money from subscriptions. That's not so. They make their money from ads. And here's the hard truth: the rise of online advertising hasn't been nearly enough to offset the loss of print ads. Printing and distributing papers is expensive, but no major newspaper has yet figured out how to make money on the online-only format.

Frankly, I'm worried about the trend. A lot of newspapers are in trouble, and that does not bode well for the well-researched, investigative journalism upon which an informed citizenry depends.

On the one hand, the explosion of private blogs has been liberating for those wanting to express non-mainstream views. But more often than not, the content is opinion, not news. That is, usually the blogger didn't interview anyone, research the background of the story, or try to seek some alternative viewpoint. He didn't attend a year's worth of public meetings. He just opined.

And that leads me to a radical solution. If the business model of for-profit newspapers is broken, then maybe what we need them to do is merge with an obvious partner: the public library.

We, by which I mean 21st century librarians, have long been moving into the area of greater community involvement, of dedicating public resources to the analysis and solution of local problems. We were among the first to recognize the value of the Internet, and to develop publicly accessible websites known for credible and authoritative information.

And what is a librarian, after all, but someone passionate about the world of ideas and doings, someone willing to ask questions, dig for answers, and organize the results? Just possibly, this is a moment in history when the job descriptions of journalist and librarian might dovetail.

You want local news you can trust? Librarians and journalists bring it to you online. (I don't see us cranking out the print copies, though.)

It's fascinating to think this through: would the library take editorial stands? Maybe it would constitute a citizen editorial board to do just that. We're already bastions of free speech.

Would "hard news" compromise the ability of libraries to win at the polls? It might -- but it's not particularly easy now, and a library that covered local events, and archived them as a matter of course, might actually see a rise in public support.

It's a shame that the Douglas County Libraries has a hiring freeze right now (which suggests some business problems of our own, even if the problem isn't the Internet). Otherwise, I'd be hiring Rocky Mountain News reporters. We could use them.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

March 5, 2009 - brain scientist has a stroke of insight

Some years after earning her Ph.D. in neuroanatomy, Jill Bolte Taylor woke up one morning and ... had a stroke. A congenital malformation of the blood vessels in her brain burst, flooding the left hemisphere. She was 37 years old, and home alone at her Boston apartment. She tells the whole story in her book, "A Stroke of Insight."

First, she had some trouble with her equilibrium, and even with keeping track of the physical boundaries of her body. Sound and light were painful.

Then something even more puzzling began. The constant chatter of the left brain ceased. In fact, her whole ability to generate and process language disintegrated.

At the same time, she was almost overwhelmed by something else: an extraordinary feeling of peace, of oneness with the universe, of something she called "an expanding sense of grace."

When her left brain would switch on again, she even had this thought: "how cool! I'm a brain scientist watching myself have a stroke!"

The story of how this remarkable woman managed to get a phone call to a colleague -- when her memory, her language skills, and more were utterly on the blink -- is gripping. I'd seen a slightly different version of this on the Internet (see www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html), and found it one of the most mesmerizing speeches I've ever witnessed. You might, too.

But that story -- how she managed to call for help in the middle of a major brain trauma -- is really only the beginning of her journey. She had lost the ability to walk, talk, or eat for herself. In just a few hours, she had gone from a highly accomplished scientist to almost an infant.

What happened next, over the course of almost 8 years, was not just the recovery of the normal functioning of the human brain. Taylor in fact created a new person, and I would wager a much better one. Her observations of that process will change the way you look not only at the treatment of strokes, but at the choices you have made at the most fundamental levels of your life.

For most of us, the hemispheres of our brain grew up together, integrating almost without our knowing it. But they have specialties.

The left brain is where language lives: classification, storytelling, and according to Taylor, our whole sense of ego.

When her left brain went "offline," the right brain utterly dominated. And the right brain is all about being in the moment, about pure experience, about a childlike curiosity and openness.

This gave Taylor a unique perspective. When her left brain started to come back online -- after some persistent and patient instruction from her mother -- Taylor was able to watch how it operated.

Here's the first big insight about the left brain: it makes up stories, often outrageous, then tries to convince the rest of the brain that they're true through sheer repetition. This brain chatter, what Zen Buddhists call "monkey mind," weaves the little details of life into narratives of self. And those narratives are often surprisingly negative.

Who among us has not fallen into the spirals of destructive internal scripts? Often, these neural circuits, fortified through endless loops, were formed when we were very young.

But because Taylor was now informed by the compassionate openness of her right brain, she found that many of these circuits just ... felt bad. They literally made her sick.

Sometimes, we can't help that. Some things trigger physical responses in the brain. Fear. Fight or flight. But the actual duration of those automatic responses are brief -- about 90 seconds. After that, the brain can decide what to make of them.

So she developed techniques to interrupt the negative stories of self. She decided to be guided by the insights of her right brain.

You can't help but notice that what the right brain wants to tell us sounds a whole lot like the best teachings of world religions.

For most folks, a stroke is the devastating destruction of capacity and personhood. But ultimately, Taylor's experience is a testament to the brain's resilience -- and the potential of exerting a whole-brained choice to live far richer lives.

LaRue's Views are his own.