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, April 30, 2009

April 30, 2009 - library taxes and Louviers

To many citizens, public funding is a mystery. That includes library funding. So this week I thought I'd walk through some numbers for one of our service areas that's been in the news lately: Louviers.

Most of the library's revenues come from 4 mills of property tax (approved by the voters back in 1996). Year by year, that varies slightly, adjusted by the county assessor to reflect minor changes in collections called "abatements," but the library doesn't have any control over that.

1 mill = $7.96 of the ASSESSED VALUE of a house whose actual or MARKET VALUE according to the county assessor (sometimes equivalent to what you can sell your house for -- sometimes not) is $100,000. So 2 mills = $15.92, 3 mills = $23.88, and 4 mills = $31.84.

Now let's apply that to houses by the assessor's opinion of market value. The calculations below tell you what a household of this value would pay in library taxes for an entire year.

4 mills ($31.84) X $100,000 market value= $31.84

4 mills X $200,000 market value = $63.68

4 mills X $300,000 market value = $95.52

4 mills X $400,000 market value = $127.36

4 mills X $500,000 market value = $159.20

4 mills X $1,000,000 market value = $310.84

And yes, I skipped from 500,000 to a million, just to say that hey, if you live in a million dollar house, you would pay just over $300 a year for libraries.

Does that sound like a lot?

Now figure out what you pay for cable TV -- $50 a month? A cell phone? Broadband? Gym membership? For most households in Douglas County, people pay more for any of these services in two months than they pay for the library in a whole year.

Arguably, the library investment not only has a higher personal return on the investment, it makes a direct contribution to the quality of our shared community.

Now multiply the average value of those homes times the number of homes in an area. Let's say the average home price in Louviers is $300,000. And there are about 100 homes. The average house would pay just under $100 a year in library taxes. Times 100 homes, that's a total contribution of $10,000 from Louviers residential properties for library services. (As any commercial property owner knows, commercial property pays about 3-1/2 times higher taxes than residential.)

In 2008, we spent over $90,000 to operate the Louviers Library, mostly on salaries and materials.

Where did the difference between the $10,000 and the $90,000 come from? From the rest of the county. It came, for instance, from the revenues collected from the Castle Pines area, which has no library at all.

This kind of disparity is historical; Louviers was around long before Castle Pines. But it explains, I hope, why I have argued that a regional library approach -- centering libraries in larger population centers that people also visit to shop -- is not only more cost-effective, but is also inherently fairer to all our patrons -- Douglas County residents who are in fact our owners.

Based on a recent decision by our Board of Trustees, and due to a projected long term decline in property tax collections, we'll be scaling back our services in Louviers by about half, leading to an annual cost of about $45,000. The citizens of Louviers in fact recommended this reduction in response to our fiscal outlook.

Quite aside from the numbers, they have spoken at length about the intangibles of library service: the library's contribution to a sense of community, the library's role in preserving unique local history, and the library's role as community gathering place. All of that's true, too.

The challenge for the library -- and most other public institutions -- is to balance the lofty goals that drive us with the fiscal realities that either enable, or restrict, our ability to live up to them.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23, 2009 - meditations on change

"Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job." Adlai E. Stevenson.

People keep telling me that "no one wants or likes change." That's not how I see it.

I used to do workshops that started like this: "I'm going to name some job factors, and I want you to tell me if you want MORE, LESS, DIFFERENT,
or if this factor is ABOUT RIGHT.

* Tools (computers, software, or any other device or technology)
* Hours
* Benefits
* Pay
* Supervisors
* Workload
and so on.

After getting people to vote on all of these, I would ask, "Did anyone vote 'about right' for every question?" Invariably, no one had.

Then I would ask them, "What do you think this talk is about?" The answers ranged from ergonomics to effective supervision to almost everything else.

Finally, I would say, "No. It's about change. And based on your votes this morning, everybody wants it."

But does this apply only to our work lives? I don't think so. Let's see some hands out there: how many of us are at our ideal weight or target heart rate? Spend enough time with the kids? Carve out the time to do our favorite, spirit-replenishing hobbies?

How many of us would be willing to go out on this limb: winning the lottery?

Face it, people. We want change so bad, the lack of it may kill us.

But it's even worse. Some kinds of change we get no matter what we want. We get older, and eventually decrepit. Or die. Either way, it's change!

The fact is that change is the only thing we can be sure of.

So here's what I think. We don't fear change. We fear change for the worse.

What then can we do in both our work and personal lives to change in ways that leave us better than we are today?

Here are a few thoughts from a librarian who both reads and thinks about such things far more than may be reasonable.

* Begin by dwelling on your strengths and your joys. People seem to be happiest when they are both doing something they're good at, and stretches them, challenges them. Celebrate your unique gifts by using them.

* Visualize your future. This may not the be whole "secret" to life, but it is surely useful: start seeing your life the way you'd like to be, and you tend to make choices to get there.

* Seek something the Japanese call "kaizen" -- continuous improvement. Not one big jump into an idealized future, just one or two steps in that direction. The small changes add up.

* Cultivate an attitude of appreciation. I admit it: things don't always turn out the way you'd like. But almost every day, something wonderful happens, if only the slant of morning light, or the etching of a cottonwood branch against a cloud, or the twitter of unseen birds, or a whole display of fascinating new books, or the smile of a child. It's not all about you, but you are privileged to live in a world of surpassing beauty.

"Do you fear change? Leave it here." - sign at coffee counter

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16, 2009 - tim miller tweets

[The library employs a host of wonderful people, and it's fun to see what they're up to. This week, library employee Tim Miller talks about about living in Twitter Town. - Jamie LaRue]

I've only been a citizen of what some people call "Twitter Town" for about a week now, and I love it already. My web browser always has a Twitter tab up. On The Net, this electronic tossed salad of people,places, institutions, and bots goes by the domain name twitter.com. If you haven't joined this quickly growing community of "Tweeters"already, sign up now.

Twitter is just an upgrade of several older ideas. Chat rooms have existed since the early nineties. A lot of you probably remember the days when you'd come home, crank over your dial-up modem, and hop on AOL for a little strange talk with the other Americans, who weren't playing Nintendo or watching "The Simpsons." Later on, instant and text messaging became the major mediums for communicating with peers.

Chat rooms still exist. They allow people to express and take in newopinions, while meeting other personas. Unfortunately, the open chat format also gives criminals and perverts an easy way to manipulate unaware Net-goers. On the other hand, text and instant messaging allows users to customize who gets a message.

I've never text messaged a random cell phone number. I tend to stay in my social box, where networking and friendship opportunities are limited to the people I talk to every day. That's no good. As a Douglas County Libraries employee, I believe that meeting new people and gaining fresh perspectives is part of lifelong learning and literacy. Sending messages to people I know doesn’t allow me to do those things online.

Then again, chat rooms have become too random and dangerous for me. I never know when some electronic snake-in-the-grass or a software porno solicitor is going to bug me out of any want to be online. This goes for social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook too.

Some people are pretty ambitious when it comes to finding new "friends"on the networking sites. I'm not. Once I've "friended" someone, we might exchange messages once or twice, but then it's over. That person is just another picture on my list of un-friends. If I add the disadvantages above to the fact that it takes a lot of time to answer the "Hey, how ya' doin'?” messages from everyone I've ever known, and the guilt from not staying in touch with them, I have a ginormous lack of motivation to visit MySpace or Facebook.

Twitter has combined the best, and left out the worst, of the chat, text, instant message, and social network concepts. The site works like a single, global chat room, with customizable features that allow users, or "Tweeple," to customize who they follow and what they read.Those annoying solicitors and criminals have taken up residence in this medium too, but all I have to do is block them. Plus, Twitter involves no pressure.

Each "tweet" I leave for followers can only be 140 characters long.That limitation applies to individual messages too. Unlike MySpace or Facebook, I don't have to keep in touch with people I barely remember,or read way-too-detailed accounts of what everyone else is doing on the site. With Twitter, I can read and write what I want, without feeling guilty, while also meeting new people. Tweets can contain links to other pages, so Twitter works like a news aggregator too. I can even get tweets on my cell phone.

People have been talking about Twitter for a while now, but I never tried it until Douglas County Libraries (DCL) started tweeting to notify its patrons of news and upcoming events. Since then, I've been addicted.

You can find and follow DCL on Twitter, under the name "DCLcolorado."If you'd like to read my rants, you can look me up as "tr1str4m" on Twitter, or visit my blog at timotheus.synthasite.com. As always, DouglasCountyLibraries.org is your online access point for lifelong learning and literacy in our communities.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

April 9, 2009 - imagine the post-Kindle library

I can think of two, maybe three times before when the technology of text has proven disruptive.

1. Gutenberg. The widespread, rapid and inexpensive printing of the Bible let people read it themselves, bypassing the middleman of the priest. Consequence: the Protestant Reformation.

2. Broadsides. The blogs of their day (the American Colonial period),broadsides provided cheap and subversive entertainment for the masses.They also fomented enough anti-Anglican rebellion to result in the Revolutionary War.

3. Personal websites and blogs. Tenacious outsiders could (and many did) voice non-mainstream views of the news. If they managed to be either outrageous or authoritative enough, some bloggers found themselves with thousands of followers overnight. While economics probably had more to do with the mounting collapse of big city newspapers, this independent "publishing" certainly chipped away at print subscriptions.

The pattern is clear: when technology allows for an explosion of opinion and communication, existing power structures are in for a ride.

Is the fourth case the electronic text, coupled with a cheap and ubiquitous reader? And will both publisher and public library be toppled?

Last week, I suggested one library response: gather, publish, and distribute the works of local authors electronically. This week, I'd like to imagine the public library building, let's say eight to ten years into the future.

I'm supposing that everyone who wants one, now has their $20 mobile device, and has access either directly or through the library (think"the people's jukebox") to some level of digital texts, music and movies. So do we still have bricks and mortar libraries? And if so,what will we find there?

Here's what I think:

* Children's books and storytimes. At least half of the library is devoted to bright, colorful children's texts. The modern electronic ebook reader is backlit, displays color, and is  portable. But children's books continue to be artifacts for exploration: with multi-page, fold-out, pop-up illustrations. These tales, and more, are brought to life by gifted and skilled storytellers, live performers who daily make magic in children's lives -- and so set them on the path to literacy and lifelong learning.

* Public computing/caf├ęs. Nearly a quarter of library space is devoted to accessible technology. Even in well-heeled communities, not everyone can afford high-speed, high-end computing. The form of this will surely change over time: desktops give way to laptops give way to manipulable touch-screen walls give way to ... who knows? But as the media changes,libraries will continue to be advocates for public access to it. Some of this space will also be devoted to display of digital texts --perhaps using that touch-screen wall idea.

* Multipurpose meeting space. Collaborative classrooms and workshops.Live performance by both staff and community. Group study space. Book discussion clubs! Civic groups. People need to see and touch and talk to each other. We're wired for it.

* Interactive displays. An idea floating along the edges of librarianship for some time now is the convergence of museums and libraries. Imagine a 1,500 square foot "room" in every library that changes every month or so, introducing irresistible exhibits of local history, wonders of the natural world, cutting edge technology, travel,and more.

* Server space. Behind the scenes (or heck, maybe right out in the open), the library maintains a robust virtual library: enhanced catalog, online communities, rich educational offerings, streaming video and conferencing. This is the library that never closes, and can be counted on to provide an authoritative introduction to the uniqueness of the local community.

* Home base for librarians who spend almost as much time outside the library as inside, who partner with a host of local government and business efforts to improve the quality of life in the community. But these librarians also need a place to research, and perhaps to schedule appointments with those members of the public whose questions require more time and/or privacy.

Because the library has always been about personal choice and freedom,because we have always offered a broad range of services, because so many of those services still depend on direct personal contract, I think we are far less vulnerable to the mission-altering disruption of technology.

Will we survive the post-Kindle world? I think we will. What do you think?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 2, 2009 - imagine the $20 Kindle

After the Rocky Mountain News shut down, I talked with some publisher and journalist friends.

They noticed when the World Wide Web started carrying news, then ads. Competition! they said. On the other hand, newspapers have been around for centuries. Surely they would survive!

Now, most of them think that traditional print newspapers, excepting perhaps small town editions, will be extinct in 5 years. (Small town rags will last longer because there's less competition for ads.)

Similar comments can be made about the library and the ebook reader -- and have been, by many people within and without the library. The library business model is predicated on print, on "warehousing" materials, they say. Old school! Doomed!

The good news is that we don't print and distribute books and magazines; we're at the end of the supply chain. And the modern library is more about display than about warehousing.

But here's a thought experiment. Take the latest version of the Kindle, today selling for $359. It doesn't take too much imagination to suppose that it will get both more powerful and cheaper (see "Moore's Law").

Now let's say you've got a $20 Kindle -- cheap enough to buy one for everybody in the house. Like today's Kindle, it pulls the book out of the air. There's no question that an electronic book has lots of advantages: more books in less space, searchable, annotatable, displayable in multiple font sizes, etc.

There are some downsides, of course. Unless it's public domain, you can't pass an Amazon ebook along to somebody else when you're done with it. You can't sell it as a used book. You can't BUY it as a used book -- if you want it again, you have to buy it again, same price as the first time.

And here's the public policy question: if you can't afford to buy it, and there really isn't any way to borrow it, then how do you read it?

There's the real question to the business model of the public library. By far the biggest part of our activity is loaning materials. We are a cooperative purchasing agreement for intellectual content. We buy books from publishers, then loan them to readers, including students, the young, the economically challenged.

But the publisher model is built on the idea of recovering the costs of printing and distribution. If it's just electronic distribution, the costs go way down. Surely it's cheaper to run (or rent) servers than printing presses.

As we've learned in the music industry, consumers would rather pay less for a download than to pay a middle man for access.

But can we trust publishers to lower the cost of books to consumers? Right now, it seems to be the opposite: they don't make money on the resale of books now. Under the Amazon model for ebooks, they make money every time it changes hands. That would seem to make books more expensive. Is that good for anybody but publishers and Amazon?

So it's not only the library whose business model is threatened. Do we still need publishers? What value do publishers add to a book if all they have to do is produce an electronic file? Most books these days are created as electronic files, and book templates aren't that hard to come by.

Here's one library response to a new publishing environment: maybe we should buy our books direct from the authors, at a discount that works to the authors' advantage because now we help readers find them. The library becomes not only the publisher of the books ("printing" them to library servers), but also the distribution channel (cataloging and displaying them electronically).

How else might the ubiquitous ebook and reader transform the public library? I'll take up the topic again next week.

LaRue's Views are his own.