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, May 28, 2009

May 28, 2009 - there's a whole world of librarians

I just returned from the final "Members Council" meeting of the international library company, OCLC. Henceforth, it will move to a model based on new regional and global councils. It's the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

OCLC's main business has been the gathering, joint creation, and dissemination of cataloging records. It now has over a billion such records, in many languages. It also provides various services for the borrowing of materials across libraries, the management of digital records (whether ebooks or digitized photographs), for reaching live librarians online, and more.

But for me, there has been a great personal and professional benefit simply to hear the conversation and concerns of librarians from all around the world.

Here's one of the first lessons I've learned: we truly are a global society. At a sort of "international library roundup" we heard a consistent message. The recession has definitely hit libraries of all types very hard.

There were isolated pockets of exceptions. The leaders in a few states or countries have made strong statements about the value of higher education in the creation of skilled employees and economic growth. But most universities have seen their purchasing power significantly eroded by poor exchange rates.

Public libraries -- most attached to municipalities and funded from general revenues collected from sales taxes -- are in big trouble. From coast to coast in the United States, branches are closing, and layoffs are common. The trend may be most visible here, but that's because with perhaps the exception of Denmark, our public libraries are the best in the world. That means we have the most to lose.

School libraries seem to be faring the worst everywhere. Most nations report that few librarians are left in their schools. The positions have been replaced with technical paraprofessionals, or volunteers. Ironically, we have strong research to show the value of professionally managed library programs in academic achievement -- research that is consistently ignored by school administrators tasked with managing their own declining budgets.

Another irony of the global library picture is that the worse things get, the busier WE get. Public libraries in particular report huge upswings in use. Many of us are offering assistance in writing resumes, looking for work, and writing new business plans.

Beyond that, people who have less discretionary income tend to leverage their original investment in libraries to borrow what they can no longer buy, or to seek "free" entertainment at library programs.

But unlike businesses, libraries' increased activity doesn't mean increased revenue.

It has long been my belief that leadership has the obligation to set a positive tone. But that doesn't mean we just ignore bad news. A realistic assessment of the facts is essential to success.

One conclusion I might draw is that all around the globe, people are more aware of the keen importance of the public sector. While, clearly, its fortunes are linked to the private sector, the public sector provides a buffer to economic swings, a means through which people can prepare for and adapt to change.

Another conclusion is about my colleagues themselves. I spoke with librarians from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Serbia, and the Netherlands. I spoke with librarians from Mexico City and Montana. To a person, they were all deeply passionate about the power of literacy to build better lives, better universities, better communities, better nations, and ultimately, a better world.

Librarians are good people, thoughtful, dedicated, and deeply engaged in their communities. I am proud to be one.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mary 21, 2009 - copyright is an outrage

A friend tells me that the local political party dominating his hometown has a toggle switch: outrage ON. Outrage OFF.

Our experiment today is to see which of these real life library situations flips your switch.

Situation Number One: recently the library bought some new music CDs. One of our staff happened to pop it into a work computer to listen to one of the songs. We don't exactly pay people to listen to music, understand, but sampling a product while cataloging it is perfectly legitimate.

A few moments later, the computer ground to a halt.

After some IT sleuthing, we determined that what happened was this. The CD, legally purchased from Capitol Records for library use (e.g. public lending), installed without any notification at all a "Trojan virus" on the attached computer. "Trojan" simply means that the software was trying to remain hidden. The virus part refers to the attempt to slip past various anti-virus applications and take up residence on the PC.

Once the program was installed, it tried to connect to the Internet and report ... well, we don't know what it was trying to report. Which MP3 files were already on the PC? Information about the disc being used from Capitol? Which anti-virus applications were currently running?

We do know this. The virus disabled the computer, and it required both time and expertise to bring it back up again.

When we called Capitol to ask just what was going on we were told that we had the option to return the disc. But we weren't told what the software was trying to do.

Does anyone think it's a good idea for the library to circulate materials that disable the computers they run on? Or to continue to do business with a publisher who feels free to appropriate or maliciously damage other people's computers?

Outrage ON.

Situation Number Two: last week someone returned to us something really quite remarkable: counterfeit CDs. They had copied the content from the original onto a somewhat cheaper CD. They had done a pretty good job of reproducing the graphic art on the original CD -- including a facsimile of the barcode we attached to it.

We detected the substitution, although it's hard for us to know which user swapped out the original for a fake.

And here's the truth of it. Although most people who borrow library CDs do not take the trouble to replace our content with clever substitutes, it's quite likely that at least some of them do make copies for themselves.

That's not legal, by the way. We loan materials to the public, but the materials remain copyrighted nonetheless. Making a copy of someone else's legally purchased content is theft. It's a crime.

How many people check out library CDs and steal the content? I don't know for sure. Anecdotally, I gather there are quite a few. They seem to feel perfectly justified, too. It's the sort of thing to make a legitimate publisher -- Capitol Records, say -- a little testy.

Outrage OFF?

Not everyone is a thief, of course. I suspect that most people use library materials precisely the way we intend: to sample musical genres, to check out CDs before purchasing them, to broaden their knowledge of both classical and popular culture without having to spend a fortune in the process. Our value as an institution is to leverage the cooperative purchasing power of communities -- not to enable wholesale robbery.

Of course, libraries could simply stop buying anything but books. But then, what about all those perfectly legal, even admirable uses I just described? Should we be forced to abandon our role as an advocate of literacy -- where literacy includes knowledge of many formats and cultural content -- just because a minority of our public is ethically challenged?

Outrage ....?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14, 2009 - libraries mean business

by Rochelle Logan and Jamie LaRue

A couple of years ago the Douglas County Manager of Economic Development, Meme Martin, met with library representatives to talk about the business databases we buy. She wanted to know if we would consider augmenting those subscription services to support new "economic gardening" efforts at Highlands Ranch and Castle Rock.

Our interest was piqued. We wanted to know more about economic gardening. (It means, in brief, growing the seeds of businesses that are already planted in the local community.)

Libraries exist to serve their communities -- residents and business owners alike. And we're always interested in mutually beneficial partnerships.

Since that meeting in 2007, we purchased thousands of dollars in additional databases and other business materials (journals, books, etc.). Librarians now also attend many meetings of area chambers of commerce and economic development councils.

So these days, library staff are resources for business and economic development groups, speakers at brown bag lunches, researchers for complex questions, and much more.

What does that mean to a local business owner?

Here's an example. Rochelle recently participated in a 5K walk in Douglas County and got into conversation with a woman who owns a small business dealing with hair care. When asked how the business is doing these days, the woman replied that she was just trying to keep ahead of the next customer walking through the door.

She hadn’t written a business plan, or done any marketing or industry trend research. In truth, she really didn't know where to start. When Rochelle told her that public libraries have business services and professional librarians to help her, she was amazed.

Despite the fact that public entities are often told that we should run ourselves more like businesses, the sad truth is this: most businesses don't make it. The ones that do are the ones that do their homework.

And where do smart people go to do their homework? The library.

Let me say that again. The library and its resources just might make the difference between the success or failure of your business.

In this economy, the usual suspects of economic growth -- expanding franchises, big box retailers, etc. -- are slowing down or contracting. There have been many layoffs.

But for a long time, the fastest growing sector of our economy really has been the small office/home office start-up.

The second stage of that business development focuses on "gazelles." These are the businesses that have survived those crucial first years, and are ready for the next step: adding a new employee or two, renting downtown office space.

Realizing the great need for small business help, the library has created a new service. It's called BizInfo: Build Your Business Here.

Librarians at our three regional libraries in Castle Rock, Parker, and Highlands Ranch, have been specially trained to work with entrepreneurs on everything from finding sample business plans, marketing and industry trend research, and competitive analysis.

Where do you begin? It's probably easiest to visit us online. Check out this form:

In addition to the many services we provide to individuals, the library is also more consciously tracking issues that affect the entire county. Economic development is one of them -- clearly of great significance in a recession.

Libraries can - and do - add enormous value to our communities. To that end, we're also investigating hosting, or partnering to host, an "economic summit" -- an opportunity to bring together both business and government players to talk about how we can keep at least our local economy humming. Stay tuned.

Douglas County Libraries: we mean business.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7, 2009 - library volunteers worth almost half a million dollars in 2008

On April 22, the Douglas County Libraries invited our volunteers to a modest recognition dinner. The occasion: looking back on 2008 library volunteerism. It was a record-breaker.

In total, last year our community volunteers donated 24,265 hours to the library. That's 11.8% more than in 2007. Recent national studies suggest that the hourly value of that (considering the savings not just in salary but benefits) is at least $19.19. Multiply the hours by the value, and our community contributed the equivalent of $465,645 to our libraries last year!

This column isn't long enough to describe a tenth of the tasks our volunteers perform for us. I'd like to call out one that that has particular meaning to me, probably because it's one of the ways I've volunteered myself: working as a literacy tutor.

Low estimates put the number of adult Americans who can't read above the fourth grade level at no less than 10% of the population. This does not include illegal immigrants. But it does cut across all socioeconomic categories.

The rate of illiteracy is much higher in prisons. People without options often turn to crime. But in cooperation with the Sheriff's office, the library has placed volunteers who not only help inmates at the Douglas County facility raise their basic reading comprehension, but also earn their G.E.D.'s. This past year has seen many "graduates" -- and that just might be the boost people need to break a difficult cycle.

Library volunteer hours translate not only to amazing transformations in people's lives, but directly benefit our larger community in ways that are important.

A second favorite volunteer category for me is our Spellbinders. These are folks, mostly retired, who train to become master storytellers. Then they travel far and wide throughout the county, to schools, to daycares, to anywhere, and enthrall young minds with the magic of words.

This, too, is a crucial investment in our community. Literacy begins with storytelling, with putting yourself in someone else's place, and learning a little more about how the world works. By delivering these stories to groups, our Spellbinders also create a shared community, building little pockets of understanding, of moments held in common.

This is how communities take root and grow: by investing the time of talented individuals -- of whom Douglas County has so many! -- in the fertile soil of our intellectual future.

In yet another category are our volunteers in the Douglas County History Research Center. These folks help us cull through newspapers to extract clippings by topic. They help us sort through donations of letters or photographs. They help us interview veterans or long time county residents. In short, they help us preserve our surprisingly rich past.

But these categories aren't even our biggest. Most of our volunteers assist us with the work of our branches. They help us respond to the pincers of a problem: a big jump in business (up over 17% at some of our branches) at the same time we're paring down staff through attrition to balance the budget.

So I would like to thank not only our volunteers, but the staff we have called out to work with them. First is Paula Standen, District Volunteer Services. Right behind her are our branch volunteer coordinators: Dede Hemphill (Philip S. Miller Library), Angela Weeden (Highlands Ranch Library), Sylvia Wilkinson (Parker Library), Sarah Tweed (Neighborhood Library at Roxborough), and Claire Bochner (Neighborhood Library at Lone Tree).

I'd also like to thank our two Literacy Specialists, Molly Elkins and Priscilla Queen, Geri Domareck, our Book Start Coordinator, and the entire staff of our Douglas County History Research Center.

It was almost 10 years ago now that Robert Putnam's classic "bowling alone" study came out -- a finding that American's "social capital" was in decline.

But as I hope some of these numbers show, we may be seeing signs of a rediscovery of the value of community investment -- not just in what it gives to the community, but in the rich personal reward of a job done well, of making a difference in other people's lives.

LaRue's Views are his own.