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 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.

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