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, June 25, 2009

June 25, 2009 - book bags

Over the years, I've gone to a lot of conferences, workshops, and professional events. I know this because recently I ran out of closet space. The problem? Book bags.

Book bags, or "swag," come with virtually every event librarians go to. Book bags are to librarians what T-shirts and baseball caps are to sports fans. When my closet door would no longer close, it's because I now have a couple of dozen of these bags.

Some book bag samples include:

* CAL - get RadiCAL (where CAL stands for Colorado Association of Libraries)
* A ClassiCAL Celebration (same idea)
* Colorado Teen Literature conference (a nice one, with a large zipper compartment)
* several from the Arkansas Valley Library System (now, alas, defunct)
* RefUSA (Reference USA was a sponsor for ... something)
* an old "Douglas Public Library District" Art of Reading bag (we're now the Douglas County Libraries, of course)
* Friends of the Greeley Public Library (which means I've had this one for over 20 years, which means I don't clean the closet very often)
* Natrona County Public Library (from a visit up to see a friend in Wyoming), and
* two bags from Paris: the American Library in Paris, and the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. (This last was from a trip to see our daughter at school.)

Suzanne, my wife, has some definite opinions about which features of these bags are successful, and which are not. She admits, though, that it depends on how you use them. For instance, one slim sack from Paris suggests that you might be carrying just one or two books at a time.

Parisians accomplish their errands by walking briskly around lively but crowded neighborhoods; Americans traverse vast distances in fully-loaded minivans. Here in the LaRue household, we move a lot of books. This European less-is-more approach just doesn't cut it.

I asked Suzanne if color mattered. She gave her thumbs-up to the blue/black ones, especially when made of waterproof fabric. They look like canvas on the outside, but protect your precious library materials from sudden showers or leaks from attached water bottles (also a nice feature).

Thumbs-down: the standard "natural canvas" look. They show dirt, and when washed, never regain their shape again.

Thumbs up: 18-20" wide, with a flat or gusseted bottom. This lets you really pack 'em in.

Thumbs down: shoulder straps that are too long. One of our DCL bags is like that. Assuming you actually put the straps on your shoulder, you still have to be 5'6" to get the bag off the floor.

Along the same lines and for the same reason, I prefer the bags to be wider than they are tall. Suzanne likes them more squarish.

Thumbs up: zipper on the top. It stops bags from spilling their contents around the minivan.

Thumbs up: internal library card pocket. Don't leave home without it.

So far, the best bags we've found have been the ones provided by OCLC. They're like little conference survival kits: a central pocket for mementos, two water bottle pockets, a slimmer side pocket for conference guides and maps, zipper on the top.

However, even in the LaRue Warehouse O' Books (tm), we don't really need as many book bags as we've got. So look for these distinctive collectibles at upcoming booksales.

Better your closet than mine.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009 - beating the summer slide

For several years, I did 50 pushups, 50 abdomen "crunches" and 50 leg lifts every single day. It took me a minute and a half.

Part of the way I kept myself at it was by asking myself, "in 24 hours, you don't have a minute and a half for exercise?"

But then, with frightening suddenness, I suffered such intense shoulder pain that I could no longer raise my arms even to shampoo. I couldn't pull my wallet out of my back pocket.

The doctor told me it was tendonitis, no doubt brought on by my brief but intense daily regimen. Age may have had something to do with it, too.

I was bitter. It was like the time I threw out my back in my sleep. When you're doing something good (exercise is good, sleep is righteous), it seems to me you shouldn't be punished for it.

But there's the universe for you.

These days, I'm trying to put together a new system -- stress plus stretch. (My doctor prescribed physical therapy, not indolence.)

The reason I'm trying again is simple. When it comes to your body, you have just two choices: use it or lose it.

Which brings me to my actual point this week. Reading is the same way. The more you do, the better you get. The less you do, the worse you get.

So let's think about our children, on a much-longed-for vacation. Many will actually lose ground academically -- a phenomenon called the "summer slide." Parents, consider these facts, well-bolstered by research (by Barbara Hehns way back in 1978):

* The number of books read during the summer is consistently related to academic gains.

* Children in every income group who read six or more books over the summer gained more in reading achievement than children who did not.

* The use of the public library during the summer is more predictive of vocabulary gains than is attending summer school.

* "More than any other public institution, including the schools, the public library contributed to the intellectual growth of children during the summer."

In 1993, Stephen Krasher ("The Power of Reading") found that ...

* The longer free voluntary reading is practiced, the more consistent and positive the results.

* People who read more, write better.

* Reading as a leisure activity is the best predictor of comprehension, vocabulary and reading speed.

* "If children read one million words a year, at least one thousand words will be added to their vocabulary. (One study found this could easily be accomplished by letting children and teens read any format reading material they wanted, including comic books and teen romances.)"

* Studies also showed that spelling improved the more kids read.

* In summary, Krashen found that free voluntary reading resulted in better:

* Reading comprehension
* Writing style
* Vocabulary
* Spelling, and
* Grammatical development

There's more research, of course. (See http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/summer/research.htm#research for a summary.) But it all comes down to the same thing: reading makes your kids -- and you -- smarter. That's a good thing, right?

To that end, I'm happy to encourage every child, teen, and adult in Douglas County to sign up for our upcoming Summer Reading Programs. As it says on our website (http://douglascountylibraries.org/node/15054), "This is the summer to turn off the television and computer to pick up a good book and start reading. Children, teens, and adults can register for a reading program June 1 through July 13."

You won't be alone! In our first week alone, we signed up 5,360 kids, 1,064 teens, and 1,112 adults.

Every age group has a target for reading -- and a prize at the end. But here's the real prize: the more you read, the more you exercise your brain, the greater the capacity you build as a human being.

Push yourself up. Or did you think someone else would do it for you?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11, 2009 - money matters

This week I'd like to do a roundup of some library financial issues.

First, effective June 1, we doubled the fines for overdue materials. We continue to offer a few days grace for such materials -- and if you give us your email address, we'll even remind you to bring things back the day before they are due.

In brief, fines for most materials went from a nickel a day to a dime a day. Our fines do max out for most materials at $5 per item. While this probably won't be a big money maker for us, we hope it will encourage people to help us keep our materials moving. There's a lot of demand for them these days.

Second, before we replaced our traditional checkout system with self-check machines and automated checkin systems, we had a growing problem with repetitive motion injuries. Our staff were moving literally millions of items per year, and paying for it with their health. For the past couple of years, in addition to our self-check systems, we've initiated a variety of safety measures. I'm pleased to announce that we just got a dividend from our workers compensation insurance company in the amount of $34,000 -- the largest check they have ever written for the largest reduction in claims they have ever seen. Our rates are going down, too. That's good news not only for our pocketbook, but for our employees.

Third, to avoid a crisis due to flat or falling property tax revenues over the next few years, the Douglas County Libraries initiated a hiring freeze, with the goal of reducing positions by attrition. Our goal is to save half a million dollars by the end of 2009. From January through April, we reduced our payroll by almost 7 full time jobs, for a savings of nearly $240,000 per year.

When one of our branch managers retired (Patt Paul of Parker), we moved another manager (Lone Tree's Sharon Nemechek) to replace her. Sharon will be tasked with remaking the internal space of the library to improve its performance, something she knows a lot about. Meanwhile, we realigned some staff responsibilities, asking several of the remaining managers to double up: putting the Neighborhood Library at Roxborough under Dorothy Hargrove (the manager of the Highlands Ranch Library); Louviers under Sheila Kerber (the manager of the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock); and moving Peg Hooper (manager of these former "satellite" libraries) to the Neighborhood Library at Lone Tree, where she will also administer a new service location (see below).

I know that many other businesses are doing the same kind of trimming and reorganization. But the library is making these cuts even as our business is increasing by double digits.

Fourth, I'm pleased to report that the library Board of Trustees recently signed a three year lease to open a small (2,500 square foot) storefront library in the Village Square at Castle Pines this fall. This new service location is made possible by the truly extraordinary support of the Castle Pines community. Due to significant donations by the property owner, as well as independent fundraising by the community at large, this new library will actually cost us less than we currently spend on our aging bookmobile. We'll retire the bookmobile when the new library opens. The new library will be staffed by existing employees.

So not only will we save money, but we'll also offer more materials to the 10,000 residents of the area, and provide children's storytimes to a community that has long been eager for them.

What happens at the end of three years? That, of course, will depend on the finances of the district at that time, and that's an issue that will affect not only Castle Pines.

But in the meantime, I hope the citizens of Douglas County can see that we remain thoughtful stewards of public money.

For more information on donations to the Castle Pines Library, please contact Margie Woodruff, mwoodruff@dclibraries.org, or call 303-688-7638.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

June 4, 2009 - Colorado public libraries share ideas

Once a year, planned about 9 months in advance, the directors of Colorado's public libraries get together for an afternoon, an evening, and a morning to have frank conversations about what's going on in our operations, our communities, and our profession. This confabulation always happens around Memorial Day, when the rates of mountain lodges are cheap. (We hold our meetings on the Western Slope as a convenience to the many geographically isolated libraries who do such good work the other side of the Rockies.)

Most of Colorado's public libraries serve small communities. But big or small, there were some trends:

* rising use. Everywhere in our great state libraries are seeing big jumps in visits, in program attendance, in checkouts, in reference questions, and most particularly, in Internet and public computer use. What's behind this last? People are looking for jobs, and more and more employers require online applications.

* shrinking budgets. Municipal libraries are funded by sales tax -- which is in sharp decline nationwide. District libraries are funded by property taxes, which trail market conditions by enough time to let us forecast significant drops in 2010.

* increasing productivity. Many libraries are adopting self-check and RFID technologies. Those that have already made this move (and Douglas County was the first in the state) report that there is no other way we could have solved the equation of rising use and declining revenue. Those who have not, took note.

* green building. Once upon a time, I'd hoped to build one of the first truly green libraries in the state. Too late! My favorite project is Naturita's straw bale library, whose shrewd general contractor is the library director himself. But there are LEED-certified gold and silver libraries in Steamboat Springs and Durango. Librarians understand sustainable building. And those communities clearly value such investments.

* re-focusing on our core mission. Many of my esteemed Colorado colleagues have reached the same conclusions I have. To stay relevant to the lives of the people we serve, we need to focus on a very clear set of priorities: encouraging the young to get ready to read, promoting authors (more reading!), providing access to well-organized information (whether it be about school research, economic development, or a more personal agenda), and serving as an advocate for both culture and community.

* fundraising and "friends." Given all the above, most libraries are working harder to connect to local supporters. (We shared some tips on grant money.)

* the importance of internal training. Way back in 1991, I asked library staff to name their top priority. They said, "training." So we established an internal training department. Now a lot of libraries are recognizing the importance of building an organization that mobilizes itself toward learning.

I also heard about a lot of fascinating experiments and experiences. For instance, Fort Morgan, out in northeast Colorado, is working intensively with a large immigrant population -- from Somalia, east Africa. The public library in Adams County is doing away with the Dewey Decimal System, and adopting a bookstore-style arrangement of subjects. The folks in Fort Lupton have determined that the single most popular program in their community is ... knitting.

While I take pride in our accomplishments, I'm always eager to see what other librarians have come up with. Often, their twist is a little different than ours.

For instance, we offer our staff a discount at local recreation centers, figuring that such an incentive might keep everyone a little healthier.

By contrast, an enterprising Western Slope library director has secured a discount for librarians at the local liquor store. You never know, in these interesting times, when you might want to keep a notion like that on tap.