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, July 30, 2009

July 30, 2009 - libraries more than just a phase

Recently I was chatting with a friend, who told me that there are 7 phases of life. I found it compelling.

These phases or transitions mark the passage from one state of being to another.

* birth. Where it all begins. (Or does it?)

* childhood. Few of us remember anything before the age of four or five. The end of infancy is the beginning of memory. Or it may be the other way around.

* puberty. These first stirrings of sex herald adulthood.

* adulthood. At this threshold, formal schooling is done. One begins a work career, or otherwise joins the grown-up world.

* family. This might involve spouses and children. But at a deeper level, this is about establishing important and enduring relationships, in which someone other than you is nurtured and supported.

* retirement/empty nest. The formal work years are done. The children are gone.

* death. Where it all ends. (Or does it?)

Part of me wants to structure the arc of a life around the notion of values.

It looks like this: we receive values (through childhood), we test values (adolescence), we apply values (in work and early adult life), we transmit values (as parents and mentors), and just possibly, we transcend values (as questing seniors).

There's a library connection to all of this. (Surprise!)

It just might be that the real and true significance of my venerable institution is this: we're there.

That is, the public library is there for you, with a host of customized offerings, for everybody, at any and every phase of your life.

There are a happy few of us who established a habit of library use as children, and continued through the rest of our days. We are well familiar with the regular offerings of the the public library.

But for a significant percentage of the population, that habit never got formed. What, then, is the value of the library to them?

I think there are two.

First, the library as an institution assembles the public around activities that promote the public good: literacy, lifelong learning, civic engagement, and culture. Together, libraries encourage our communities to be both more civilized and more interesting.

Second, no matter how together you may feel, the odds are good that at least one of these big life transitions -- or the many smaller transitions that occur within them (such as a job change or health crisis) will catch you offguard. You won't feel quite equipped to deal.

And there we are: with books and databases and programs on healthy pregnancy (to deal with those before-birth issues), on early brain development, on support for education, on the issues of young adulthood, on career planning, on rearing your children and relationships, on retirement, and on estate planning (for those after-death issues).

Or it could be that our main contribution in such times of stress is simple escape. Overwhelmed by life? You need ... a western! A mystery! A romance!

What was once "a nice thing to have" now becomes absolutely essential to navigating a time of profound transformation in your life. And you don't have to do anything weird to access it: we're already a part of your community, with people trained to guide you quickly and confidentially to the sources that make a difference.

The public library: it's not just a phase. It's for all the phases of our all too complicated lives.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23, 2009 - lifelong learning is fun

I've been thinking lately about how libraries work. Today, I might put it like this: driven by our core beliefs, librarians assemble complex systems to achieve important community outcomes.

For instance, because librarians have a keen value for literacy in all its manifestations, we build collections and programs to nurture a community of lifelong learners. Lifelong learners not only know how to read, think, and discuss, they get a big kick out of doing it. Regularly.

Lifelong learning has a broad reach. It takes in everything from attending storytimes as an infant, to watching obscure foreign films, to a comprehensive and compulsive reading of romance novels, to attending every free lecture you can find.

But not only libraries are in this business of growing literate communities. This week, I'd like to highlight the efforts of the University of Denver's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. OLLI, as it is known, is a lecture/study program designed for older learners (age 50 and up).

It happens that OLLI has a new south campus, located right here in Douglas County. For a modest membership fee (usually $100, but now an introductory offer of $75), you can choose from a listing of 9 topics taught locally -- and many more from other campuses. Membership offers other perks: access to the Penrose Library, discounts on Newman Center concerts, and so on.The fee is good for one academic term (fall, winter, spring).

Most of the classes last 8 weeks (typically one 2 hour session a week, usually held on a week day). They are taught, often, by OLLI members, many of whom have impressive credentials. A sample of upcoming topics:

* Eyewitness to Power - taught by Harry Cullis, on a book by David Gergen, former advisor to four U.S. presidents.

* Macbeth: Fair or Foul - taught by Patricia Paul, past president of the Colorado Language Arts Society.

* Colorado Mystery Writers Series - featuring eight different writers presenting on their own work.

* Searching for Hussan: a cultural, historical, and political tour of Iran - taught by Khosrow Badiozamani, who was born in Iran.

* A Survey of Comparative Mythology: the contributions of Joseph Campbell - taught by Thomas Carter, international businessman.

OLLI also offers a smattering of one-offs -- one-time lectures with their own modest fees (for instance, $10 gets you into a two hour class on fine music appreciation).

There are no exams. This is learning for the fun of it.

On Tuesday, August 4, from 10 a.m. to noon, OLLI is sponsoring an open house at the south campus. According to a recent press release, "The open house is an opportunity to learn more about the program, register for classes and meet OLLI members. For information, or to be added to the OLLI South database, contact Nancy Chase at 720-203-9708 or nancychase@q.com. OLLI South Open House & classes: Valley View Christian Church, 11004 Wildfield Lane (4 miles south of US85 & C470 on the northeast corner of South Santa Fe Drive & Titan Parkway)."

More information, and online registration, is available at www.universitycollege.du.edu/olli.

Meanwhile, for those of you who are not yet 50, or don't have $75 to spare, remember that the People's University (doing business as the Douglas County Libraries) offers a guaranteed scholarship to a lifetime of exploration.

Why not start today?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16, 2009 - DCL number one!

Two years ago, it took an average of 48 hours for materials returned to the library to make their way back to the shelf.

That's not surprising. Over the past five years, checkouts have jumped by 98% in Douglas County. More materials means more handling.

But I work with some remarkably insightful and innovative people. Case in point: my Associate Director of Virtual Services, Bob Pasicznyuk, put together a team that eventually involved almost everybody in the library and a good many community volunteers. That team tested, selected, and installed RFID tags, self-check stations, and behind-the-scene sorting systems.

In the past TWO years, we've seen a 31% jump in checkouts. That's almost a million new transactions every year. At the same time, since January of this year we've had a hiring freeze, thus we employ fewer people than last year.

And now it takes just 2 hours to get materials back on the shelf. In some locations, we have it down to 45 minutes.

The creativity, focus, and tenacity of my staff is matched only by the openness of our Library Board of Trustees. However, their willingness to invest in cutting edge technologies was tempered by their probing questions about what we were really trying to accomplish and why.

The answer was plain: we wanted to put more library materials in more Douglas County homes, and do it more efficiently, than any library in the country.

As our internal measures show, we just might have pulled it off.

But it turns out that there are external measures of library performance. One of them is called the Hennen's American Public Library Ratings. Douglas County Libraries has appeared on the list of the ten best libraries in the country for several years.

The 2009 rankings just came out. And I am very pleased to report that Douglas County Libraries is now ranked number one in the nation for our population group (250,000 up to 500,000).

To be honest, every ranking system has its fans and critics. In my judgment, there are many fine libraries right here in Colorado that didn't make this list, and should have. But while I may quibble with a particular ranking system, I heartily endorse the use of hard data to assess performance.

The main criticism of the Hennen's rankings is simply that, like so many statistical comparisons, they're based on data that tends to be old. The 2009 rankings were based on 2006 data. That was before our failed 2007 election. Since then, our per capita measures -- for funding, library space, and materials -- have lost some ground.

On the other hand, we continue to hone our ability to move materials.

You can view the ratings for yourself at http://www.haplr-index.com/HAPLR100.htm.

Allow me a moment of quiet pride in our institution. In 1990, we were rated as one of the worst libraries in the state. Fewest hours open. Fewest books per person. Fewest story times.

Today, we are regarded, after rigorous statistical analysis, as one of the best libraries in the United States. (And just by-the-bye, in 2009 we offer an average of 10 storytimes a day -- over 3600 per year. Trust me. That makes a difference in our community.)

Our success is directly attributable to the contributions we have received not only from staff and board, but from our community, whose creation of a library district in 1990, and whose increase in a mill levy in 1996 gave us the funds to achieve national recognition.

To put it another way: support equals excellence. Thank you!

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 9, 2009 - library hosts small business forum

Many people, I'm sure you will be astonished to learn, are more interested in themselves than they are in others.

One of the marks of maturity, however, is this: you begin to notice that all our lives are interdependent. That is, an environment where many people thrive is better for you in the long run than one that's just set up for your immediate convenience.

I was very impressed recently to read of the Town of Castle Rock's extraordinary steps to change longstanding processes to approve residential projects: decks, added rooms, etc. The council's bold leadership suggested that they would simply waive, for a time, associated fees and delays for permits.

Won't the Town lose money, and isn't it in fact facing a severe fiscal crisis?

It will and it is.

But it will also be promoting local businesses, and encouraging people to spend a little money to invest in the asset of their homes, at a time when that money buys more than usual. That business boost improves a community twice -- and maybe three times, because the modest sales tax on such services (buying lumber, etc.) does come back to the Town.

That larger perspective is rare, and is worthy of praise.

It is a fundamental premise of libraries that by pooling all of our knowledge, each of us can get a little smarter. Along that theme, I'm pleased to announce a Small Business Forum. We're holding it at the Highlands Ranch Library from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., on Friday, July 17th. The forum is free and open to all.

We'd like to start off by getting a real read on what's happening in the local business environment from people who know. There's a difference between what you read or hear about the business environment through national and regional media, and what's happening in Douglas County -- and it's a good difference.

Among our speakers will be a commercial real estate broker in Parker (Justin VanLandschoot), a Chamber of Commerce executive in Castle Rock (Pam Ridler), the coordinator of a countywide economic gardening project (Chris Eppers), and a County Commissioner (Jack Hilbert). We'll also hear from a librarian who specializes in answering local business questions (Tina Poliseo, who used to be a stockbroker). The forum will be moderated by Dorothy Hargrove, Manager of the Highlands Ranch Library, and also a member of the Highlands Ranch Chamber Board.

Many economic development people pin their hopes on outside investment -- the arrival of a big box retailer, or major new enterprise. Right now, that kind of activity has slowed.

But the real engine of economic growth, in the long haul, is small business. These are folks who already live in Douglas County. They already have a lot of expertise. They just may have a handle on the Next Big Thing.

Who is the audience for this forum? Entrepreneurs. Have you been nursing a notion that just might help you strike out on your own? It might be that this forum will give you the connection, the encouragement, and the information you need to make that happen.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009 - in defense of Dewey

Back on June 8, 2009, the Denver Post ran a front page story, above the fold, about the Rangeview Library District's decision to abandon the Dewey Decimal System.

The day the article came out, an out-of-state friend was visiting one of our staff members. The visitor asked, "Is this actually a hot issue here in Colorado?" Our staff member kept a stern and straight face. "Absolutely," she said. "Dewey. Anti-Dewey. There will be blood."

My thought was this: I think this is a fine and interesting experiment for a library. Rangeview's director and her staff are trying all kinds of things lately. Fun.

But almost immediately and somewhat to my surprise, I got an impassioned defense of the Dewey Decimal System via email from one of our Douglas County patrons. Her main issue was that although the bookstore style classification adopted by Rangeview might work well in smaller collections, it tends to break down for larger ones.

For instance, "Cooking" (the bookstore or "WordThink" classification) makes a lot more sense than Dewey's "Cookery."

But when you have larger collections and thus more subjects, it's important to have finer gradations. Take subject headings for Korean cooking. In WordThink, it's "COOKING/RegionalEthnicAsian," or just "Cooking International." A label for the book might be "COOKING INTNTL." In Dewey, the subject heading is "Cookery, Korean." The number corresponding to that subject is 641.59519. It is specific to Korean cooking, which means that all the Korean cookbooks will wind up next to each other on the shelf. Numbers make finer breakdowns easier to label -- but harder to find (because you have to look up the subject to find the number, and the subject isn't always the words ordinary people use).

So some people do have strong feelings about this issue. But they're part of that relatively small subset of the population that actually understands Dewey.

I know from talking to the folks at Rangeview that making such a change isn't easy. It took them at least a thousand hours of thinking and planning and procedural design. They're about to open a bunch of new libraries, so this would be the time to make the change. I'm not sure that makes sense for us, though.

Here's why.

First, almost half of our checkouts (48%) are children's materials -- and a big percentage of those are picture books. Their labeling is absurdly simple -- the letter "E" (for "Easy Reader" or "Juvenile Picture" book), then by author. Dewey doesn't usually come into play. (Although you could make an argument that sorting picture books by subject would come in handy sometimes. But not most of the time.)

Second, about 15% of our checkouts are books placed on hold through our computer catalog, then picked up later. Since it's our staff that pulls the books, it almost doesn't matter how they're labeled, so long as we can still find things.

Third, a lot of our collection -- and percentage of checkouts -- is adult fiction. Last year, it accounted for about 14% of our business. Fiction is just shelved by author.

Fourth, of the remaining non-fiction materials, many zoom off the shelf because they're on display -- usually on one of our subject-oriented "power walls." In fact, for these materials, what we're doing already feels a lot like a bookstore. But we build displays on the fly, based on immediate use.

So what's left is just the older non-fiction materials. As an administrator, I ask myself: does it make sense to relabel hundreds of thousands of materials when we have a system that seems to be working right now?

I don't think so.

I've worked with Dewey, with the Library of Congress system, and with BISAC (the Book Industry Standards and Communication classification system that forms the basis for WordThink). None of them is perfect. All of them are usable.

But I still think it's great that libraries are shaking things up -- and people care enough to notice.

LaRue's Views are his own.