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, September 24, 2009

September 24, 2009 - stop doing it!

Recently I interviewed an author (Kate Lawrence, author of "The Practical Peacemaker") who made a beguiling argument: the path to peace begins with a simplified life.

In so many ways, Americans have chosen lives of busy consumerism. As a consequence, we run ourselves down, use up all kinds of natural resources at a wholly disproportionate rate to the rest of the world, and have little time left over for the deep satisfactions of spending time with friends, or just lying about and reading.

This insight applies to organizations, too. A few months ago, library managers got together to start planning next year's budget. It turns out that it is very easy for us to come up with new ideas, programs, and services.

But we were all stonkered by one exercise: what can we STOP doing? That's not an idle question; our resources are tightening, and the demand for our core services is on the rise.

Let me walk through a typical idea and response.

The proposal: Let's stop buying movies of any description. They are prone to theft. The DVD format is prone to scratches, making them all but unplayable after just a few uses. Before too long, the format is going to disappear anyhow, as they move to downloadables. This would free up a lot of money, space, staff time, and hassle.

Some people suggest that providing DVDs for checkout unfairly competes with video rentals -- but that complaint doesn't come from video rental stores. They know better, and tend to do best when they position themselves close to libraries. The mix of our wares is different, but they tend to be complementary.

Reasons for keeping: in some of our branches, movies account for almost a third of our checkouts. That's millions of transactions a year. We promote reading, but reading isn't the only kind of literacy, and a lot of families have come to rely on us for inexpensive entertainment. If our job is to respond to the public's demonstrated demand for intellectual content, it couldn't be any clearer: they want books AND movies AND music.

Resolved: we'll investigate other solutions to managing this troublesome resource. But it's worth it, because it's part of the library's mission to provide access to the intellectual content of our culture.

So then we trotted out another idea for the stop list: providing public distribution of federal and state tax forms.

There are a few things I bet the public doesn't know about this. We aren't required by law to do distribute tax forms. Nor are we compensated for doing so. Except for the occasional grant, and reimbursements for telephone expenses (funded separately), we get no money from either the federal government or the state. Virtually all of our revenue comes from local property taxes -- federal and state taxes just don't enter into the picture.

It gets worse. It takes a lot of staff time to order the forms and instruction booklets -- a nightmare of ordering, stocking, filling displays. Tax forms eat up a lot of library space, and we're running out of space.

The use of this service is in fact in decline. The vast majority of Douglas County taxpayers have Internet access, and most of the forms and instructions are available online.

And get this. Not only does the federal government not pay us to provide this service (when not even the Post Office does it anymore, which is actually part of the federal government), these days we have to pay for the forms. That's right; they charge us to do their work for them.

Was there ever a better service to stop doing than one that (a) has nothing to do with the library mission, (b) has nothing to do with our own revenues, other than depleting them, and (c) seems to be in decline anyway?

It happens that we've already ordered the forms for the next tax season. (It takes a lot of planning ahead, and we've been doing it for a long time.) But I'm thinking that this just might be the last time.

Comments and counter-arguments? Email me at jlarue@dclibraries.org.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

August 20 2010 - health care

Last week, on vacation, I drove down to Salida to see a friend. In the park across from the library was a health care protest. In tone, it was much like the many wild emails I've gotten lately about the scary takeover of medical care by big government.

I don't claim to be an expert. But speaking as an administrator of a public agency, I can tell you this: it's scary right now.

According to an article in the Washington Post (January 25, 2009), "A growing number of workers in 2009 will pay more for health benefits -- and in some cases receive less coverage -- as their employers grapple with the financial fallout of rising medical expenses and diminished revenue and profits, recent surveys of human resource officials show."

In another article (Medical News Today), I read that, "In 1999, employers covered about 90% of the cost of health insurance for employees, compared with 73% today, and the percentage likely will decrease to 70% over the next few years."

At a recent meeting with some of my counterparts at other government agencies, I heard, over and over, that many will be instituting hiring freezes. Why? Declining revenues, just as in the private sector.

At the same time, most of my peers are projecting health insurance jumps of 25 percent. That would seem to mean that not only will many employees -- public and private alike -- not get raises, but will also see a real reduction in their pay due to insurance company rate increases, and a shifting of those costs directly to workers.

Will they get more coverage in exchange? It seems unlikely. Instead, many employers are pushing high-deductible "health savings accounts" and programs aimed at keeping workers healthy through diet and exercise. In itself, that's not a bad thing. But then why the big jump in costs?

In a piece from the AFL-CIO website, I read, "Profits at 10 of the country’s largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007, while consumers paid more for less coverage. One of the major reasons, according to a new study, is the growing lack of competition in the private health insurance industry that has led to near monopoly conditions in many markets."

It is common to hear people complaining, in scripted "tea parties" and so on, about out-of-control government. But I pay a lot more for health insurance than I do for schools, for instance, and have a lot less say about it. For schools or libraries, an increase in my costs buys me an increase in service. The insurance business doesn't seem to work like that. It increases its rates to ensure profits, no matter what the effect might be on local business and government, or the people who work in them.

As I say, I'm not an expert, but the situation does make me scratch my head and wonder. While I'm not sure outrage does any actual good, maybe a little more outrage should be directed toward the problem we have today, instead of at the attempt to do something about it.

LaRue's Views are his own.

P.S. After running this article, I asked our staff to pull together a list of further sources of information about this topic. You can find it at:

Happy (and healthy) reading!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

September 17, 2009 - pick 3, spend 50

Recently, former DCL manager Peg Hooper emailed me a link to a fascinating campaign. It's called the 3/50 project (www.the350project.net) -- and it makes so much sense it's a wonder nobody thought of it before.

The tagline of the project is "saving the bricks and mortars our nation is built on." The whole idea is this (pulled from the project home page):

"What three independently owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared? Stop in. Say hello. Pick up something that brings a smile. Your purchases are what keeps those businesses around.

"If half the population spent $50 each month in locally owned independent businesses, it would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue. Imagine the positive impact if 3/4 of the employed population did that.

"For every $100 spent in locally owned independent stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home.

"The number of people it takes to start the trend .... you."

And it ends with this: "Pick 3. Spend 50. Save your local economy."

It doesn't seem like this should be hard, does it? But those retail chains have such a wide selection, and the prices are so low! And what could be more convenient than the Internet?

As is so often the case, the choice comes down to short term and long term. In the short term, you have more to choose from, and you save money. In the long term, everybody winds up working for a chain, and sending more of their money out of town.

We buy what we value -- but we don't always think that through.

I do make it a point to buy something regularly at Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch. Why? Because I think independent bookstores are important. There are independent restaurants in Castle Rock, Parker, and Castle Pines North I try to frequent, too. I not only like their fare, I like the people who run and work in them. It pleases me to know that my modest trade helps to keep them around.

The 3/50 project has supporters all across the country. You can find them on the website. I understand that some Colorado Chambers of Commerce are giving it a look, too.

And isn't there something comforting about the fact that real economic stimulus doesn't necessarily require enormous government programs? If you want your community to survive and even thrive, maybe it just comes down to this: spend your money where you live. The job you save may be your own.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 10, 2009 - welcome to Reloville!

Something magical happens to children. They grow from extraordinarily self-centered creatures (think of the toddler whose vocabulary centers around the words "no!" and "mine!") to members of a family, capable of both compassion and acts of genuine altruism.

I've been thinking about that after reading an article in Forbes Magazines called "America's 25 Best Places to Live," by Peter Kilborn. You can find it online at www.forbes.com/2009/07/07/relocate-relocation-cities-lifestyle-real-estate-affordable-moving_print.html. It's worth a read.

Here's the good news: of the top 25 places in the United States to relocate (usually in pursuit of a climb up the corporate ladder), three of them are in Douglas County. Coming in at number 4 is Parker. Number 5 is Castle Rock. Number 20 is Highlands Ranch.

Why is that good news? Because the people who live in "Reloville" (Kilborn's word for these hot spots so attractive to rising professionals) are well-educated, tend to make pretty good money, and because they don't stick around very long, keep the housing market churning.

What's the bad news? According to Kilborn, "There is great public indifference to community affairs in many of the country's Relovilles. While, Relos join PTAs and coach soccer, the international sport of all Relovilles, for their kids, many don't join other community groups, run in local elections or contribute to campaigns for community improvements. A Relo can tell you the way to the airport, but not to the city hall.

"'When you come to ask them for money,' Robbie Robinson, a civic leader in Plano, said, 'they know they're not going to benefit from it, so it's harder to get them to contribute.'"

On the one hand, of course, why should anyone put significant personal investment in a short-term relationship with a community? Even if that community starts to decline, to be less attractive as a place for a Relo to briefly alight, he or she will probably get out well ahead of the market drop, and there are bound to be other new places popping up around the country.

It's the market in action. Relovilles are based on the fact that housing is cheaper than it is in the urban employment centers just down the road. But because of the people who keep moving there, most Relovilles have survived the recession quite well. Kilborn writes, "Home prices in the Relovilles around Denver, Atlanta and Charlotte have barely budged."

But it's also the kind of short term thinking that can lead to real problems for these communities. Exhibit A: recent elections for schools and libraries.

When the supply of fresh, cheap housing starts to run out, then what? The infusion of outside cash driving the housing market dries up. The costs of sustainable infrastructure remain.

It turns out that Kilborn expanded his thoughts in a book called "Next Stop: Reloville - Life Inside America's New Rootless Professional Class." I'm pleased to say that we already have it at the library -- 4 copies, with 7 holds already stacked up.

It could be that Kilborn is on to something. It's tempting to say that maybe Relos are stuck in "no!" and "mine!" They haven't really joined the family.

Generally, though, this "rootless new class" seems to be doing quite well. Good for them, but is it good for us?


LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

September 3, 2009 - libraries should measure community impact

I've been thinking a lot lately about library development: how the public institution I serve has changed over time.

At the beginning of library development, the focus, the measures of success, are mostly about inputs. Is there enough money to hire staff, buy materials, build buildings, and invest in technology?

Assuming that those basic needs are met, then libraries start focusing on other kinds of measures: outputs. Internally, we use benchmarks. For instance, we divide the number of checkouts (or the number of new materials ordered and processed) by the number of people it took to do that. Then we compare it to last year's number. Objective: get more productive and efficient. (We have!)

A second kind of outputs is what made us the top-rated library in the country for our population size: the measurement of use. How many checkouts per capita (checkouts divided by service population)? How many visits per capita? How many programs attended? How many reference questions asked per librarian? These are the statistics of performance.

Both kinds of measures -- inputs and outputs -- are collected across the nation for public libraries. (We report them annually to our state libraries.) That makes it relatively easy for us to measure ourselves against each other.

On the one hand, that sounds competitive. I admit that I'm interested enough in excellence to be pretty aggressive about improving our "numbers."

But here's the difference between libraries and almost everybody else. If I hear about libraries outperforming us in some regard, I can (and do) call up the directors, and ask them how they did it.

And you know what? They tell me.

Similarly, if someone calls us to ask about how we did something, we share everything.

Why would we trade away our competitive advantage for nothing? Answer: because we're ALL in it for excellence.

When you get acknowledged as the best library in the nation, it doesn't come with a cash award. It's recognition, an identification of "best practices." Most of the librarians I know are in the field for love. If we can be better, well, then we should be. It's a professional obligation.

But lately, a lot of my peers and I are thinking there's a whole new level of library measurement. After inputs and outputs are community outcomes.

Both inputs and outputs, even when used to compare across organizations, still are internally focused. While that's useful operationally, libraries operate within a social, political, economic, and cultural context.

In Douglas County, our entire existence depends upon the support of taxpayers. While that support is focused on library services, surely excellence of library service has other positive results.

For instance, we check out more children's materials than any library in Colorado. What kind of impact does that have in the larger community?

A recent study ("The link between public libraries and early reading success," by Keith Lance and Robbie Marks) validates one obvious result: the more books preschool children are exposed to, the better readers they are likely to become. Literacy is a predictor of many other kinds of success.

It turns out that there is a wealth of data, already out there, about all kinds of things: the health and safety of families, drop-out rates, per capita income, percentage of new business success, and much more. It's time to dig into that and compare it to various library statistics. I bet we'll learn something.

The next frontier of performance measurement won't be just about how well the library does library stuff. It will be about demonstrating the impact of good libraries on the towns, cities, and counties in which they operate.


LaRue's Views are his own.