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, December 31, 2009

December 31, 2009 - that was the year that was

Here at the end of 2009, I sent an email around to the staff of the Douglas County Libraries. I asked them to reflect on what they were proud of over the past year. I thought I'd share their responses with you.

Karen Dvorchak noted that "With the Bookmobile retiring this summer, I am very proud of the efforts the drivers and staff made through all kinds of weather and conditions to bring our services into the neighborhoods."

I got lots of comments about our new Castle Pines Library. Beth Dalton wrote, "This was truly a collaboration between the community and Douglas County Libraries. Many different groups and individuals within the library worked together to make the Castle Pines Library a success. The Castle Pines staff is grateful for all of the community members who have donated their time and money to the library." Other staff members wrote about the astonishing speed and teamwork that made this unplanned-for project happen -- 8 weeks from start to finish!

I also got many comments about our Parker renovation. As Debra Weskamp put it, "I am very proud of our staff at Parker for working gracefully and professionally during our Re-Model. It was well organized and patron services were minimally impacted when you think that we did not have to close the branch one day! It was like remodeling your kitchen and cooking 3 meals a day sometimes, but we made it!!" Sylvia Wilkinson thanked her "exceptional volunteers at Parker." Lynn Gillingham praised the "beautiful new children's area and other stunning renovations."

Joanie Mack noted how much fun it was to register new patrons. She wrote, "After I give them a brief introduction to DCL, I love to hear their delight at what is available to them and especially love to watch their jaws drop when they use our self-check system. It is so fast and wonderful! They are usually just amazed!"

Also from Parker, Jeanie Straub wrote, "We had a lot of great moments in libraryland at Parker but my favorite -- or one of top 3 -- was seeing Angie Stevens and her band rock out in our reference section ...

Sabrina Speight of our Contact Center was justifiably pleased by the 97% satisfaction rate in the customer service survey we ran on that department. She also noted that "In November, the Contact Center tested an initiative to assist the Elections Department by taking calls during their busy election season in order to provide better and faster service to Douglas County citizens." Governments working together to pool resources and save costs -- who would have thought? Thanks to Jack Arrowsmith, our County Clerk and Recorder, for this effort as well.

Dedra Anderson wrote that she was "pretty proud of the DCL Book Chat blog. (See http://dclreading.wordpress.com/.) It has over 125 staff suggestions for good reads for our patrons."

Ruth Ann Krovontka wrote that "One of the proudest times for kids at Highlands Ranch was the first annual Battle of the Books and the beginning of the second annual with Parker adding on."

Kathy Johnson was pleased to participate in her graduation from our two year internal leadership development program. (And all of our graduates are so good!)

This came from Margie Woodruff, our Foundation Director: "Libraries were an inspiration to people like Dr. and Mrs. Robert Sullivan and Mrs. Verna Daughenbaugh who paid for the children's department renovations at the libraries in Castle Rock and Parker through generous donations to Douglas County Libraries Foundation.

"Old friends and new gathered together for the book launch of the Perry Park Story, a reprint funded by Douglas County Libraries Foundation that documented their community story from the beginning to present.

"The spirit of the Louviers community was admirable. Despite the odds, they rallied to keep their library open and fundraised close to $18,000 to help cover operating expenses."

What am I proud of? In addition to all of the above (an amazing list!), I am deeply impressed by the spirit, the service ethic, the passion, and the intelligence, of our staff. It is a profound privilege to work with them.

On to 2010!

LaRue's Views.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009 - A Gift Suitable for All Ages

For the past several years, I've been reprinting what I've come to think of as "my holiday column" -- a tradition. I hope you enjoy it.


What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else? -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three of four books. Wrap the card and the books and offer them to your children in the fashion that your holiday traditions dictate. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books.

After your children have gotten bored with their other toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week at the end of the year. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

Many people -- librarians, teachers, Secretaries of Education, even sport celebrities and actors -- have urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It's good advice.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue? If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best season's greeting card you'll ever send.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17, 2009 - 7 arguments for building new libraries

Recently, one of our employees moved to the Midwest to become the director of a library whose main building was destroyed by a thousand year flood. On the one hand, many members of the community are working to restore that library.

On the other, this former employee tells me he's hearing more and more often the refrain that building libraries just isn't necessary. Not in the 21st century. Not in the age of the Internet.

I disagree. After I thought about it for a bit, I could come up with at least 7 arguments for why we still need to build libraries. But I don't see why we have to stop at 7. Feel free to add to the list.

Argument#1 - The library is an anchor store and traffic generator. Libraries pull a cross-section of the public, all ages, all day long, through our doors. We are the business that never goes out of business. (Of course, the scheduled closing of 4 out of 7 libraries in Aurora at the end of this month indicates that this rule, too, has its exceptions.) Yet it remains true that even in a down economy, library use goes UP. You want your business to be by a library. If you're planning a development, you want the liveliness of a public building in the heart of it.

Argument #2 - Library construction is a powerful economic stimulus, especially in a recession. People often overlook that a public construction project employs architects, general contractors, local tradespeople, local suppliers, and so on, which in turn generates sales for local restaurants, gas stations, etc.

Argument #3 - Library buildings are a bridge over the digital divide. Libraries are about access, and our record of allowing digitally disadvantaged people - poor, young, elderly, etc. - to use public technology to bootstrap themselves out of technological ghettos is real.

Argument #4 -The Internet encourages, not replaces, library use. Every time we add more Internet terminals, the use of everything else goes UP - more books checked out, more browsing, more magazines read, more reference questions, more program attendance. There's a lot of data about this, going all the way back to 1999, and still holding true (see www.lrs.org/documents/fastfacts/163cirvinet.pdf).

Argument #5 - Library buildings foster community, both through providing meeting space and hosting programs that foster lifelong learning. Genetically, socially, we are wired for interaction. Libraries serve the role of both common and neutral ground.

Argument #6 - Library buildings manifest and reinforce a statement of community values. The library is a tangible sign of a community's commitment to individual inquiry, a safety net for the young and old, a secular sanctuary for people who need public space either for public contact or for private pondering. I remember pondering this comment from a member of the Greatest Generation: "In my day, we lived in modest homes, but built significant public monuments. These days, we live in palaces, and build government buildings out of split-face concrete."

Argument #7 - Library buildings are an investment in our children's brains. The children's storytime - featuring real live people from your own community - is our nation's single most potent strategy for sowing literacy in the land. The library is a space where even preschool children meet live performers, then are loaded up with materials to further deepen the experience. The presence of location offering trained staff to promote literacy and learning through readers advisor work, reference work, teaching, adds a resource to a community that not only employs local people today, but helps raise people who are employable tomorrow.

But that's just off the top of my head. I'd be interested from hearing more from our community. What's the value of a library building?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

12/10/009 - 2010 initiatives undo public infrastructure

Last week, I wrote about civic literacy. One aspect of that is knowing something about our framework of laws, the United States Constitution.

Libraries are very much about the First Amendment -- freedom of speech. Sometimes, that gets awkward.

As I think Reggie Rivers once said, nobody minds if you stand on a street corner and profess your tender affection for butterflies.

The reason we need the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech, to say things that are not innocuous or pleasant.

Here's a case in point. Last month, petition-gatherers stood outside several Douglas County libraries. Some of these folks were local.

Some were apparently from the west coast. A few of them claimed they were getting paid up to a dollar per signature. It's not clear who paid them.

None of these people were particularly sanctioned by the library. They just took advantage of their First Amendment right to stand outside a library and engage in free speech.

What were they gathering petitions for? Two state constitutional amendments, and one statewide initiative.

All of them strike much the same tone as 2000's "Amendment 21." That initiative, authored by Doug Bruce, attempted to reduce property taxes, by all agencies of local government, by $25 per year till the tax just ... disappeared. The state was supposed to pick up the lost money.

Amendment 21 was soundly defeated by the voters. They decided that the services they had already approved (such as fire protection) were still vital to their communities, and deserved local support.

The current batch of proposals does seem eerily familiar.

One proposed constitutional amendment requires, among other things, that all school districts reduce property taxes while "replacing the revenue with state aid."

At a time when the state is already cutting its support of education, and is apparently facing millions more in budget cuts as we climb out of a recession, that seems a little naive.

A second amendment bans many common kinds of public financing. If I'm reading it right, that would seem to include multi-year leases that had not been explicitly approved by voters.

Today, Douglas County Libraries rents library space in the communities of Louviers, Roxborough and Castle Pines. So I guess we'd have to have an election to okay that.

A countywide election costs about $100,000 these days. And if the voters don't approve the leases, those libraries would close.

The third proposal seeks to reduce both state and local revenues through a mix of means: cutting vehicle registration fees, lowering state income tax, and ending telecommunications fees.

Bottom line: various groups have estimated that when fully implemented, this initiative would cut state revenues by $1.7 billion, and local government revenues by $622 million.

Of course, the state will also be picking up the costs for reduced school revenues. Where the money is supposed to come from I cannot say.

So the library -- because it attracts such a steady stream of citizens -- became a prime location for people to launch an initiative that would almost certainly close libraries.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is free speech.

As my last column cited, a majority of American voters don't know much about the federal constitution. I bet even fewer can fathom the intricacies of the constitution of Colorado, which is already saddled with measures that require us to lower revenue (TABOR) while at the same time increase expenditures (Amendment 23).

See California for an excellent example of people who both want more services, and want to pay less for them. That approach -- not representative government, but government by initiative -- is behind the current batch of amendments, too.

It leads to bankruptcy.

However, each of these current measures succeeded in gathering over 135,000 signatures apiece. That means that they'll probably make it onto the ballot in November 2010.

What will be the cry to rally voters? "Lower taxes!"

But here's what that means. Worse schools. Worse libraries. Worse streets. Fewer police officers and firefighters.

It's hard to see how any of that is supposed to make our lives, or our business environment, any better.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3, 2009 - what do you know about your country?

OK, grown-ups, it's time for a test. Go to this link:


It's sponsored by the ISI, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The only personal information you're asked to provide is your education level and income.

What pops up are 33 pretty interesting questions. When you're done, you find out, right on the spot, how well or poorly you did. It tells you which ones you missed, and what the right answers are.

Some of the answers you almost certainly learned in grade school. Some of them you should have learned in the process of reading the paper, watching or listening to the news, and talking to people.

The topic is "civic literacy" -- how much you know about the way the United States of America was set up, and what kinds of key events have happened since then.

You might find it interesting that most Americans who take the test fail it. The average score is 49%. College educators scored 55%. As an example, "Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system."

Given the sponsorship of the study, you might expect that one of the findings would include the value of college in the acquisition of civic knowledge. But "Earning a college degree does little to increase knowledge of America’s history, key texts, and institutions." Example: "Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States."

How about the media? Well, it depends. "The survey revealed that in today’s technological age, all else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy."

It turns out that the best way to gain civic literacy is to talk about it with others, read about current events and history, and actually participate in civic activities.

On the other hand, a surprising finding was that officeholders -- elected officials -- "typically have less civic knowledge than the general public. On average, they score 44%, five percentage points lower than non-officeholders." That seems a little contradictory to me. Surely, they are spending time talking about civic events and they are certainly participating. Yet, "Thirty percent of elected officials do not know that 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence."

There is certainly no shortage of opinions in America today. But sometimes I suspect -- and surveys like this ongoing attempt by the ISI confirm it -- that we have a serious knowledge deficit. It will comfort no one to learn that this deficit is bipartisan.

Our national ignorance extends not only to civic information, but to economic. Example: "Only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate."

I'm seriously relieved to report that I did better than 90% on the test. The head of our IT department aced it.

But take the test in the comfort and privacy of your own home, assess your knowledge, and give a little thought to what you think a responsible citizen ought to know.

And if you discover that you need to do some reading up on things, don't be afraid to seek professional help. The public library: literacy is our business.

LaRue's Views are his own.