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, January 28, 2010

January 28, 2010 - the mind can change the brain

For a long time, scientists believed two things about the brain.

The first was the idea that you're born with a set number of neurons -- "brain cells." Then, you lose them all your life.

The second idea was that there are "hardwired" parts of the brain. Various experiments showed that one region was involved in visual processing, another in movement (controlling the arms or legs, for instance). If you went blind, the part of the brain set up to handle information from the eye just sat there, dark and quiet.

Both of these ideas, we now know, were wrong. And that's very good news.

It turns out that we manufacture brain cells all the time. They nestle into the existing network of memories and skills. But they do best -- grow rich connections, perform at peak efficiency -- when challenged by a certain amount of novelty. What we're wired to do is learn.

The second idea is what is now known as plasticity. Recent advances of brain imagery have revealed that although the human brain does have certain patterns of typical use, no two brains are quite alike. The fundamental organizational structure of the brain is surprisingly malleable.

For instance, people who lost their sight as young children still have a lot of activity in the visual center. How can that be?

Answer: since no information was coming in involving sight, the brain (apparently incapable of idleness) started processing sounds. You've heard the idea that when you lose one sense, the others sharpen. Well, blind people don't actually hear things sighted people don't. They're just much better at paying attention to what might be called "peripheral" sounds.

In much the same way, people who lose their hearing suddenly find that they're far better at tracking peripheral sight. And the part of the brain that used to process sound, now "fires" when tracking visual cues.

It turns out that almost any part of the brain can be repurposed in this fashion.

One method for doing that is sensory practice. Stroke victims, for instance, might lose control of an arm. Conventional therapy focused on using the other arm. Brain research suggests the opposite: bind the good arm, and work, work, work, on getting the disabled arm to function again. And slowly, it does -- literally grabbing hold of new brain real estate to build new connections.

In much the same way, dyslexia, for at least some people, seems to be related to the auditory cortex. Some people just don't hear the sounds marking the difference between "d" and "p." But by using a program called Fast ForWord -- which slowed down and stretched out the sounds, then gradually speeded them up -- "after twenty to forty hours of training, all the children (in a study) ... had advanced two years in language comprehension." And that new comprehension could be tracked through brain imagery. The brain dedicated a little space to the problem, and that solved it. (Incidentally, this same program has been found to be surprisingly useful in restoring the hearing and mental acuity of old people. I have filed this tip away for the future.)

But a far more exciting discovery is that the mind can change the structure of the brain. We know that "practicing" -- whether a golf swing or a musical instrument -- has a measurable effect on the brain. That's more sensory input. But studies show that just thinking about practicing has pretty much the same effect. The same neurons fire; the same structural changes take place. It gets a little spooky.

This shows great promise in another area: the treatment of psychiatric disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or depression. Experiments show that just "noticing" what's going on -- "there's that sense of urgency again, there's that wacky brain misfire that says I left the stove on!" is enough to interrupt its grip.

The repeated exercise of nothing more than attention, noticing, also changes the brain, suppressing the dysfunctional parts, and growing new, more vibrant patterns elsewhere.

So what's the bottom line? Modern brain research (such as that captured in the excellent "Train Your Mind Change Your Brain" by Sharon Begley (foreword by the Dalai Lama) demonstrates that we are limited only by our thinking.

We can be just who we want to be.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21, 2010 - reading is science and magic

I'm a pretty fast reader. Because of that, I usually only read one book at a time. (That also helps me keep the characters and plots straight.)

But last weekend, I broke the pattern, in part because the formats of the books were so different.

One book was "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," by Richard Holmes. It's a non-fiction title. The other was "The Alchemy of Stone," by Ekaterina Sedia. It's a fantasy novel.

The books were themselves a fascinating contrast. "The Age of Wonder" was about what was going on in Europe around the time of the American Revolution. I had no idea! The first visits by Europeans to Tahiti. The discovery of the planet Uranus by a musician turned telescope maker, assisted by his younger sister, who became a famous comet-spotter. The exploration of the effects of nitrous oxide -- by the same man who later solved a devastating problem for miners by inventing the safety light. (Interestingly, it never occurred to this man that nitrous oxide might be used to deal with an utterly common issue of the time -- the absence of any kind of anesthesia.)

Sprinkled throughout the tale were a host of Romantic poets, among them Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. Yet these poets were also caught up in the scientific fervor of the day -- Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (arguably one of the first science fiction novels) being one example.

Holmes's writing is supple, incisive, and sympathetic. He makes the characters of the time wonderfully vivid, both human and heroic.

The second book was the haunting tale of life in a very different reality. The main character is Mattie, "a clockwork woman." She was originally designed and built by her troubled and mysterious creator as a household automaton. Gradually he made her smarter, smart enough to talk with. But soon Mattie seeks her emancipation, the right to pursue her own career as an alchemist. Then, she is approached by the gargoyle guardians of the city, who are slowly dying as they turn to stone. Can Mattie help them?

As she undertakes to do so, she must negotiate a growing conflict between the Mechanics and the Alchemists, hold conversations with ghosts swallowed by a blind opium-smoker, experience the first giddy intersection of love and sex, and manage her relationship with her creator. That last is particularly poignant. Despite having freed her, he keeps one thing Mattie desperately longs for: the key to her wind-up heart.

So I spent the weekend alternating between the world of science, and the world of fantasy.

But I mentioned another difference. Although I checked out both of the books from the library, I was reading "The Age of Wonder" on a Sony Reader. (Click "eMedia2Go" from our home page.) "The Alchemy of Stone" was an oversize paperback.

And somehow, that was part of the unique experience of each. I was able to immerse myself in the experience of reading an ebook, where I got caught up in the text itself, not the device.

It still wasn't as easy to read as print on paper. Part of that may be simple familiarity. I'm used to paper. I'm still learning the ebook. There are many things that are useful on the Sony: tap a word twice to look it up in the dictionary, tap the top of the screen to make a bookmark, sweep your thumb across the edge to turn the page. But the contrast of ink on paper is sharper, brighter, clearer, less irritatingly reflective, then e-ink.

What stayed with me, beyond the sheer intelligence and insight of both these books, was the fact that reading is somehow independent of the format. We make meaning, we understand the world and ourselves better, we inhabit whole universes, just by rolling our eyes over smudges.

The physics of all that is pretty interesting. But for me, it still feels like magic.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

January 14, 2010 - "it" campaign

You may have noticed, over the past several months, teasing posters and ads around the county talking about a mysterious red-lettered "it." Now the mystery can be revealed.

This little campaign, done very much on the cheap, and depending on the generosity of our many community partners (all sworn to good-natured secrecy), is about ... the Douglas County Libraries.

Yes, we are it!

Why bother with a library campaign? Well, it's not just to grow use. We know how to do that. Recently, I reviewed trend lines of virtually every service we offer. They all have been climbing sharply over the past twenty years -- consistently outstripping population growth.

But in the business world, increased activity means more revenue. In libraries, increased activity means more expenses. That is, our revenue is not tied to how busy we are. Indeed, the less money people have, the more they need and use us.

That makes the connection between love of the library and the value of the library a little hard for people to grasp. Even our most ardent patrons seem unclear about what we offer, and how we pay for it.

So our intent in this campaign is to try to shine a little light on what we do, why we do it, and just what our citizens get for their investment in this institution.

For individuals, libraries feed our curiosity about stories and ideas. Whether you're a toddler enthralled by one of our master storytellers, or a high-powered attorney addicted to the comforting escape of romance novels, or someone learning how to cha cha by video instruction, or someone deep into home improvement projects, or a student working through community college or online master's programs, or someone with a passion for World War II history, the library is most definitely it. For you.

To put it another way, the library is where you pursue your dreams and your passions. Not because somebody told you to, but because it's what interests you. We're an institution that customizes your education precisely to your keenest fascinations, providing millions of dollars of materials and other resources, not to mention professional guidance in the form of library staff, on demand. Nobody else does that.

One topic of interest for me lately has been brain development: not only from birth to 4 (a period of explosive growth and understanding), but from 27 to 50, and from there on into your second century of life. No matter how old you are, your mind, the healthy brain, absolutely depends on exploration, experience, and stimulus.

And do you know where you can find it? That's right!

But libraries also contribute to a smarter community. When it comes to anchor stores, it's all about the library as community center. We did an exit poll once, asking people to describe all the reasons they came to the library that day. Number one and two were checking things out and bringing them back. But number three was a surprise: to meet somebody.

That meeting might have been a study date. It might have been a business meeting. It might have been a civic group. It might have been a Spanish language conversation group (for English-speaking folks about to take a trip). It might have been just a convenient place to meet to walk over to lunch, visible and known to all. But in any of those cases or more, the library was it. In 2009, our door counters clicked over 2 million visits.

Imagine that. An institution that both encourages you to follow your dreams, and connects you to all the other dreamers and builders in your community. The Douglas County Libraries -- maybe this is a good time to take a closer look at "it."

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

January 7, 2010 - Bizinfo

Byline: The BizInfo Librarians at the Douglas County Libraries

One year ago, Douglas County Libraries launched a service called BizInfo as a way to support the business research needs of entrepreneurs and small businesses in Douglas County. “This initiative is one of the ways that Douglas County Libraries is demonstrating its commitment to adding value to our communities in measurable ways,” says Rochelle Logan, Associate Director of Douglas County Libraries and the project lead.

The BizInfo program was first introduced in late 2008 at the three largest libraries - Highlands Ranch, Parker, and at the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. Over this past year the professional BizInfo librarians at these three libraries have responded to research questions from over 100 patrons in the areas of market research, industry trends, competitive intelligence and marketing lists. “The research support we provided covers the gamut from providing resources for starting up a new business, writing a business plan, researching growth potential for various markets, looking at current industry trends, and finding information about the competition in an industry,” according to Colbe Galston and Lynn Sigman, BizInfo librarians at the Parker Library.

As the BizInfo service enters its second year, it is being expanded to serve the Castle Pines, Lone Tree and Roxborough communities. Amy Long, BizInfo librarian at the new Castle Pines Library states “The Castle Pines Chamber of Commerce is very enthusiastic about our BizInfo service, and the many resources we have that support the business community here in Castle Pines.”

Tina Poliseo, BizInfo librarian at the Highlands Ranch Library suggests: “If you are interested in our BizInfo service, just stop by one of our libraries or contact us by submitting an online inquiry using the BizInfo icon located on our Douglas County Libraries web site at http://www.douglascountylibraries.org.” Mary Knott, also of the Highlands Ranch Library says, “Our librarians rely on a wealth of resources, including an extensive collection of business books, periodicals, and subscription online databases.” The online databases are available at each Library or can be accessed from a home or business location using a Douglas County Libraries card.

In addition, the professional librarians also collaborate with other business support groups to bring business training programs to the libraries. Working together with the Chambers of Commerce, Economic Development Councils, and Small Business Development Centers, the following free training programs are examples of those planned at one or more of the libraries in 2010: Business Start-Up Basics, Business Plan Basics, Franchising, and Marketing Fundamentals. Contact Douglas County Libraries at 303-791-7323 or check the Library web site for details of the date and time for these programs.

At the Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock, Patricia Van Eysden is the BizInfo librarian who takes the lead in arranging these training sessions and seminars. One of the sessions she set up in 2009 was a franchise investment seminar, facilitated by M. Stacy Swift of FranNet Colorado. According to Swift, “The franchise investment seminars we have held at the Philip S. Miller Library this year have been a tremendous success.  The location is great, and the support from the Library staff has been terrific.  In fact, the CertaPro Painters franchise that was purchased earlier this year in Castle Rock was a direct result of a franchise investment seminar held at the Philip S. Miller Library!  We are looking forward to continuing the seminars in 2010.”

If you are an entrepreneur or small business owner in Douglas County, you are encouraged to get in touch with a BizInfo librarian at your local Douglas County Library.