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, February 25, 2010

February 25, 2010 - a new deal for libraries

After the 2008 election losses, followed by a recession, the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Libraries had some cuts to make.

The school district chose to eliminate all of its subscription databases -- information resources offered over the Internet. At the same time, the library was looking at trimming its own subscriptions.

So we did something that doesn't happen very often between schools and libraries. We got together to talk about it. Library staff analyzed the cost per use of our subscriptions. Then we asked our colleagues at school libraries to tell us which resources were most useful for student assignments.

JoAnn Patterson, the DCSD Library Media Coordinator, gave us a list of the resources she believed best served elementary, middle, and high school students. We compared that with our use statistics. A team of Douglas County Libraries staff (especially Linda Sturgeon, Hutch Tibbetts, and Laurie Van Court) then went back to talk to the vendors.

That's when we discovered something interesting. The publishing world -- the folks who make money selling subscriptions to these resources -- got their start back when these resources were print. The sales people sold a copy to the schools. Then they went over to the library to sell more copies.

Over time, that developed into two distinct sales networks.

Throughout the 90s, a lot of publishers made the move from print to electronic. You have to believe that the electronic version was cheaper, right? You still have to gather the content, write up articles, package the whole thing, format it, and post it. But electronic posting can't have near the costs of print production and distribution. So the price should have gone way down, right?


Douglas County Libraries serves all the citizens of the county. The Douglas County School District is part of the county. And yet, in many cases, both of us continued to buy two "copies" of the same products.

On the one hand, you can't blame the publishers. The sales networks grew organically. Clearly, there was more profit in making two sales than one. And as I've mentioned, schools and libraries don't often compare purchases.

On the other hand, the staff of the Douglas County Libraries told our vendors the harsh truth: we do talk to each other now. Our two organizations simply can't afford to buy the same product twice anymore. Here's the deal: we want one price, and we want everybody to have access to it, not only at the library, not only at the schools, but anywhere in the county.

We learned something important. Some vendors -- and I want to call out Gale Research as one of them -- absolutely got it. It's a recession for us, too, they said. We can't do business like we used to. Neither can you. If you're going to greatly increase the number of people that use a subscription, we need a bump in the price, but we understand that you can't pay double.

So we had a new kind of conversation with the business community. How do we craft a sustainable arrangement not only for the public sector, but for the private? If you go out of business, we said, that's no good for us. But if you try to price yourself so high that we can't afford you, then you go out of business.

Now, you have a more tightly focused, aggressively negotiated list of electronic resources, paid for by the Douglas County Libraries, that is available from the library, from the schools, and from home. From the libraries and schools, you don't even have to put in your library card number.

Oh, and we saved about $100,000 for the taxpayers of Douglas County.

Meanwhile, the use of these resources has skyrocketed. The range is from 150% to almost 3,500%.

But let me underscore what may not be clear. Libraries and schools have similar missions. They're not the same.

Yet I thought county residents would appreciate knowing that both entities cast a shrewd eye on our shared environment. For you.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February 18, 2010 - 2009 stats

I'm conflicted.

On the one hand, over the past couple of years, I've changed my whole idea of what my profession is about.

I used to think the library business was about access to "intellectual content," whether it be fiction, non-fiction, movies, or music.

But the more I've read about brain research, the more I've thought about the role of the public library in society, the more I have come to realize that we're really in another business altogether: Storytelling.

From the storytelling upon which emergent literacy is based, to the storytelling that frames the highest level of political decision-making, it's all about narrative. It's about finding a frame that makes sense of things.

Libraries gather, organize, and tell stories. Our tradition reaches all the way back to the first folks to gather 'round a fire.

So I'm not just talking about "intellectual" content.  Stories speak to our emotions, too. (That's how I slip music in.)

So what's the conflict? Well, I'm also still very intrigued by numbers, even though they don't seem to persuade anybody of anything all by themselves.

I just got a look at our use statistics from 2009. I see some fascinating trends.

What was the biggest single use of the public library in Douglas County last year? Answer: people checked stuff out. We hit almost 8 million items last year. That's double digit growth over last year.

The per capita checkouts for our citizens is 27. Buy one or two books per year (through library taxes). Get almost 30. That's a pretty smart investment.

What's the second biggest use of the library? Answer: visiting our website. Last year, there were over two million visits. And get this: 77% of the visits were from outside the library, from people finding us through the Internet.

On the other hand, the third heaviest library use was actual visits -- people walking through the door. There were just under two million visits.

Based on just these top three numbers, what can we conclude about the public library?

Well, when you can't find a parking space at the library, when every library you've got sees an average of almost 24,000 visits a month, then you're talking about a busy place, a public institution that is also an extremely popular destination.

That's a useful statistic to challenge the notion that libraries have been replaced by the World Wide Web.

On the other hand, a lot of people clearly now "go to the library" via computer.

Why do they visit the library website? Answer (mostly): to put reserves on books. Some 8% of our patrons put their books on hold, swing by when they get the email, and check out their materials themselves.

That would seem to capture both computer and print literacy at the same time.

So what's the bottom line? The numbers tell a story, too. In fact, they speak volumes.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

February 11, 2010 - move to windows

As an undergraduate, I spent a lot of time at the student billiard center. Occasionally, smooth, well-dressed pool sharks would come through on tour. They had great names, like blues singers or gangsters: Las Vegas Jimmy, Spats McDonough, Gentleman Joe, and so on.

At that time, we college players thought it was all about the equipment. We bought our own sticks, with fancy cases. We imagined that some tables were better than others. But then one of these outside jaspers would breeze through town, pull a standard pool cue off the rack, run the table, perform mind-boggling trick shots, and leave with a not-inconsiderable chunk of all our beer money.

I remember one guy saying, when we were discussing how tricky one of the tables was: "I bet I can still find the pockets."

What it came down to, aside from a good eye and nerves, was practice.

Which reminds me of computers. I've been using them for a long time. For the past six or seven years, I've been a devotee of Linux. Linux, or more properly, GNU/Linux, is a free, open source computer operating system. Several tech-savvy guys recommended it to me, and I invested many hundreds of hours in exploring it.

The good news: it works, it's fast and powerful, it is immune to all extant viruses, and it's free. The bad news: it was a steep learning curve, although more current "distributions" or brands of Linux are easier.

But the bottom line is this: Windows owns 95% of the computer market share. Apple claims maybe 3 or 4 percent. Linux comes in at around 1 percent. So if you happen to be in the computer software or hardware business, you make sure that your product works with Windows. With Linux, you can usually GET it to work, but it takes some effort.

Well, my work PC was pretty old -- over six years old, in fact. We put off upgrading equipment to address some budget issues. But I finally got a new machine. Our IT staff, with the assistance of some excellent temp folks from Kelly, set up me up with an inexpensive, thoroughly standard Windows NT PC, already configured to our network.

Understand, I haven't used Windows since version 3.1. (Then I used the Mac for awhile, then Linux.)

Step one: the night before the change, I backed up all my files to an external hard drive.

Step two: make sure that all the software I really use was on the new machine. My PC was already set up with Firefox (the browser) and Thunderbird (an email client). I downloaded two outlining and mindmapping tools (Notecase and Xmind). Then I grabbed the Palm Desktop (a calendar program that talks to my cell phone). I even grabbed Openoffice.org, although my PC also came with Microsoft Office 2003 (I needed to open some files I'd saved in the Openoffice.org file format). All of these, except Microsoft Office, are free, open source programs.

Step three: drag over my files from the external backup drive. Windows file management isn't much different than the Mac or Linux in that regard. It didn't take long.

Step four: figure out how to plunk 40 gigabytes of email from the Linux Thunderbird configuration folders into the Windows Thunderbird settings, which are in entirely different locations. That took some digging, but I got it worked out.

Step five: get it to work with peripherals. A jump drive, my Palm cell phone, a couple of printers. The setup was a little different than for the Mac or Linux, but not too hard to unravel. Mostly, you just plug things in.

And so, about an hour and a half after sitting down with a new computer, I've got all my files, I'm using mostly the same software I was using before, and I'm back in business. I've also got some new functions I couldn't do on Linux (like check out books from the library for a Sony Ebook Reader).

I still use Linux at home. But for now, at work, I'm opting for "business standard." There are too many other things more important to think about than operating systems.

But it's good to know that I can still find the pockets.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

February 4, 2010 - wanted: library trustee

Job Title: Library Trustee, a member of the governing Board of the Douglas
County Libraries. There are seven Trustees in total. This appointment fills the vacancy of Stevan Strain, whose term ran through the end of January 2011.

Residency requirements: must live in Commissioner District I, which encompasses the Northeast area of the county. The Commissioner representing this area is  Jack Hilbert.

Qualifications: Must believe in the value of strong public library services to the citizens of Douglas County. The Douglas County Libraries is an equal opportunity employer, committed to a vision of a vital and literate community.

Responsibilities: Trustees are responsible for library finances (budget approval and review), the evaluation of the library director, and the setting of library policy. Trustees also work with a host of other appointed and elected officials. Position requires one Board meeting a month (average length, 1 to 3 hours each), an additional board lunch, probably one or two committee assignments (meeting 4 to 5 times a year), and other conferences as needed.

Pay: the satisfaction of a job well done. Convivial and thoughtful colleagues. The opportunity to make a difference in one of Douglas County's most effective governmental agencies. Douglas County Libraries is currently ranked the number one public library in the United States for communities serving between 250,000 and 500,000 people (see Hennen American Public Library Ratings).

Application process: Send a letter of interest, accompanied by a short resume, to  Douglas County Board of Trustees. Depending upon the number of applicants, interviews will be conducted with the Board Nominating Committee, or may involve a panel interview with other applicants. Successful applicant will be recommended for appointment by the Library Board of Trustees to the Douglas County Commissioners, who are the appointing authority.

Closing date: first consideration will be given to those applications received by Feb. 25, 2010.

Company background: founded by popular vote in 1990, the Douglas County Libraries is an independent taxing entity serving the citizens of Douglas County. It has at this writing over 700,000 items, circulates almost eight million materials annually, employs approximately 330 people, and has an annual operating budget of over $21 million. It is debt-free. It operates library branches in Castle Pines North, Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree, Louviers, Roxborough, and Parker.

Current strategic initiatives: the promotion of early, childhood, or "emergent" literacy (based upon partnership with other literacy organizations, and using current brain development research in this area); the organization, coordination, and delivery of information of use in economic recovery (assistance in the creation of personal resumes, assistance in the the writing of start-up business plans, market research for business expansion, and partnership with economic development agencies throughout the county); the further merchandising of our collections to become the best-used library in Colorado in both per capita and absolute terms; to engage more directly with the community, demonstrating our value beyond the walls of the library through direct service and an awareness campaign of our contributions; and to achieve long term sustainability, matching available resources with the demonstrated needs of the community.

While expertise in any of these areas is welcome, the board would be especially pleased to entertain applications from those with expertise in the area of public finance.

For more information: please contact Aspen Walker, secretary to the Board, at  303-688-7656, or e-mail any questions to awalker@dclibraries.org.