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, March 25, 2010

March 25, 2010 - and government shall save us

When I started college, I signed up for one of the economics survey classes. The teacher was funny. He let us know right up front that we could buy an A. All it would take was the rest of the money he expected to make in his career, which he then spelled out.

It was cheaper to study.

We laughed. But then he got serious. Economics was a science, he said sternly. It was based on the cold, hard reality of numbers.

I raised my hand. "I read in this newspaper this morning," I said, "that two economists won Nobel Prizes this week."

"Yes!" the professor agreed, all smiles.

"One of them was a Marxist, and the other was a laissez faire capitalist," I said. "If economics is a science, how is that possible? Wouldn't that be like giving the Nobel prize to one scientist who believed in evolution, and another who didn't?"

He stopped smiling. My penchant for asking smartass questions in public is one of the reasons it took me five years to get my first degree. (Another reason was that I was also working as many as five jobs at a time).

I really don't remember his answer, but these days I could probably come up with one myself. The truth is, both Marxism and laissez faire capitalism are entirely theoretical. Neither has ever existed as a real system in the life of a nation. In anything larger than a village, economies are mixed.

But I still think I made a good point. Clearly, it's not just about the numbers.

On the other hand, Lord knows that all that data - stock markets, GDP, currency exchange rates - ought to add up to SOMETHING.

So lately I've been reading up on more modern economic theory.

What caused, I wanted to know, the national, then global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009?

It's a complex system, of course. The explanations are complex, too. But most economists would say the crisis was precipitated by two things: the greed of American sub-prime mortgage lenders, and the use of exotic financial instruments by ginormous investment banks who really didn't know how those instruments worked.

The villains of the piece, it seems, were the very financial institutions that manage our money. Some people blame the government for its failure to watch them closely enough. But that's a little like blaming the police department because some guy decided to knock over a jewelry store.

But then the story gets interesting. Economists also agree that the crisis could have very easily turned from recession to Depression.

It happened before, you know.

During the Great Depression (roughly 1929 to 1940), bank runs and failures resulted in a catastrophic cascade of collapse. Here's just one sign: joblessness hovered around 25%.

Why didn't that happen this time?

The answer may surprise you. While nobody thinks today's national joblessness rate of 10% (9% in Colorado) is great, it was on course to match the Great Depression. Now, it looks like that won't happen.

The reason it didn't is the historical analysis and integrity of just one economist. His name is Ben Bernanke, a Republican, a George W. Bush appointee, and the current Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve.

This man is a hero. He deserves, in fact, a Nobel Prize.

Let me summarize our story so far.

Our current recession was caused by the big money in the private sector, just like the one that led to our last Depression. Blame the overreaching of folks who just didn't think a couple million dollar bonus was enough for a week's work. (And this is work that ruined many lives.)

We were saved from a Depression by the public sector. That's right, the government.

Next week, I'll tell you how.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March 18, 2010 - expect less

Annually, the planning cycle of the Douglas County Libraries used to look like this:

* at a spring manager retreat (this year, that meant a day at Louviers) we brainstorm our best, most exciting ideas for the next year, then whittle them down to the few that matter most.

* at a board retreat a few weeks later (this year, half a day in Highlands Ranch), I present those ideas. The board approves, rejects, revises, or adds their own ideas.

* then we develop budgets and work plans. That all gets reviewed in the fall, and adopted in December.

This year it's different. Like a lot of families and businesses, the Douglas County Libraries will have less money next year than last.

Unlike many other public libraries, we invested in radically redesigned checkout/checkin systems, and planned attrition over two years ago. We're running tighter, more efficiently, since even before the recession.

And that's good. We are facing three scenarios next year.

1. Here's our best case: a 9 percent drop in revenue for 2011. Library revenue comes mostly from property taxes. Assessments are falling. Library business is not, by the way. We're still seeing double-digit growth in use.

2. Our middle case forecasts a loss of 16 to 20 percent. Residential real estate assessments may dip by 2 percent or so. Commercial properties will take a much bigger hit.

3. Then there is our worst case. Three big questions will be on the ballot this fall (state constitutional Amendments 60 and 61, and proposition 101). If they pass, they will do a number of things:

* despite voter approval for a tax increase in 1996, one measure will roll Douglas County Libraries' revenue back to what the dollar amount of that increase meant 14 years ago.

* another measure denies unelected library boards the ability to charge fees or levy taxes. Making library boards elected requires an additional change in state law, and the new cost of elections.

* proposition 101 would reduce library revenues (our share of motor vehicle registration fees) from $1.4 million a year to less than $10,000 a year.

Add 'em up, and those measures slash library budgets by at least a third -- over $7 million. The effect on schools, counties, municipalities and other special districts is similarly dire.

What does it all mean? It means that despite growth stats most businesses would kill for, the Douglas County Libraries will not be launching any bold new initiatives next year. We'll be focusing on doing what we do well, what people really use, on what we hope we can sustain.

Dealing with a recession is one thing. When our community suffers, we suffer with it. That's fair.

But these measures are something different. The whole state might decide to overturn decisions Douglas County voters have made about their library. Despite its history of thoughtful planning, despite 20 years of balanced budgets, despite still-growing use of its services, the library might well find itself returned overnight to where it was six or seven years ago.That means laying off up to a third of our staff, and, I strongly suspect, closing libraries. Think: Aurora.

As always, library board and staff will continue to do the best we can with what we have. We're entrepreneurs and innovators. We're attentive to our communities.

On the other hand, I'm a pragmatist. I think it only honest to let people know what the next couple of years will be about, in any of the scenarios.

Expect less.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 11, 2010 - 20 years ago today

"It was 20 years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play."

I have now held my position as director of Douglas County's libraries for 20 years. It was a different world back then.

The population of Douglas County in 1990 was about 65,000. We checked out 368,492 items a year. Today, we have close to 300,000 people, and check out nearly 8 million items annually.

At the time that I was hired, we were a county department. We were also ranked as one of the worst libraries in the state by almost any measure. There was no library in Highlands Ranch. There were no children's departments, and very few story times. We were open five days a week. It looked like the next year, we were going to go down to four.

The one hope was to establish an independent library district, with its own dedicated mill levy. I was hired to help make that case, which I set about doing. We won that election by 66 percent.

We went back to the voters again in 1996, citing the need for new libraries in Highlands Ranch, Parker, Lone Tree and Roxborough. We won that one, too, although much more narrowly. (That was also the year we launched the first website in Douglas County.)

When we came back to the voters 11 and 12 years later, we were ranked the number one library in the country. And lost both elections. Apparently, shame (we're the worst!) is a stronger motivator than pride (we're the best!). Who knew? (Of course, there were other factors. I think.)

Recently I visited a library back east that was gorgeous -- over 110,000 square feet on four levels. It checked out a million items a year. But our Lone Tree Library does 1.3 million items a year. It's only 10,000 square feet. Our self-check and return systems, our displays, the number and quality of our story times, our reference outreach services, our public programs, are all at the cutting edge of librarianship.

So as I approach my annual evaluation, at my 20th year on the job, I find myself in a reflective mood. In addition to all of the above, there are some things I am particularly grateful for:

* my board. The Library Board of Trustees, currently comprising Barbara Dash, Demetria Heath, Amy Hunt, Bob McLaughlin, David Starck, Mark Weston, and until recently Stevan Strain, is the only public body in Douglas County with job descriptions and an annual evaluation. These savvy, thoughtful, well-connected people provide wise governance and sharp financial overview. They also hold themselves to the same high standards they set for the library - a remarkably rare thing.

* my staff. The people I directly supervise - David Farnan, Art Glover, Rochelle Logan, Monique Sendze, Mary Tweden, and Aspen Walker - are some of the finest minds and spirits I know. Our branch managers - Dorothy Hargrove, Sheila Kerber, Sharon Launcher, and Sharon Nemechek - are not just highly competent professionals, they are true civic leaders. All of our people, from facilities to PC techs, to catalogers, to shelvers, are driven by the same ethic of extraordinary service.

* my job. I didn't know what I was getting into 20 years ago. (Does anyone?) But I have learned that the role of the public library - a passionate advocate for literacy and lifelong learning, a changer of lives, a builder of community - is important. When connected to the many other components of community - a thriving business environment, a solid civic infrastructure, a culture that orients itself to the future - the public library helps create a high quality of life. We DO change lives, and for the better. We DO build community.

That's not a bad thing to give 20 years to. The next few years will be a little different. But I'll talk about that next week.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March 4, 2010 - business is booming

Lately we've been posting little flip camera interviews of our patrons on our website. These are folks that have a library story to tell. Since libraries are in the story telling business, it makes sense to collect a few of our own.

One of those stories was from our patron Kay Romer. She talks about how when she first came to Douglas County, the library was a way for her to establish herself in the community. Now, she says, the library is her "Cheers," where everybody knows her name.

We've also been playing with the ability to turn on the "comment" feature on our website for all kinds of postings. And one patron made a comment about Kay's video that caught my attention.

He wrote, "It would be interesting to see the number of people coming into libraries compared to years past (obviously adjusting for population growth), and segmented by visitors checking out books versus using the Internet."

It happens we have those numbers, and he's right: it IS interesting.

In 2005, the population of Douglas County was 239,166. At the end of 2009, there were an estimated 290,311 people. So that's a 21% increase in people over 5 years.

Visits to the library grew from 1,374,247 in 2005 to 1,947,814 last year. That's a growth of 42%.

Finally, checkouts went from 4,512,496 in 2005 to 7,911,290 in 2009 -- a growth of 75%. Those checkouts, divided by our population, work out to about 27 per person. By contrast, the number of people who used our Internet computers last year works out to one use per person.

So what does all that mean? It means that library visits grew twice as fast as the population; library checkouts grew three and a half times faster.

Meanwhile, checking things out is 27 times more popular than the Internet.

I suspect some people will find those numbers surprising. They believe that "nobody goes to the library anymore," or "it's all online," or "nobody reads books these days." But the numbers say otherwise: at the library, business is booming. And it's still mostly about books.

Incidentally, do YOU have a library story? We're looking for those moments when a librarian or a a library service really made a difference. Maybe we helped you find a lifelong passion. Maybe we helped you start or grow your business.

If you do have such a story, let one of our librarians know, and we'll shoot a little video of you, too. It just takes a few minutes. Alternatively, you can type in your story at this website: www.lrs.org/transform/. (The Library Research Service is a part of the Colorado State Library.) The lives of our patrons are fascinating and often inspiring. They're even more interesting than numbers.

LaRue's Views are his own.