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, October 21, 2010

October 28, 2010 - accidental extremism on the rise

Years ago, I lived in a small Arizona town. A guy at the local watering hole told me that radio played a big role in his life. "We get both kinds of music now," he said proudly. "... country AND western."

That old joke captures a lot of what I heard in a recent talk by John Creighton (johncr8on.com). He was speaking to a group of librarians about various trends in our society. One of those trends was something he called "accidental extremism."

According to Creighton, people tend to put themselves in the middle of groups. Few of us set out to live on the fringe. But in the age of talk radio, in the age of niche television programming, in the age of the Internet, it's much easier to find people who share the same general mindset.

For instance, conservatives listen to Rush, and watch Fox News. (Incidentally, I was just reading about FOX News. Back in February 2003, they appealed a previous court decision awarding damages to reporters Fox fired because they refused to run false reports. According to a report by one Mike Gaddy, Fox lawyers "asserted that there are no written rules against distorting news in the media. They argued that, under the First Amendment, broadcasters have the right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on public airwaves." The Florida Court of Appeals agreed with them: it's legal to lie. I guess that's true, too. But it's hardly "fair and balanced.")

Of course, the trend of selective media consumption, and of overt political bias, is not unique to conservatives. It applies to liberals and libertarians, to Green Party and Tea Party activists.

The point is that, over time, we stop hearing from people who don't already agree with us. And in the narrow world we inhabit, opinions that might have looked pretty "out there" a few years ago suddenly seem perfectly normal. We might still be in the middle of our group, but that group has itself strayed from the ever-elusive "mainstream America."

And there we are: accidental extremists.

I think Creighton is right. Speaking as a librarian, I can tell you that very few people seek out perspectives that challenge their fundamental beliefs. Rather, we read things that reinforce them. It feels good to be right.

And boy, can we get mad when we run across something that reinforces another group's beliefs!

But one of the most fundamental mistakes of predicting the future is the notion that a trend will continue forever. One might look at the trend of accidental extremism and say, "this leads to anarchy." We will inevitably splinter into ever smaller and weirder groups, which themselves will get ever more righteous and angry and insular.

But everything changes. At some point, the forces that drive those trends, whether welcome or worrisome, just give out. There is a rhythm to social forces. Some push us apart. Others pull us together.

To every trend there is a counter-trend. I'd be interested to hear from people about trends that actually bring people together across lines that previously divided them. If you know of any, send them to me at jlarue at jlarue.com. I'll summarize them in this column.

Hint: it ISN'T country western music. Not to those of us raised on Motown.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Friday, October 15, 2010

October 21, 2010 - be kind

I remember reading a great comic book when I was a kid.

The time was the not-too-distant future. People had anti-gravity swimming pools in their back yards. They got to wear clothes sort of like superhero costumes.

Most folks of that age were very materialistic. But while the society was both global and mostly prosperous, not every one enjoyed prosperity.

There was one gentle young man who visited the old, and spent most of his time helping others on the fringe. He was universally mocked. It didn't bother him much.

One day, a flying saucer arrived, and hung over the global capital. They had a simple demand. They wanted that guy. They wouldn't show themselves to anyone in the world government. They weren't interested in setting up diplomatic relations, or trade. They just kept saying they had come for that guy.

So the government finally asked the guy if he'd go. Seeing how frightened everyone was, he accepted.

And found, when they floated him up to the flying saucer and it headed off to Galactic Central, that the folks from outer space had chosen him to be the Emperor of the Universe. "But I have no interest in power!" he said.

"That's why we picked you," they said. "That's how we always pick our Emperors. It works very well."

It seems like a pretty good system to me, too. I've just come back from a couple of emergency backup speaker gigs, traveling around libraries in the West. Politics is in the air.

I've been thinking about the pursuit of power, and find that few people can articulate just why they want it. Even when they do tell you, you get the sense that they have something else in mind.

I'm not even sure I believe in power. Speaking as the leader of an organization, a husband, a father, a friend, and even a citizen, I think the quest for control is mostly a waste of time. You have influence, sure. You can lean things a little one way or the other - a little better (you hope), or a little worse (sometimes despite your best efforts). If you pay attention, it makes you humble.

One of the things I talked about in my travels was renewal. Everybody gets burned out sometimes, and right now, the cause is often politics or budget troubles (and often, they're the same).

At such times, it's useful to hearken back to a few simple things:

* breathe. Just noticing the air moving in and out of your body can be wonderfully calming.

* laugh. People are funny. And the funnier they are, the more familiar they become. You think, "that could (or did) happen to me." By and by, humor starts to look a lot like compassion.

* look around. Our world is beautiful. Over the past couple of weeks, autumn has arrived. Its signs differ from one part of the West to other. Sometimes subtle, the tones of the landscape work magic on the soul. Change is coming, inevitably.

Several themes emerged from my many conversations. People sense that we've swung a pendulum about as far as it can go in the direction of angry entitlement. It could be that it's time to try to locate a little common ground, a little kindness.

Because let's remember: it just might be the only way to get in the running for Emperor of the Universe.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October 14, 2010 - vote No on the Bad 3

So you go to the doctor and he says, "I'd like you to lose some of that weight." You think, "You could lose a few yourself, doc!" but what you say is, "So are we talking a diet? Exercise? I can do that!"

But he frowns at you. "I'm afraid I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is, I want you to lose weight faster than that. We're going to have to amputate your leg."

"What's the good news?" you exclaim.

"To give you time to get used to it, we're going to amputate in stages!" He demonstrates: a whack at the knee, then mid-thigh, then at the hip.

That little scenario is pretty much the combined effect of Amendments 60 and 61, and Proposition 101, the Bad Three.

Honestly, I've been listening to and reading what the proponents say. While it pains me to be so uncivil, I don't know what else to call their claims but lies. Some proponents have stated in highly public forums and the press that no one will lose their jobs, that the effect is only something like a 2% reduction in "government" spending.

Have they not read their own proposals? As noted in previous columns, Amendment 60 alone would reduce the revenues of the Douglas County Libraries by more than half, effective January 1, 2011. If that should happen, over 170 library workers would lose their jobs shortly thereafter. Not 4 or 10 years from now.

That's certainly bad for hard-working and conscientious library employees, and the economy. But more to the point for our community, the services used so intensively by you, our patrons, would be harshly curtailed.

Some branches would close altogether, despite their value as community centers. Our new materials purchases - books, music, and movies - would be reduced by half as well, despite our having one of the highest per capita uses of those materials in the nation.

Based on our patterns of use, we would start cutting hours at the three or four branches that remain. Although plenty busy by any standard, some hours are less busy than others. Evenings would be first to go. That means no more night meetings at the library, which are currently booked out as much as a year in advance.

Over the past year or so, libraries all across the country have been seeing a big surge of use by people who use our resources to retool. They learn to write resum├ęs, they search for jobs online, they write business plans for start-up companies. This would not be a good time for them to lose library access.

I've been involved in various Douglas County communities for a long time, and I've learned something nobody talks much about. The quality of our lives depends on two strong legs: the private sector, and the not-for-profit.

Business cannot and does not thrive without an ongoing investment in infrastructure: roads, schools, libraries, water, public safety. Some people protest business regulation. Yet those laws, inspections, fees, and our courts create something without which no business can long survive: a predictable and consistent environment that promotes the common good.

Don't believe me? See Haiti.

Likewise, the not-for-profit sector depends on the productivity of business. Humans need to make things, grow things, build things. Those activities not only celebrate achievement, but also create wealth. A percentage of private profits returns to the not-for-profit sector, investing in and sustaining that shared environment.

Both business and government, being human enterprises, are only as good as the ones who work in them. Both need to be watched, and both need to be put on a diet every now and then.

But blindly hacking off one of your legs isn't a diet. It's just a good way to make it impossible to stand.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Friday, October 1, 2010

October 7, 2010 - my colleagues I salute you

The last time I went to Durango, I drove over Red Mountain pass at night, during a snow storm. By the time I got down, my knuckles were as white as the ice in my tire treads.

I had gone to Durango to run a workshop for Sherry Taber, then the new library director. She was trying to pull together a committee to build a desperately needed new library.

It took years. But just before her retirement, she made it happen. A few weeks ago, I returned to Durango, and visited the now 2-year old library with Andy White, the gracious new director. The building is gorgeous. Nestled against the river, narrow gauge rails and a bicycle path, the library embraces sky and setting.

The next day, I drove down to Farmington, NM. The public library director there is Karen McPheeters - a firecracker of intelligence and energy who also put years into securing the funding, designing, and now operating one of the most impressive libraries in the nation.

Karen was the first director I knew to adopt the "self check and automated material handling" technologies that we use. I had sent some people to her library to scope it out before we invested in it. Karen was, and still is, some ten years ahead of the rest of the library world. She has a corporate background, and brings that focus sharply to bear on her systems.

The library also reflects many of the beliefs of the Native American tribes in the area, from its floor plan to its orientation to the solstices. By being totally of its place, the Farmington Public Library succeeds in doing something else: it's world class.

Then I accompanied Paul Paladino, director of the Montrose Library District, back to his house. He showed me his new home project: he built a "casita" for his mom, attached to his own house. It's a straw bale building, and it uses the same processes that he used for the first straw bale library in the state, and only the second in the nation. That library is in Naturita, and is now a year old.

The 4,500 square foot building in Naturita is all electric, and has bills that vary from $200 to $300 a month, which is phenomenally cheap. The community actually helped build it. Like Paul's casita, the library is cool and comfortable. I was fascinated by the chemistry of the earth plaster then lime wash finish. A combination of those two makes a wall that actually heals its own cracks and gets stronger over time. Paul is a master craftsman, and more than one kind of builder.

Oh, and on my way out to Durango, I stopped in the new Penrose Community Library, where Jean Christensen, the assistant director, gave me a tour. It's a beautiful adobe building.

Then I spent a night in Salida, where director Jeff Donlan invited me to a packed public program they hosted about Burma. He was (as always) literate, witty, and clearly comfortable in the role of community convener.

While each building I saw was unique, there was also something they had in common. Every one of these libraries was alive not only with people and materials, but also with art, with public technology, with inviting spaces for individual sanctuary and social contact.

Colorado is a stunningly beautiful place (as is northern New Mexico). But what really made those towns sparkle for me was this: the forward-thinking and innovative management of the public library.

My colleagues, I salute you.

LaRue's Views are his own.