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 27, 2011

January 27, 2011 - where should you spend your time?

Whether staff or supervisors, eventually professionals ask themselves: what should they spend their time on?

Working, yes (the better to get paid). But, broadly speaking, where should they concentrate their efforts? How should they prioritize their time?

Over the years I have put together a mental model. It looks like a series of concentric circles. I use it to evaluate the people who work for me, and I use it to evaluate my own performance. It works for libraries. But I bet it works for lots of organizations, both public and private. I'd be curious to find out about that. (Email me here.)

At the center is "Department." Most of a professional's time is spent doing the work of a department or work unit. In the library, this might be "the reference department." In a business, it might be "payroll."

Surrounding that is "Organization." By this I mean that professionals should also contribute outside their department to the organization as a whole. So someone in the reference department should also be spending time working on other committees or task forces important to the larger activities of the Douglas County Libraries. In business, someone in payroll should also be available for inventory.

Surrounding that sphere is "Community." Another way to think of this is "the authorizing environment." It is essential to pay attention to the people who make decisions about the organization, or pays its bills. In the case of the library again, that would be the larger community of Douglas County. For other professions, it might be the market that purchases its services. I'm not just talking about "sales" -- contact with customers. I mean involvement, actively observing and participating in the world of that authorizing environment. For example, public librarians should be connected to Chambers of Commerce, and civic organizations. Medical equipment producers should hang out with, and seek leadership positions among, people in the medical professions.

Surrounding the community sphere is "Profession." Professional people not only take jobs within a field, they have an obligation to contribute to that field's knowledge. Part of this is continuing education: staying abreast of trends through reading, workshops and conferences. But it also includes presentations and writing: the creation of new knowledge, feeding the larger theoretical universe with reports from the front.

For most organizations, these four spheres do a good job of setting boundaries for the expenditure of professional time. The department probably involves at least 65% of the work, and perhaps more. In combination with work for the organization, the percentage may approach 90% of work time.

But the remaining two are still important. Not only does activity here rejuvenate the professional (by getting his or her head out of the trenches and comparing notes with others), but it also feeds a deeper understanding of the work.

Sometimes, I think there's a fifth sphere: "Society" or "Culture." It might happen, for instance, that a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company gets concerned about the many casual, anti-scientific sentiments that show up over and over in the media. So she decides to do something about it, speaking and writing to groups outside her field to advocate in the broadest sense for scientific education in the United States. At this point, she's not just working for her department, organization, or community. While she is still working for her profession, she's trying to influence the much larger society in which it operates.

I suspect there aren't many professionals who fall into that last sphere. If they do, I doubt they spend much more than 1 percent of their time there. But it just might be that this big, ambitious endeavor ultimately means more than the rest of the spheres together.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 20, 2011 - life phases and the library

According to Hindu philosophy, there are four stages of life:

* the student,
* the householder,
* the retired person, and
* the ascetic or "forest dweller."

In the first phase, you receive values and teaching. In the second phase, you live or embody them. In the third phase, you transmit values and teaching as an older mentor and grandparent. And in the final phase, you transcend values, leaving everything behind to wander into the forest, seeking wisdom.

In modern times, each of those phases seems to subdivide into others.

For instance, "student" would now seem to encompass infant to toddler, toddler to preschooler, preschooler to puberty, puberty to college. Each has a distinct transition, marked by stages both of brain development and emotion.

"Householder" stretches from just starting out -- your first job, car, or apartment -- through launching a career or careers, marriage or marriages, children, and (for some) to the transition from the absorbed self to conscious and active social participant.

"Retired person" starts from mid-life and its dawning realizations, through the empty nest, right up to actually leaving the full-time job whose pursuit seemed so important for so long.

In American life, the "forest dweller," the wandering monk, doesn't get a lot of attention. But with 10,000 Baby Boomers now turning 65 every day, I suspect we'll see at least one big social movement like that.

Knowing my generation, I fear for the forest.

Most of what we celebrate in our culture focuses on the dramatic transitions of the first two phases of life. "Coming of age" stories have great sweep and power. We fall in love, take big risks, go to war. The turning goes from passive to active, from hearing about things to doing things. Particularly in America, we like bright beginnings. And we glory in the beauty of youth.

But that perspective doesn't always serve us. It can't always be spring and summer, not even in California. The subtle rhythms of the full year, and its lessons of harvest and wintering, have their own power and poignancy.

I believe we find meaning in our lives through the gathering and telling of stories. We may well have to reach into other cultures and times to find patterns that have more to teach us than we find close to home.

This may be one of the great values of the library. We have, of course, many dedicated users. They were taken to the library as children, and developed a nourishing and engaging habit of library visits, with only minor interruptions.

But for many others, the library exists in the background, as taken for granted and unseen as fire hydrants. But then comes a life transition: the loss of a child or spouse, an illness that hastens withdrawal from that second phase of life. Suddenly, your life is on fire, and the presence of a deep connection to life-saving water from far away is literally transformative.

We hear, and tell, such stories in the library every day. Students become householders. Retired executives become literacy tutors. It's even possible that one or two seasoned souls are beginning to reckon up their lives and pan them for gold.

There are many stories in our community, and that community stretches across cultures and times, and the transitions that make us human. The library makes that connection strong.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 2011 - who owns you?

To whom do you belong?

There was a time in European history when almost everyone belonged to the Catholic church. Then came a disruptive technology: the printing press. Within the space of a couple generations (which is about how long it takes for a big technology shift to happen) literacy swept the continent.

Almost all of the first books to be printed in this time were Bibles. The Word was held in veneration, and people could imagine no greater accomplishment than to read it for themselves.

But when that happened, people couldn't help but notice that the Bible didn't always square with what their priest told them. They started to question things they hadn't questioned before. Literacy resulted in a fundamental challenge to the hegemony of the church.

The church did what many prevailing power structures do when threatened. It overreacted. We know it today as the Inquisition.

But the challenges continued, leading to Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses and the establishment of the Protestant movement. The result? While the Catholic Church is still strong around the world, it isn't the secular power it once was.

Let's move forward in time to 1843, to the invention of another technology: the fax machine. After a series of improvements, it moved into military use in the 1950s, and common business use in the 1980s.

On June 4, 1989 came the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing at least 400 people, and perhaps more than twice that.

News didn't travel easily from China is those days. (It doesn't travel easily today.) The only reason we know about those events was through technology: an unattended fax machine. Later, the video of "tank man" -- one student facing down a tank -- was smuggled out.

Now let's move forward again: 2010. Last November, Wikileaks -- a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing "secret" documents from a variety of sources -- released a flood of information from U.S. diplomatic cables.

According to some, there wasn't anything especially new, although there was much that was embarrassing. Wikileaks, and its key spokesman, Julian Assange, came under attack from many quarters. The leaks were branded treasonous (although Assange is not American, but Australian). They were called dangerous, exposing many individual names that might have been redacted by traditional media.

Then the American government, concerned about the release of classified and sensitive information, started applying pressure to various websites who hosted the site. They applied pressure to financial institutions that made Wikileaks possible. And of course, Assange was eventually arrested on unrelated charges.

Meanwhile, we saw one of the first examples of cyber-terrorism: attacks against the electronic infrastructure of those institutions who were seen as anti-Wikileaks through the withdrawal of their support.

The Internet, a global communications network, completely bypasses the control of a national government. It also bypasses traditional media controls. The priests of modern power are being challenged.

Once, many people believed themselves in thrall to the church, and left it. Many people now define themselves, primarily, as citizens of a particular country.

How will today's nations, from China to the United States, respond to an explosion of a new kind of literacy, of direct access to information that used to be a privilege of power?

And once average citizens open that door to unmediated knowledge, will their national allegiance survive?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 6, 2010 - hold that thought! by David Farnan

[This column is by David Farnan, Associate Director of Community Services for the Douglas County Libraries.]

I recently had dinner with some volunteers from Parker Library.  As you can imagine, their reasons for volunteering were as diverse as the group itself. A few were retired and wanted to give back to the community. Another woman wanted to teach someone to read. Another wanted to keep busy while she searched for another job.

One told me that she used the library hold service so heavily, she felt guilty about it. She figured she should pitch in at the library.

What do we have her doing? Shelving hold materials.

Holds is one of the most popular services at Douglas County Libraries. Patrons request books through our website, and receive a call, email, or text when their item comes in. Around 30,000 people use the system annually. Among those polled, more than half indicated it was not just their preferred method of using the library. It was their only method.

The holds service is also one of our most costly services.

It costs around $2 to circulate an item. This includes everything –the item, labor, self-check machines, sorters, software, computers, buildings, utilities, salaries, everything.

Placing a hold adds about sixty cents per item.  Most of this cost is labor – staff to search for and reshelve the item.  Nearly one-third of the costs are for infrastructure - courier costs for shipping items from location to location, and a pro-rated percent of the technology that makes the system work.

Sixty cents a book may not sound like much, but we do around 1.7 million holds annually. The popular service
is growing at nearly twice the rate of regular checkouts.

So what’s wrong with this model?  It’s convenient. Patrons love it.

Here’s the rub. Almost 15% of the holds are never picked up. That translates to about 500 unclaimed items a day.

I don’t begrudge those items. Things come up. In a way, the 15% not picked up is the price of doing business.

But it’s a hefty price that needs to be reduced. If we could eliminate that 15%, it would allow us a year or so of growth in holds with no added costs.

A library taskforce recently analyzed the holds service and recommended some changes.

One recommendation was to reduce the number of holds per patron to 50 from 99. The taskforce found a correlation between unclaimed items and having a lot of items on hold. 50 books and movies is a lot to be waiting for. I have no idea what I could do with 99.  Personally, 50 seems generous.

We knew the new restriction would affect around 300 patrons - less than 1%.  We also knew that patrons with 50+ holds were likely “power users” – folks who love libraries and visit at least weekly, are serious about reading, and unafraid to tell us when we go astray.  I notified staff of the change in policy, and let them know we could expect to hear from all of the patrons affected. We nearly did.

The day before my dinner with the volunteers, we implemented the first change in our holds policy.

Remember the volunteer who used the holds service so much? She was one of the 300.

We are having a nice dinner, telling stories, laughing, and suddenly she realizes I am the person responsible for restricting her holds from 99 to 50.   She carefully explains to me that she knows how to manage her card, and always picks up her items on time.

Seriously, I hate policies that seem punitive. I told her I really didn’t want her to read fewer books, but I needed to reduce the cost of the service and the number of items not picked up. I give her a few tips for how to keep items on a “wish list” without actually putting them on hold.

She understood. But suddenly my chicken didn’t look so good. I consider making a run for the dessert table for a nice chocolate brownie.

No, I know. I’ll order it and pick it up later. Or not.

P.S.  If you’ve got an itch, we could use a few more volunteers to search for, and shelve holds.