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 24, 2011

February 24, 2011 - Douglas County makes health history

In college, I got a bean bag chair. I also gave up the daily exercise program I'd followed for years. There was neither privacy nor room in my dorm.

By the end of the second semester, suddenly, I had a problem.

I was in constant lower back and limb pain. I started to need to walk with a cane.

A visit to the doctor revealed that I had a small hole in my spine. The problem traced back to a condition called spina bifida. It's a birth defect.

In my case, I could control it simply by getting rid of the bean bag chair and going back to my exercise routine.

But tens of thousands of people suffer from spina bifida. Eventually, after lots of research, it turned out that there's a simple "cure:" pregnant women need to take a daily B-vitamin with folic acid.

That's it. Spina bifida is largely preventable.

Now suppose you knew that you could make a big difference in the quality of human life, particularly in the area of what makes a healthy child.

You wouldn't have to change anything about your own life, other than to pay attention, and to contribute information to a scientific study.

You would do it, right? Why wouldn't you?

There are a few catches. This is a big study -- you'd sign up for 21 years.

You'd be a volunteer. It's not a paid job. You have to live in Douglas County, Colorado. We are one of just 105 counties in the United States selected from which to gather data.

And most important: you have to be, or trying to be, pregnant. (Sorry, men. This influential opportunity is available to women only.)

In brief, that's the aim of the National Children's Study. You can find out more about it here.

Or as they put it, "The National Children’s Study will examine the effects of the environment, as broadly defined to include factors such as air, water, diet, sound, family dynamics, community and cultural influences, and genetics on the growth, development, and health of children across the United States, following them from before birth until age 21 years. The goal of the Study is to improve the health and well-being of children and contribute to understanding the role various factors have on health and disease. Findings from the Study will be made available as the research progresses, making potential benefits known to the public as soon as possible."

It's hard to know in advance what the findings will be. Not all children's health issues -- diabetes, mental illness, autism, asthma, and so on -- may have such straightforward remedies as spina bifida did.

But the way we learn big things is through the steady accretion of small details.

If you're interested in participating, and I hope you are, understand that there are two levels.

The first, the most engaged, is only available to those who live within particular ranges of addresses. These have been selected randomly throughout the county.

To maintain statistical validity (and thus make the data collection truly significant), these folks will contribute the most information. Who they are, of course, is strictly confidential. Anonymity will be strictly preserved, unless they choose to identify themselves.

Nor will participants be in any way judged. You never know: pizza and video games just might be the key to childhood vitality.

A second level, those who don't happen to live at those addresses, can still help.

They can talk about it enough to help the study recruit the first group. They can contribute many other kinds of information that may prove helpful.

Ultimately, the goal is to find 1,000 Douglas County participants, and over 100,000 participants nationwide. The National Children's Study may well help unravel issues that have plagued our children since the dawn of time.

Interested Douglas County women should call 303-799-6257, or email ncs.co@ucdenver.edu.

It's no exaggeration to say that this study will make history. Don't you want to be a part of it?
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

February 17, 2011 - weather outside is frightful

I was raised on the shore of Lake Michigan. During the winter, I went skating every night I could.

Often, it was minus 32 degrees. It really wasn’t that big a deal. You learn to dress in layers. That meant you wore a T-shirt, a shirt, a sweater, a coat, and a scarf. And gloves.

Although it was little uncool, in bitter weather you wore a hat, too. I had a great Russian one. I like hats.

But the truth is, after we skated around a bit, we took off the coat. We were young. We were burning up the fuel of our lives with abandon. Viewed from above on those frigid nights, we glittered like busy little embers in a fireplace.

In those days, I had a fantasy. When I died, I would be reincarnated as a big shaggy creature with hooves like skates. The whole world would be covered with ice. Symphonies of stars would sing around it.

Occasionally there would be natural fountains of hot chocolate. They would provide all that body's nutritional needs.

Doesn't that sound great?

But I digress. Later in life, I drove a produce truck through one of central Illinois' worst winters in a generation (1978). My motto: the kale must get through.

What I'm trying to say here is that cold weather doesn't seem that unusual to me. I know that people get out and get things done in it.

But here in Colorado, sometimes it seems to me that local residents, well, wimp out.

My own library staff, whom I know to be fearless in many ways, gets furrowed brows after just a few flakes. "Will the public be safe?" they wonder. Should we send our more far-flung staff home early? This concern is authentic and caring.

On the other hand, I believe we're supposed to put the convenience of our customers ahead of our own. All around us, post offices, hospitals, police, fire, grocery stores, restaurants, department stores, gas stations, even toy stores, all just do what they always do: stay open for business.

Surely we matter as much as they do.

So I say to my employees: I believe libraries are really important. I think we genuinely matter to seniors, moms, dads, business people, teenagers, and kids.

We're an essential part of the life of our communities. They expect us, quite rightly, to keep the doors open when we say they will be.

There are exceptions, of course. A few snowstorms have shut down the whole county for days. We closed, too.

One summer one of our libraries got hit by lightning, which made the building dark and powerless. It was so hot nobody could stand it. Once we lost water, which in a place with busy public restrooms isn't trivial.

When stuff like that happens, I close a library. I'm not crazy.

Let me restate that. I may be crazy. But not about that.

On occasion, I'll delay the opening of the library, or shut it down a little early. I'd rather do that than not open at all.

We always announce these things on our phone system (303-791-7323) and website (douglascountylibraries.org). I make the call by 6 a.m.

But you know what? In the winter, it gets cold. It snows. It's weather. Life goes on.

So unless things are genuinely weird, you should expect us to be open.

We ensure access to the intellectual content of our culture, no matter what kind of weather we face. It’s what we do.

We are the few. The literate. The tough.

The librarians.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

February 10, 2011 - it pays to watch the region

A few weeks ago I wrote, "The Internet, a global communications network, completely bypasses the control of a national government. It also bypasses traditional media controls."

I didn’t anticipate that this premise would be immediately tested in Tunisia and Egypt.

In Tunisia, a profound challenge to an autocratic regime was launched, sustained, and to some extent coordinated through the Internet.

On the other hand, no one believes the Internet was the primary factor in the revolt. Longstanding corruption, repression and widespread unemployment had a lot more to do with it.

Nonetheless, Egypt, facing similar unrest, sought to shut down Internet, and to a lesser extent, cell phone access for the whole nation. This is, incidentally, much easier to do when you have only four Internet providers in a country. (On the other hand, the subject has come up here, too. See this. Should the U.S. have a “kill switch” for the Internet?)

If the idea in Egypt was to stifle citizen anger, it didn't work. In fact, a lot of young people weren't happy about being denied access to Twitter and Facebook, even if they hadn't been particularly engaged in protests before. So they took to the streets.

I'm guessing that this wasn't quite what the government intended.

At this point, it’s difficult to say how things will play out in either nation. But clearly, we have a far more nuanced state of international affairs than many Americans believed to be the case.

It's really not about radical Islamic fundamentalists versus Christian advocates for democracy, however much our media and political leaders would like to frame it that way.

Like youth in the United States, young people in Tunisia and Egypt are more concerned about making a living than they are about political and religious ideologies of any stripe.

I maintain my belief that a steady stream of social contacts and information from around the globe makes it much harder for leaders to lie to their people about what’s really happening.

And that’s a good thing.

Speaking of what leaders say and how things actually are, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a significant difference in the approach taken by different municipalities in the county: Lone Tree and Parker on the one hand, and Castle Rock on the other.

Many years ago now, Lone Tree and Parker voted to join the Rapid Transit District authority, which, back then, shared boundaries with the Science And Cultural Facilities District.

Castle Rock did not vote to do so, arguing that it could invest the same amount of money and have its own public transportation system and cultural activities. Why, they said, should we give our money to Denver? So Castle Rock elected to go it alone.

Let’s take a look at the consequences of those choices.

Parker has long had the Mainstreet Arts Center, and will soon open its Parker Arts and Cultural Events Center. Lone Tree is opening a new center, too. They both have commuter bus (and Lone Tree has light rail) service, which many people use to go to work in the metro area.

I'm not saying that either of these programs (RTD or SCFD) is perfect.

But Castle Rock recently eliminated its award-winning Clean Air Shuttle service altogether, and has no funding for arts facilities at all.

So it sacrificed the demonstrated contribution to the economic life of a town of both public transportation and the arts.

To state this even more clearly: the failure to participate in regional investments in transportation and culture saved Castle Rock residents some modest contributions of sales tax. But despite what leaders said at the time, as recently as 2004, no enduring alternatives were ever created.

Of course, those who care about such things may not live in Castle Rock anymore.

Lone Tree and Parker’s more forward-thinking and pragmatic approach is creating and keeping jobs.

And residents.


LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

February 3, 2011 - the best is a bargain

Last year I gave a series of talks. They all started with questions.

How many people had Internet access at home? It turns out that for most of the professional audiences I talked to, nearly everyone did. In Douglas County, surveys suggest that up to 97% of the households have broadband access at home.

So then I asked how much people spent per month, per household, for the service. The answers varied, but generally started at a low of $30 a month, up to about $80.

How many people had either cable or satellite TV at home? Again, most of the hands went up.

What did it cost? I found a few families who spent about $50 a month, but there were also some high-end satellite users who anted up $300. Usually, they watched a lot of sports.

How many people had cell phones? Again, it's hard to find anybody who doesn't, these days.

The monthly cost? You can get a single plan for $30. If you have teenagers who text, as I do, it's $150 a month.

So I asked how many people had Netflix. That tended to be a smaller crowd.

The monthly cost ranges from one movie a month (around $9) to three (around $25).

So let's just take a minute to recap. At the low end, households are putting out about $110 every month. At the high end, it's closer to $555.

What do you get for these expenditures? You get education (or so you tell yourself, because you watch nature films, not pro wrestling). Or, okay, for entertainment, because pro wrestling is hilarious. And finally, you get social connections -- Facebook, email, texting, and so on.

And almost everybody knows what they pay, although they don't often aggregate it.

Then I asked another question: and what good do these costs do your community?

At that point, my usually voluble audiences got quiet. It's a rhetorical question. They didn't buy those things for their community.

Then I asked the kicker: so what do you think the average American household spends per month for public libraries?

Right off, it became obvious. They had no idea. I've asked this question all around the state, and most people simply don't know.

The answer, based on national data, is this: households pay an average of $2.68 per month for their public libraries. Guess what. We provide education, entertainment, and social connection, too, except it actually benefits the entire community.

How does that average cost compare to Douglas County? It's a simple calculation.

The formula is this: take the market value of your home, then multiply it by .0796 to get your assessed value. Then multiply that number by .004 to get the library's annual assessment. Then divide that by twelve to get your monthly cost.

It just so happens that every year, all those government agencies that assess a property tax send out a bill. Think of it as a receipt for services. A lot of households are about to get this bill.

I don't own a terribly pricey home. But my library bill comes to $60.43. Per year. That's $5.03 per month. It's almost twice the national average. On the other hand, we are the number one library in the country for our population size, too.

So for $5 a month I can check out all the books, music, and movies I can use. I can take toddlers to free storytimes. I can go to civic events. I can see art, practice foreign languages, use really high speed public computers (although I may have to wait awhile for one to free up). I can even download library books and music from home, 24/7.

Libraries make our communities smarter and more interesting.

Just this month, Douglas County rolled out their tax calculator. You can find it here.

The idea is a good one: there's a lot of talk about "high taxes." But people have a tendency to exaggerate the numbers, and to have a pretty fuzzy notion of what they get for the expense.

So my advice: take a close look at your tax bill and think it over. It just might be a bargain.

LaRue's Views are his own.