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 31, 2011

March 31, 2011 - clean water worth the cost

In the 19th century, cholera killed tens of millions of people around the world. In 1854, a pandemic killed over 5.5% of the population of Chicago. In that same year, London had an outbreak that was carefully studied by physician John Snow. He became the first to advance an important new theory. Cholera was caused not by "miasma" or "bad air" but by contaminated water.

Typhoid fever was also linked to contaminated water. It, too, has a long history. On the basis of some (disputed) DNA research some historians believe typhoid fever is what wiped out the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

During the American Civil War, over 80,000 Union soldiers died of typhoid or dysentery.

William Wallace Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's third son, died of typhoid fever. So did Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. And so did Stephen Douglas, the "Little Giant" after whom Douglas County is named.

But after Snow's singlehanded invention of epidemiology, American cities made massive investments in water and sewage treatment. And between 1850 and 1900, cholera and typhoid fever were almost completely eliminated in the United States (except for one last cholera outbreak in 1910-11). Since then, ongoing regulations preserve that record.

Whenever somebody says, "what's government ever done for ME?" remember this. Public investment in infrastructure nobody sees, everybody takes for granted, means that you and your children don't die of preventable illness. It wasn't business that did that. It was government.

After the United States, many European states invested in filtration and chlorination systems, with a similar reduction in deaths.

The rest of the world isn't so fortunate. Between 1900 and 1920, an estimated eight million people died of cholera in India. Contaminated water in developing countries remains a significant problem. Waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death for children under five. A host of international organizations have concluded something that is by now, I hope, obvious: One of the most important health issues around the globe is clean water.

As of last year, roughly 84% of the world population could count on clean water piped right to their houses. About 14% can not.

After natural disasters - like the earthquake/tsunami in Japan - the greatest single threat to health probably is not nuclear power plants. It is waterborne diseases, precipitated by the catastrophic collapse of public systems.

Recently, I've listened to several local governments grappling with the issue of Douglas County's long term water supply. We're lucky in that much of our water infrastructure is relatively new. But it does not have the capacity to support much in the way of new growth.

For large parts of the county, and indeed of our entire country, we are approaching a time when it will be necessary to massively reinvest in the hidden systems that keep us alive and healthy.

The American public had that will to invest in the late 1800s, even after a devastating Civil War. Sometimes I wonder, amidst the many discussions of tax slashing, budget reductions, and mistrust of government, whether we do today. And what the consequences will be if we do not.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 2011 - one way or another, you get a book

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking and talking with colleagues about the future of libraries. How will or should we respond to the coming eBook shift in the publishing world?

I have three comments this week.

First, at the Douglas County Libraries, over a third of our checkouts are children’s books. It isn’t uncommon to see mothers and a gaggle of giggling preschoolers tumble out the door with as many as 40 books at a time. Often, that's the haul from a visit that happens every week.

It’s hard not to feel good about that. Families that come to the library together not only spend quality time in each other’s company, they also establish a habit of literacy. Students in Douglas County schools tend to do very well academically. Surely part of the explanation is that many Douglas County children are ready to read long before they get to kindergarten. Libraries help make communities smarter.

What about those families who bring their children to the library? Are they really going to have an eBook reader for each child? Are they really willing to buy 40 books a week, 52 weeks a year?

If our goal is literate kids, the library – and its role as a cost-effective distributor of literature, music, and movies - will have a role for a long time.

Nonetheless, we have to explore new directions, too.

And that’s my second comment. I am very pleased to announce a partnership between the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA), and two Colorado libraries: the Red Rocks Community College Library, and the Douglas County Libraries.

Many members of CIPA have entered the world of digital publishing. By June of 2011, the Red Rocks Community College and the Douglas County Libraries will not only offer ebooks from CIPA authors for checkout through library catalogs, but will also allow click-through purchases of these titles.

Karen Reddick, Executive Director of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association, said "For twenty years, CIPA has been one of the largest and most active independent publishing groups in the nation. This pilot program will help us introduce a new generation of writers to a new generation of readers. Some of those readers will become writers themselves; some will become the next generation of independent publishers."

This partnership underscores the changing nature of publishing and distribution. Recently, larger commercial publishers have cut libraries out of the eBook market altogether, or have imposed onerous new restrictions on use.

"Libraries are natural partners with independent publishers," said Joseph Sanchez, Director of Library and Learning Services for the Red Rocks Community College. "We understand and value both copyrights and the great value of alternative viewpoints. We can easily integrate eBooks into our collections, ensuring one use at a time, but also exposing authors to precisely the people who are looking for them."

My own take is this: Connecting writers and readers is what we do best, through our two million visitors a year to our facilities, and another two million through our catalog. This project will demonstrate not only that libraries are firm supporters of the independent publishers through our willingness to buy and promote their works, but also that libraries and publishers can help each other grow the still-developing eBook market.

Finally, my third comment is about what to do when your old car finally dies. Mine did, so I gave it to the library. And I'm not alone. If you’re on our website (DouglasCountyLibraries.org), click on the lower left corner, labeled Car Donation. There, you’ll get a couple of phone numbers (303-423-2277, or 866-701-2277), or can fill out an online form. They came and picked it up right out of my driveway. They auctioned it off, and donated half of that back to the library. The more cars we collect, the more we make. It’s easy, convenient, tax-deductible (they send you a receipt), and it’s good for your community.

What does that have to do with eBooks? Well, if you haven’t got a car, you may as well stay home and read. One way or another, we’ll get a book to you.
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17, 2011 - your right to read is at risk

I just returned from a meeting with the American Library Association, part of a task force responding to some pernicious trends in the world of publishing. Our work even rated a mention in USA Today.

Let me see if I can put this plainly: your right to read is at risk. If you're an author, you may lose your right to BE read.

A transformation is underway in commercial publishing, and not just on the commercial side. In brief, the movement is away from print, and toward digital. That won't happen overnight, but it will certainly happen eventually. Why?

It's cheaper and faster. As an author, once I've done the work, I can "publish" an eBook in just a few moments, in just a few clicks. As a publisher, I don't have to print, bind, and ship anything. There are no "returns" to mess with from bookstores.

And what is the publisher response to this huge drop in production costs?

Many publishers in the rapidly consolidating world of commercial publishing - among them giants Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster - won't sell eBooks to libraries at all. Why? Because they believe, falsely, that there's an opportunity to greatly boost their profits while reducing the availability of the product. Sell direct to the consumer, bypass the cooperative purchasing power of the library, and eliminate this whole business of people not paying for every single access.

Under this emerging model, the right of ownership disappears. You simply won't be able to own a book anymore. You will have to have the device, the communications plan, and the money to pay per view. It's like replacing home ownership with a rental -- where the owner has the ability to raise the rent whenever he feels like it. It replaces the DVD with an on-demand subscription. It eliminates booksales and heirloom gifts with corporate lockboxes.

Publishers who won't sell new formats to libraries forget that we have a nationwide sales force. All by itself, Douglas County Libraries has 2 million visitors a year, and another 2 million to our website. Almost all of those people are looking for books. We're just about to roll out exciting new ways to display e-Content, and make it more findable. Cut us out of that eco-system, and all you really accomplish is to make it more difficult for readers to find authors, and for authors to find an audience.

As I alluded to last week, the move from LP album to CD was a similar savings for music publishers, and resulted in a similar grab for money. The result? Consumers rejected the whole system, and went direct, eliminating the middle man, and finding new distribution channels.

Public libraries in the 21st century are busy community hubs. Librarians are active and passionate lovers of literature, of music, of movies. We're even crazy about technology. Librarians will remain relevant and engaged in the acquisition, organization, and provision of public access to creative content. We're good at it. We will survive.

Will the big publishers? When they're reluctant to sell to some of their best customers, to the detriment of their own content creators?

Librarians think your right to read is worth fighting for. Watch this space for the announcement of some new partnerships. It's clear that we need them.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10, 2011 - you own nothing

On Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, publishing company HarperCollins announced that its already restrictive "license" for library "purchases" of ebooks had become even more onerous. Henceforth, an ebook sold by them to libraries can only be checked out 26 times. Then libraries have to "buy" it again.

It might be useful to step back and talk about how things work now. Douglas County Libraries currently spends over $3.3 million a year to buy a sample of the intellectual content of our culture. That's books, movies, and music.

For most books, we get close to a 50% discount. Why a discount? Because we are volume purchasers. Across the United States, libraries account for about 10% of all book sales. For children's books, it's over 40% of sales.

Libraries also have another effect: we help authors find readers. A handful of authors will sell all their copies. But for most writers, the problem is getting passed around often enough to start to make a name for themselves. Then people are more likely to buy one book, and watch for the next one.

What do we do with the books we buy? We talk them up, for one thing. Then we make them available to the public, regardless of age, income, or education. Libraries make it possible for everyone, for anyone, to find out what's going on the world.

As I discussed in a previous column, physical books take up space, and library space is limited, so we also have to get rid of a lot of books. That process, called weeding, shoves even more books into people's homes. Books often have a second, third, and fourth life, moving through church and thrift stores at heavily discounted prices.

So is this system of library purchase and resale good for authors? Yes. It increases the likelihood that someone will discover them.

Is that good for society? Absolutely. Literacy is better than illiteracy.

Is it good for libraries? You bet. Literacy is our primary product.

Is it good for publishers? Guaranteed multi-million dollar purchases, year after year, coupled with a free marketing force to grow audiences for their books?

HarperCollins doesn't think so.

Here's how the ebook market is shaping up for libraries.

1. We can't buy an ebook at all. We rent it, and the file doesn't even live on our own servers. It remains in the cloud, usually very poorly integrated into our catalogs. That means that people have to look in multiple places for content, which is less convenient.

2. The library price for ebooks, rather than being half retail cost because we are volume purchasers, is often twice the retail cost. Publishers say, but libraries let lots of people read them! We let lots of people read paper books, too, and you can't tell me that hosting a file is anywhere near as expensive as printing and distributing a physical item. Publishers want a much higher price (a 100 percent increase) for a product that is much cheaper to produce.

3. When a book is no longer popular, libraries can't resell or give away things they don't own. That means no more booksale income for the library, and no more cheap copies of reasonably current ideas for the public.

4. Under the HarperCollins scheme some books may disappear altogether. Each title will have a metered use. Want it again? Well, publishers often take books off the market for a while. And publishers may not survive.

5. Some ebooks, such as those from Amazon, are device-dependent. If you, as a consumer, buy one from Amazon, the license says you can only read it on a Kindle. What happens when your Kindle dies? Well, you either buy another Kindle, if there is one, or start building your library all over again. It's like having to buy another copy of a CD for every player you own.

6. Alternatives. A few new ideas have sprung up -- Kindle owners lending to other Kindle owners, a proposed national digital library, and the growth of new self-publishing sites.

And we need alternatives. The way things are shaping up, publishers will try to make it impossible to own a book. They want to monetize the transmission of ideas, to the detriment of author and reader alike.

It's the same strategy championed by music publishers. And we know how well that worked out.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

March 3, 2011 - in the dark about what happens at night

After my granddad retired, he got tired of playing bridge and growing roses. Finally, my grandmother told him to go back to work. So he did, where he sold appliances for a big chain store. An astute human observer, he loved it.

One day he listened to a younger salesman lose a deal. A housewife was looking at freezers. The young salesman told her (correctly) that a special feature of this freezer was that it automatically defrosted.

"How does it do that?" asked the housewife.

The salesman gamely launched into an explanation. But since he really didn't know, it wasn't very convincing. The housewife grew more and more dubious, and finally walked out of the store without buying anything.

"What should I have done?" asked the salesman. "Next time," said granddad, "just tell her 'it happens at night.'"

When it comes right down to it, that's about how much understanding most of us have about the physical world.

Where does it go when you flush the toilet? It goes ... away. Possibly to a sewage treatment plant, however that works. Pipes are involved.

How come we don't fall off the planet? Gravity! How does that work? Um. Gravitons? I'm pretty sure it has something to do with mass, although it would be neat if there were invisible velcro particles.

It would be foolish to have big fights about whether or not there are sewage plants. Hardly anybody proclaims his fervent opposition to the longstanding Theory of Gravity.

It seems silly to argue about things we don't know much about. And you can't declare that nobody else should believe something just because you can't be bothered to understand it yourself.

Therefore, of course, we do it all the time. That's precisely the situation regarding the Theory of Evolution - an attempt to explain the development of our planet's rich biodiversity.

I'm reading a book called "Monkey Girl: evolution, education, religion, and the battle for America's soul," by Edward Humes. Parts of it make you shake your head. Other parts, you laugh out loud.

The book is about the 2005 trial called Kitmiller versus Dover (PA) Area School District, in which Judge John E. Jones III found the teaching of "Intelligent Design" (ID) unconstitutional.

It was painfully clear that the school board members who voted to introduce ID hadn't done their homework. When directly asked just what evolution asserted, they got it all wrong. They couldn't describe what ID was about, either. They were pretty sure, though, that "Darwinism" was atheistic, and ID was Christian. The judge decided that they were right about the latter.

But regarding the former, I've never understood the angry opposition to evolution, or why people feel it has to contradict religious faith.

Couldn't science be seen as an act of the most profound devotion and reverence? When, after experimentation, careful analysis, and much thinking, we uncover subtle natural laws, couldn't it be argued that we begin to get a glimmer of just how God does things?

Science takes work, though. I think for some folks, for a lot of us, it's just easier to guess God does it at night.

LaRue's Views are his own.