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, April 21, 2011

April 21, 2011 - library interviews community leaders

The Douglas County Libraries has been trying something new. We call it "the community interview." In brief, a group of librarians identified some 30-50 community leaders around the county (government, business, non-profits, and faith-based), then met with them to ask three questions:

* What are the key concerns of your constituents over the next one to two years?
* What do you wish you knew to help you make good decisions about those issues in this next year or two?
* Who else should we talk to?

Why did we choose interviews rather than surveys? It's true that interviews may not be quite as statistically significant as a scientific poll.

On the other hand, people who occupy positions of leadership, whether elected, appointed, or assumed, by necessity spend a lot of time talking to other people. And what humans do by nature is seek patterns. Leaders, by sifting through many other sources of information, become an information source in themselves. What's even more important is that they make meaning; they find the pattern in the data.

Why were we doing this at all? There are two reasons.

First, having a solid grasp of what's going on in the community helps the library to plan better. Every institution exists within a larger social environment. Identifying some of the movers and shakers in Douglas County and gleaning their insights helps us anticipate what people might look to us for.

Second, librarians have long responded to our patrons' needs on an individual basis. But might there be something we could do to help the community at large? Are there ways in which the library can add value by helping to clarify the bigger picture?

We've completed most of our interviews, and met with one another recently to try to make sense of the findings. Three main concerns came up over and over:

* Economic recovery. Concerns ranged from individuals looking for work or worried about foreclosures, to small business owners wondering how best to survive or even thrive during a recession.

* Water. There's a lot of anxiety about our relationship with this fundamental natural resource. There's a lot of confusion, too. Different communities have different concerns: Highlands Ranch is not Parker is not Castle Rock. But everyone senses that water will have a lot to do with the future of our county, and that a lot of money is going to change hands. One municipal leader quoted an old Western proverb: "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting."

* Civic engagement. At first, many of our leaders made it sound like the problem was one-way communication. How do we let people know what's going on? But upon probing, it was clear that the issue was deeper. As one pastor put it, the many smart people who have moved to Douglas County (mostly from far away) clearly exhibit most of the signs of grief. They are a separate people, disconnected from deeper webs of friendship and social connection. They go "home" for vacation.

Politics, at least as currently practiced, seems more about further fracturing our communities than about bringing them together. But the thirst for community is real.

Over the next several months, the library will be further summarizing our findings, and assembling some resources to better inform our residents about the issues they say matter most to them.

Many thanks to all our gracious interviewees. Thanks as well to the librarians who found the experiment so rewarding.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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