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, June 30, 2011

June 30, 2011 - a fair flower comes to Castle Rock

This is the story of two beginnings.

The first concerns the house at 404 Perry Street in Castle Rock. It was built in 1888, apparently by stone mason H. B. Remington. The next owner, the first one to live in it, was Washington Irving Whittier, a well known teacher, editor, postmaster, realtor, legislator, and circuit-riding minister. Whittier was a cousin of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

In 1890 he sold the house to James Woods, another school teacher, and by all accounts an excellent debater. (There were debating and literary societies in those days). His wife and two sisters opened a dress making business in the house.

From 1895 to 1902, it was owned by William Thayer, another debater, an elected Castle Rock Trustee, and a train dispatcher. Then the house went to a saloon-keeper, carpenter, concrete, plastering and masonry business operator named George Burk.

People had a surprising mix of skills back then. They had to, I suppose.

The house continued to change hands, but over the years, was home to several other businesses, among them Elegant Edibles, Casual Catering, and a bike shop.

The second beginning concerns the new business opening there. The name of the shop is Finn*Lafleur. It will be an art and fashion gallery. The fashion is hip, European, and will feature hats, belts, shoes, and soon, furniture.

The business gets its name from Carlos Finn, 36, and his 29-year old sister Desiree and her husband William Lafleur. "Finn" is Irish for fair, and "Lafleur" is French for flower. So the shop's name means "Fair Flower."

Carlos (Carlos Michael Finn) tends bar at Next Door, and has long been associated with an art gallery cooperative in Denver. He's also a painter, creating what he calls "primitive, naive, child-influenced" pieces. His art will be on display.

His sister has mostly worked in the oil and gas industry, but she and Carlos used to work at the Pinos restaurant together (now the Union). William, known as Billy, is an assistant supervisor at the Red Hawk Golf Course.

I do a lot of walking around Castle Rock, and happened to poke my head into the house one early June evening to see what all the bustle was. Carlos, Desiree and Billy were transforming the house.

Although they are renters, they have put a lot of sweat equity into the place. Gone was the old carpeting, revealing a lovely old hardwood floor. They restored it. With pride, they showed me around the freshly painted little house. They have constructed benches, installed track lighting, made a dressing room, and covered up old pipes. It looks great.

The shop had a soft launch on June 18, during the downtown's car show. They're still tweaking their hours, but will probably be open something like 10-7 most days. They'll want to be open on weekend,s so may close on Mondays.

The history of the house (and its additions, not treated here) comes from the Douglas County History Research Center, located within the Philip S. Miller Library. We have lots of fascinating research about the people and buildings in the area.

The history of the Finns and Lafleurs comes from just talking to these industrious and ambitious Douglas County natives (Carlos and Desiree grew up around Santa Fe and Titan Road, then in town). They're all smart, personable, and interesting folks.

I like the way things come back around. Multi-skilled and ambitious people take a gamble, and add another layer of memories to a building. What was a dress shop is now kind of a dress shop again. And history is still being made.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23, 2011 - where's your music, kid?

"Send me a kiss by wire / baby my heart's on fire...
Baby telephone / tell me I'm your own."

I don't want to start any fights. I'm a low key, nonconfrontational kind of guy. But I can't help but notice things.

And what I've noticed is that this current generation doesn't have its own music.

Sure, it has Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, etc. It has a lot of GOOD music, no question. But throughout American history, it seems like each generation comes up with its unique sound, a musical genre that is distinctive and definitive. Until now.

At the turn of the 20th century we got ragtime (Scott Joplin). Then came jazz. Then the Memphis blues. Big bands (Benny Goodman was named the King of Swing in 1935). Mahalia Jackson popularized gospel in 1947. Pete Seeger ushered in the folk revival in 1948, which branched in many directions.

Rock and roll was born in 1951, Elvis, Ray Charles and Soul Music in 1955, Motown in 1959. Reggae in 1960. Patsy Cline in 1961. The Beatles in 1964. Woodstock in 1969.

In 1975 we got punk rock. In 1977 we got disco. 1978 brought us hip hop. MTV rose in 1981. Michael Jackson's Thriller happened in 1985.

In 1990 Grunge rock slithered out of Seattle. In 2003, Eminem got a Grammy for best rap album.

And that seems to be it. The last distinct American sound, shared broadly by a whole generation, was rap.

Further back, in 1987, the term "world music" was coined to describe "eclectic" music. That was one year after Paul Simon's breakout "Graceland," featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Since then, a lot has happened technologically. And technology definitely affects music. (See the "Hello my baby" lyrics at the top of this column.) Nowadays, the Internet is the biggest factor. The sheer availability of music has soared.

In 2008, digital downloads grew by 25% to $3.7 billion (including 1.4 billion songs), accounting for 20% of music sales. But according to some sources, over 40 billion songs were illegally file-shared, which means that 95% of music downloads are illegal. By 2009, digital sales accounted for 98% of all singles sold in the USA and Britain.

Add in Youtube and Pandora, and you don't even have to break the law to hear sounds from everywhere.

Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of terrific bands and musicians around. There's no shortage of music. I hear great rock and roll, fusion, ska, blues, folk, funk, and on and on, all over the place. Successful musicals are back on Broadway.

But what I don't hear is that sudden shift in rhythm or consciousness that says a new form of music has been birthed on our shores.

So here's what I think. A distinct musical sound is always of its time and place. It's a focused reaction to a particular moment in history. And right now, a generation raised on what amounts to a global radio station has so much to digest, so many different influences, that it hasn't been able, yet, to come up with a distillation.

Music has gone global, and it will take us awhile to make sense of it.

Am I wrong? Is there a new kind of music that has in fact caught on, is shared widely in our culture? Write me at jlarue at jlarue.com.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16, 2011 - when electrons revolt

When I was growing up, there was a guy in the neighborhood whose family made him go into the garage every time there was a storm. He attracted lightning.

You've probably known people who can't wear watches. The watches start running backwards, or stop and start unpredictably.

I've never been one of those people. Until recently. Lately, electricity and I don't seem to get along.

I remember looking at old catalogs from the early 1900s. You could buy all kinds of household appliances that had their own motors. Later, they had attachments so you could hook up a motor to them. Finally, appliances just came with power cords, because by then, there was an electric grid. Electricity had gone from fad to utility.

I suppose that's kind of like the Internet today, with wireless processors embedded in everything.

The two trends together are dangerous.

It all started for me when I got notified (via email) that someone had contacted my credit card company and succeeded in changing the account's email and billing address. It wasn't me, so I spent a morning on the phone as they walked me through new security settings. Then I got a call from someone claiming to be from the credit card company who wanted to know if I changed the settings ok, and to what, and suddenly asking a lot of questions without answering any of mine. Finally, I said I'd better call THEM back -- and they hung up. When I did phone the company's fraud department, they said they knew nothing about that call.

Then, on the way to the airport, my wife's mobile phone cut out. She asked me to plug it into the cigarette lighter. It not only didn't charge the phone, it short-circuited the car's air conditioning.

Then the library was moving its servers from the somewhat dicey power in downtown Castle Rock to a big server farm in Denver (co-located in Phoenix). But naturally, that meant that our catalog and other databases went wonky for a few days, to the great confusion of many of our patrons.

When I got back from my trip, I then tried to cancel that credit card (which I'd kept restricted but active in case I got stranded). No problem, they said, but fax in a bunch of stuff to prove you are who you say you are. Fine, I said.

But could I get a fax machine to work? After repeating the same steps 6 times, then watching the machine dial all by itself, chortling at me I swear, yes.

Then my home Internet went down. I'd reboot everything, and it would work, kind of, for whole seconds at a time. Then stagger into partial screen draws.

I've really gotten used to immediate Internet access. My daughter depends on it for her job (giving international English lessons).

When I called my provider to troubleshoot, the handset died halfway through the session. Dead battery.

When I got the home network up and running again, my computer's keyboard would suddenly go mute every now and then, requiring me to un- and re-plug it.

Don't even get me started about flight attendants who tell you to turn off your book, which then won't turn on again.

I totally believe in the myth of Atlantis. How could a whole, advanced civilization just disappear one day, you ask?

Simple. They got everything they needed to do, everything they needed to know, scrunched into a single, wafer-thin, electric-powered gizmo. And somebody dropped it, or it went on the fritz, or, I don't know, it got hit by lightning.

I'll be in the garage.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

June 9, 2011 - laugh when you fall

On that glorious morning, many groups of true believers gathered in many places, confident that the end of the world was at hand.

How many people? Estimates vary between 25,000 all the way up to over a million.

They came from all over the world, and included people from many Christian denominations.

There had been an earlier prediction, but the prophet recalculated, and confidently advanced another date. This time would be different.

It's important to understand this truth: People believed him. Often, the belief was deep, fervent, and utterly sincere. Some followers had already sold or simply abandoned all their belongings.

And what happened?

It's hard to soften this. The true believers were wrong.

Incidentally, I am not talking about Harold Camping's prediction of the Rapture, due, according to HIS second calculations, to take place on May 21, 2011. Although that didn't happen either.

I'm talking about the "Millerites," the followers of William Miller, who predicted that the second coming of Christ would happen precisely on October 22, 1844.

Why do so many of us have a yearning to know that this is It, that the end is nigh, that now we'll get what's coming to us, good and bad alike?

I don't know. But I do know that in both cases there was a next morning.

How did the faithful respond?

According to author Kathryn Schulz in her fascinating book "Being Wrong," people have pretty consistent responses to being caught out in error.

At one end is total denial. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there was no mistake. Indeed, many Millerites asserted that Christ had indeed arrived, but not physically. Rather, he had entered the hearts of his followers.

Advantage: it's hard to prove that that didn't happen. Disadvantage: there's not a lot of proof that it did.

Others responded with a partial denial. OK, the specific date wasn't right. But it was almost right. The Second Coming was ... delayed.

Out of the Millerites came the Seventh Day Adventists. There's also a connection to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Even faith adapts.

At the far end of the continuum some people concluded that they had made not just one mistake, but lots of them. Some Millerites gave up organized religion; others abandoned the very idea of God and the Bible.

Somewhere in the middle, Schulz said, there's the usual "downplaying, hedging, backpedaling, justifying, or otherwise minimizing the scope of our mistakes."

We just hate to be wrong. Adults do, anyhow.

But here's the interesting thing. When you look back on the time of greatest human growth, the time when we are consummate learning machines, we are wrong almost all the time.

You don't think so? Have you ever watched a pre-toddler learning to walk? Stand. Fall. Step. Fall. Turn around. Fall. Reach for something. Fall. Try to speak. Get it wrong. Try to exercise control over basic bodily functions. Fail.

Yet children learn. with astonishing speed. They are "right" more and more often.

And how do we explain this? Children, making one mistake after another, laugh way more than adults. I've seen some studies asserting that adults laugh 15 times a day, but children laugh up to 300 times.

And that's another response to getting things wrong. Laughter.

When you laugh, it doesn't mean that you're cruel, or judgmental, or that you find everyone else stupid.

It just means that the world is funny, and that it's a miracle that anything ever works the way you think it will.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

June 2, 2011 - can we crowd-source the collection?

Let's start with the numbers. According to the 5/18/2011 issue of Publishers Weekly, in 2010 the commercial publishing houses in America produced 5% more titles than the year before. The count: 316,480 titles.

But non-traditional publishing -- mostly print-on-demand public domain and self-published titles -- rose to a staggering 2,766,260.

Since 2002, production of traditional books rose by 47%. Non-traditional production rose by 8,460%. As of last year, commercial publishing is only a little over 11% of the total.

The job of the library is to gather, organize, and publicly present the intellectual content of our culture. But the mechanisms used by libraries to do that are a poor match for this explosion of literature.

The truth is, most public library processes are about gatekeeping: we try to assure, in advance, the quality or at least the popular demand for titles we purchase for our collection.

How? Well, commercial publishers let us know six months in advance what's coming. We read lots of review magazines, where people thumb through those early copies to let us know if they're worth the money. We track bestseller lists.

But self-publishing doesn't work like that. Independent publishers and authors may or may not have catalogs of upcoming works. Traditionally, they've had a hard time getting picked up by review magazines, too. Often, the independents didn't produce enough copies for national distribution.

But add in e-publishing, and "distribution" gets much simpler. Publishers and authors just have to upload one file to one server.

So I have an idea. To enable our public to try to sample this rich, untapped world of new writing, all we have to do is flip our processes upside down. We'll let YOU decide what our community should buy.

Since the end of 2010, the Douglas County Libraries has set up a powerful new infrastructure, one of the first in the nation. We can now receive, catalog, and manage electronic books ourselves.

Suppose we let authors and publishers upload their books to our catalog. Any author. Any publisher. It's just a simple online form. They would create a record that might not be up to our usual cataloging standards, but would suffice to help people find it. Our new system will let our patrons, at their sole discretion, remember what books they read, and start recommending other books to them on that basis. A combination of that recommendation engine, plus virtual displays of e-content, plus mobile apps to put all of that in the palm of your hand, would make browsing our collection a lot of fun.

And patrons can rate everything they read, and even leave comments. Which other people can respond to.

Here's the twist. Somewhere down the line - six months, for instance - we consult our statistics. If a title hasn't been checked out at least three times, and if our readers haven't rated it at least 3 stars out of 5, we delete the file. Our community doesn't like it.

But if it did get used, and it did get rated well, then we buy it. In other words, we "crowd-source" our collection development to the people who pay for it: Douglas County taxpayers. We provide the technical system to sample and present the writing; you tell us what's worth keeping.

Now let me be clear about something: this process is going to mean we'll see a lot of wild stuff. Some of it will be very poorly written or edited. Some of it, unfiltered by the commercial presses, will truly be out there on the fringe.

And some of it will be wonderful.

I pitched this idea to a gathering of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association recently. One author said he really liked it: it's the Wikipedia model. Put the work out there, let everybody weigh in, and you wind up with something that's actually of far higher quality than you might have predicted.

This experiment would be something new in libraries. I'm ready to try it. Is Douglas County?
LaRue's Views are his own.