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, July 28, 2011

July 28, 2011 - who needs libraries?

In the words of that great sage, Yogi Berra, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

Recently I met with some library colleagues to visit a remodeled branch in Colorado Springs. Then we talked about all the projects we're working on. It's a useful exercise. Colorado librarians are pretty honest about what does and doesn't work.

When you listen to all the details about a library - its demographics, its funding, its politics, its mix of staff and services - it's easy to think that each one is utterly unique. 

Yet we do face common problems. One of them is the propagation of a "meme" -- an idea that wants to get repeated. That meme takes the form of "who needs libraries now that I have the Internet/an e-reader?"

Many libraries in Colorado and around the country have undertaken some very successful branding efforts. They buff up their logos, hone their tag lines, and sometimes, for awhile, succeed in getting a little local buzz.

But then we're on to the next thing. Libraries have so many services that we get a little distracted. Meanwhile, the idea that libraries have somehow become obsolete winds up on the lips even of the people who visit us three times a week, and complain about the inability to find a parking space. 

So I suggested to my colleagues that maybe we're more alike than we know. Instead of focusing on what we do different, maybe we should talk more about the three ways we are very much alike.

At the heart of the public library is the notion of community sharing. We are a cooperative purchasing agreement. Whether funded by sales or property taxes, public libraries take many small contributions of money, and leverage that into the purchase of collections, or access to collections, that are far beyond what any of us could afford individually. 

You've got an ebook reader? Wonderful! But it doesn't take long to run up a big bill on Amazon or the Barnes and Noble bookstores. You can spend in half an hour what you don't spend in a year for your library. The library can provide books for your e-reader, too. 

The argument is pretty straightforward: libraries are way more cost-effective than buying everything yourself, most of which you really don't want to keep anyhow. Just because the book is electronic doesn't change the value proposition. Teaming up - buying once, using many times - is a smart investment.

A second way we're alike is that we help individuals of any and all ages and backgrounds to explore and discover anything they like. Sometimes, they come to us because they need something for school or for their jobs. 

But more often, they come because they're following their own interests. That might be learning a new language, or building a porch, or growing a garden, or learning to play banjo. Or it might be just reading science fiction or murder mysteries or romances or browsing fashion magazines. Public libraries are a patriot's dream: We are all about the pursuit of happiness.

A third way we're alike is that we build community. Libraries generate traffic. Last year our 7 locations in Douglas County racked up over 2 million visits. People come to homeowner's meetings, children's story times, civic clubs, and evening programs. They meet friends and associates. They chat with each other as they wait to use public computers. They get out of their homes and get to know one another.

So it's ironic. Often the busiest place in town, a place where people can follow their interests, save heaps of money, and build enduring bonds with their neighbors, libraries still have to fight the false perception that no one needs them.

Once again, Yogi nailed it. "Nobody goes there any more," he said. "It's too crowded." 

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21, 2011 - grandparents matter

Who I am has a lot to do with my granddad. He dropped out of school in 10th grade to take care of an invalid mother, but spent the rest of his life reading and thinking. He's one of only two people I know who read the entire 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant's "The Story of Civilization." I got my love of books from him.

He loved debate, and was willing to take unpopular positions if he believed in them. He was the first person I met who would talk enthusiastically about any topic: religion, politics, history, sex. While he appreciated a good argument, he didn't seem to have much ego attached to it. He just wanted to learn something, either about an idea or about another human being. Ideas and people interested him.

Aside from the example he set me - curious, engaged, friendly - he also did something else. He told me I was smart.

It happens, in my home, that that was a powerful thing. I got a different message from my father.

But sometimes, when you get a clear and positive acknowledgement from someone you admire, it can save you. My granddad's respect for me became one of the foundations upon which my self-image was built. He made a difficult childhood easier. Grandparents matter.

And if you’re a grandparent, you can learn to be a better one.

I've written before about OLLI - the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Denver. In brief, OLLI offers three terms per year of classes. Each term lasts 8 weeks. You can sign up for an unlimited number of classes for just $100 per term.

The main audience for the programs is people over 50. The classes address everything from literature and writing to science, technology and math, from language workshops to current events. Fun!

OLLI has three locations: OLLI South serves the Douglas County area. It's located at 11004 Wildfield Lane, Littleton (off Santa Fe, near Titan). OLLI Central serves Metro Denver, and OLLI West serves the Golden area.

The new term is about to start up. For more information, call 720-339-1379, or look them up at www.universitycollege.du.edu/olli.

One of those classes is taught by a couple of friends of mine, Frank and Dix Morris. It's called "Discover the Power of Presuppositions."

The course offering states, "There is a general assumption that senior citizens are loving (they're nice, give gifts and, possibly, leave an inheritance). A close study of the most effective seniors reveals them to be masters of communication who know how to effectively instill major messages."

The class provides left and right brain methods for thoughtfully placing affirming messages in the minds of others.

Class time includes concrete explanations, class dialog, examples of each new powerful phrase, take home material and simple assignments to be used with others so class members can experience how presuppositions actually work.

Explanation: "A presupposition assumes a reality before it has been proven." For example, if a teacher says to children on the first day of class that they will be an excellent group of learners, they will take that to mind. They'll try to live up to it.

Grandparents do this with grandkids. Great leaders use presuppositions all the time. As the Morrises tell me, the class could have been called "How to be highly effective in all relationships."

The class is on Tuesday mornings.

So whether you've got grandkids, are looking to make the world a little brighter, or just want to scratch an intellectual itch, why not investigate OLLI's offerings? You can get a sample of what they're like at four upcoming sessions:

Monday, August 1
10 am Tattered Cover at 9315 Dorchester St in Highlands Ranch
1 pm Lone Tree Library at 8827 Lone Tree Pkwy in Lone Tree.

Friday, August 5
10 am Parker Library at 10851 S Crossroads Dr in Parker
1 pm Phillip S Miller Library at 100 S. Wilcox in Castle Rock

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 14, 2011 - on the empathy of apes

It's been said so many times we believe it. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Survival of the fittest. Whether it's life in the wild or in the marketplace, competition and self-interest is what drives us.

But what are we to make of this? In 1964, a group of psychiatrists led by Jules Masserman at Northwestern University reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry that "rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered food to themselves if doing so gave a shock to a companion. One monkey stopped pulling the chain for 12 days after witnessing another monkey receive a shock. Those primates were literally starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal." (See the magazine "Greater Good," Fall/Winter 2005-06.)

Or consider this report by Franz B. M. de Waal, a Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist, on another primate study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast. "... chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them."

Isn't such behavior counter-intuitive? Wouldn't more chimps survive if they simply abandoned the wounded?

No. de Waal goes on, "All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof."

de Waal has written many fascinating articles and books. Douglas County Libraries has several of them, including "The age of empathy: Nature's lessons for a kinder society" published in 2009, "Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved," published in 2006, and "Animal social complexity: intelligence, culture and individualized societies," published in 2005.

He can turn a phrase. "What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick for which we have fallen for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone."

It's not all sweetness and light in the jungle, whether floral or concrete. Chimpanzees sometimes turn murderously violent. I remember the rage and acting out of my own adolescence.

Yet apes empathize. Research suggests they also mourn, laugh, and reconcile.

Of course, anyone who has ever owned a cat, a dog, or even a bird knows that emotions are not unique to humans.

Or as de Wall puts it, “We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.”

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

July 7, 2011 - spellbinders

[This column is by Priscilla Queen, a Literacy Specialist for the Douglas County Libraries.]

A few weeks ago, in a letter to the editor, Irma Backelant asked, “Have grandparents become the nuisance generation?” She described feeling like an outsider when her grown children’s friends complained about the annoyance their parents have become. Backelant realized that the complaints were being made about her fellow grandparents, and was aghast at their being ridiculed rather than valued as the elder generation.

Last year I became a grandmother myself and hope to figure out how to be helpful and wise in this new role. Mrs. Backelant’s question also spurred me to respond and share a few programs and activities that Douglas County Libraries offers the community to the benefit of children and elders alike: Spellbinders and Book Start.

Traditional stories demonstrate that elders can be a source of wisdom and perspective for younger generations. They also illustrate the consequences of rash and callow behavior by the young, as in this old German tale:

There was once a very old man whose eyes had grown dim, his ears dull of hearing. His knees trembled. When he sat at table he could hardly hold his spoon and spilled broth upon the tablecloth. His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather sat in the corner behind the stove. They gave him meager food in an earthenware bowl. He looked to the table with his eyes full of tears. Once he dropped the bowl and it broke. The young wife scolded him. He said nothing, but only sighed. After that they brought his food in a wooden bowl that could not break.

One day there were sitting thus when the little grandson of four began to gather some bits of wood upon the ground. “What are you doing there?” asked the father. “I am making a trough,” answered the child, “for you and Mother to eat out of when I am big.”

The man and his wife looked at each other, and began to cry. Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.

Spellbinders was developed precisely to give older folks a positive role in their communities. Spellbinders tell stories to classrooms of children, recreating the age-old custom of storytelling on the front porch or around a fire. The children who listen to the stories of our Spellbinders reap the benefits of a rich literacy activity.

Spellbinders volunteers are 55 or older because one goal is to connect generations and provide an experience with a grandparent for school-aged children. Children have thanked our Spellbinders with heartfelt enthusiasm. One boy wrote, “My grandpa doesn’t live close. Thank you for being my grandpa for a day.”

Spellbinders develop traditional folktales or create new stories from personal anecdotes. Douglas County Libraries Literacy Department and Douglas County School District have partnered to offer this free classroom enrichment to teachers and school librarians. It is a unique opportunity that supports literacy in many ways. Spellbinders also enjoy camaraderie with each other through regular meetings and other events in the community.

Book Start is another intergenerational volunteer program giving children the experiences that show that “adults in my community care about me.” This program provides training in current early literacy techniques and places volunteers with local child care facilities where they read aloud weekly. Preschool age children are in a vital time of language development. Science shows that if those early years are filled with playful words and a love of books, children have much improved chances for later success in school. Our training will show you how to blend beautifully written books with simple songs and fingerplays you might have thought you forgot. Book Start volunteers discover that reading aloud with young children makes a big difference in the lives of both generations.

We all have a need to be respected in our older years. If you are looking for opportunities to become that wise elder, to engage with the younger generation and stay young at heart, please consider volunteering in one or both of our literacy programs.

Spellbinder training is scheduled for August 1, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and August 5, 9 a.m. to noon. The 10-hour training will be held at Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock; you must attend both sessions. Please contact Priscilla Queen at pqueen@dclibraries.org or 303-688-7626 for more information and to register.

The next Book Start training is scheduled for Wednesday, July 20, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and another on August 17th, 9:30-12:30 both at Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock. Please contact Geri Domareck, gdomareck@dclibraries.org, for more information and to register.