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.

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