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, September 29, 2011

September 29, 2011 - library targets six community goals for 2012

Some months ago I wrote about library staff conducting interviews with some 40+ community leaders. We asked those leaders three core questions: what issues do you think your constituents will most care about over the next couple of years? What information do you need to make important decisions? And who else should we talk to?

After gathering all that, we had another meeting to comb through it with many of the people we met with. We wanted to know whether we got things right, what we'd missed, and what else we should be thinking about.

Ultimately, we boiled down our 2012 action list to 6 items.

* Promote Douglas County businesses. We have a variety of business communities in the county. And while several of them have had local campaigns to "shop the Rock" (for instance), there's never been a comprehensive push to area residents to spend their money here in the county.

There are many advantages to such a program. Not only do those dollars keep our local citizens working, the sales tax revenues fund important regional infrastructure that helps all of us.

The library will carry this message to the Partnership of Douglas County Governments. Most economic development organizations and chambers of commerce receive strong support from both the county and local municipalities. It makes sense (and cents) to return the favor.

* Secure long term and sustainable water. The library can't solve this one. But we can help the people who work on it. We'll be assigning at least one crackerjack reference librarian to existing organizations working on water issues.

* Provide job training. There are a lot of people looking for work. Soon, we'll be announcing our partnership with Arapahoe/Douglas County Works! That's a job training center, offering a host of new skills to motivated job seekers. We will offer free space to them at our Philip S. Miller Library in Castle Rock.

* Facilitate volunteerism. This is a hot one. Lots of people are looking for a chance to "give back" to their communities. But right now it's not easy to find the opportunities. While there are many worthy organizations, potential volunteers have to go to each website, then poke around very different organizational schemes.

The library will lead an effort to make the process a little easier. Many of our high school students need to get those volunteer hours in before they can graduate.

* Celebrate civic engagement. Keying off the previous issue, the library will begin to identify some outstanding civic heroes around the county, and give them the recognition they deserve. All of our communities DO have heroes, and they deserve their moment in the sun.

* Help veterans find jobs. There are a tremendous number of service men and women returning from duty who bring extraordinary skills with them. Yet we know that many of these people have particular difficulty getting connected to local employment. In our role as information providers and community connectors, the library should be able to help with that.

Again, I want to thank the many thoughtful people in Douglas County who helped identify the important concerns we all have in common. Now it's time to get after them.
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September 22, 2011 - how to make a pigeon superstitious

Every family has its oddball superstitions. That might be tossing salt over your shoulder, muttering "bread and butter" when you're briefly separated from someone by an obstacle on the sidewalk, not walking under a ladder, saying "Gesundheit" when someone sneezes, and so on. 

Some of these are delightful (some families have to say "rabbit rabbit" to each other first thing on the first day of the month). And sometimes, such behaviors border on the obsessive and disturbing (like constant hand washing, or forever having to check that the oven is off).

Tracking down the origins to particular phrases can be fun, but there's a deeper question. Why do so many of us believe so many weird things?

I'm reading a book called "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies -- How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths," by Michael Shermer.

I was surprised to read about a study by behaviorist B. F. Skinner back in the 1970s. Skinner made pigeons superstitious.

Here's how. First he put a pigeon in the eponymous Skinner box. If the pigeon pecked a key within the box, he or she got a pellet of food. It didn't take long for pigeons to figure this out. And they behaved rationally: peck the key, get food. Logical.

But then Skinner started messing with their minds. Food started dropping from the shoot randomly. That is, they still had to peck the key, but sometimes it didn't work. What the pigeons were doing wasn't significant.

But pigeons, like people, are just sure their behavior has something to do with the behavior of the universe. So if the pigeons happened to be hopping or twirling around counter-clockwise, and the food did appear, then that's what they did the next time. Twirl counter-clockwise, peck. No? Twirl counter-clockwise three times, then peck. No? Twirl SIX times.... 

It works. Eventually.

This resembles nothing so much as somebody playing a slot machine. It isn't logical to put so much time into some activities. Most of the time, it just isn't worth it. But the randomness of it is precisely what makes it so compelling. 

Superstition is the adoption of a false belief, linking a behavior to an outcome that it has nothing to do with.

Shermer cites another example. Suppose you're walking through the African bush and the grass to your right rustles. You think, "That might be a lion," so change direction. Maybe there wasn't a lion, but you're still alive. 

Or suppose you say, "Nah, it's fine," and there is a lion, and suddenly you're a juicy food pellet dropping randomly into nature's Skinner box. 

Better to believe every breeze is a predator, even if it makes you seem a little jumpy.

Shermer's idea is this: it's not that we're wired to believe odd things. It's that we're wired to believe, period. We try to figure things out. We make meaning. We look for patterns and intelligence around us, and constantly modify our behavior to optimize the odds of our success.

Sometimes, those beliefs really can and do save our lives. Sometimes they're just silly.

On the other hand, when you make too much soup out of too few ingredients, it gets a little thin. Skinner oversimplified a lot of things in his psychological theories, and there's more to our minds than stimulus and response. I think.

But I love it that pigeons can be taught to be superstitious. Here's what I don't know. Can they be cured? 

Can we?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 8, 2011 - library ready for recession

The story of the library's response to the recession has two dimensions.

The recession began in the private sector in fall of 2008. As jobs disappeared, more and more people used the library. This was true all across the country, and has been well-documented. 

People borrowed what they could no longer afford to buy. They used libraries to sharpen their resumes, look for jobs, apply for jobs online. Sometimes, they came to the library just to find a place where there were other friendly people.

Despite that increased demand, city-based libraries (like Denver Public, Aurora, Englewood) saw immediate loss of revenue. They get their money from the city's general revenue, which tends to have a large component of sales tax money. When people buy less, cities have less money. Because of this, many municipal libraries are in big trouble.

The Douglas County Libraries, as an independent library district, gets most of its money from property taxes.  And property taxes are indexed to an assessment year, typically with an 18 month delay. That is, 2012 tax collections will be based on assessments made in June of last year. (For more information on the process, see www.douglas.co.us/assessor/Property_Assessment_and_Taxes.html.)

Since appraisals happen in odd-numbered years, but are based on the year before, all property tax-based public institutions have a pretty good idea what's coming. So the library knew at the beginning of 2009 that we would see the results of the 2008 recession in 2012. (And not in 2010, since the recession happened after the June appraisals.)

We didn't know exactly what the hit would be. For a while, estimates varied from as low as an 8% drop in revenues next year to as high as 20%. Now they seem to be settling into about a 10% decline.

So we got ready. Douglas County Libraries had already invested in self-check and automated return systems. We set some budget reduction goals. The big one: through attrition, not layoffs, we would reduce our headcount. In fact, we eliminated whole job descriptions. We reorganized around each staff departure, applying various benchmarks to get more and more efficient and productive.

And it worked. As of 2011, we have achieved the staffing levels we had in 2006, without a single layoff. At the same time, our level of business has increased by over 54%. In fact, according the July/August edition of the American Libraries magazine, on the basis of circulation (checkouts) per capita we are the sixth busiest library in the United States.

So that's the first dimension of our story: sound planning and good stewardship. We don't anticipate a funding crisis next year because we used the time to plan for it. Libraries are pretty good at that.

The second dimension is about the jobs themselves. For the past couple of years, we have replaced some vacancies, but almost always with internal people. We've only gone out into the job market for things we didn't have a lot of people qualified to do -- mostly IT positions.

The good news is that this internal focus allowed us to identify a lot of bright and ambitious staff who wanted to move up. We put together and took advantage of a couple of leadership development programs. I have no doubt that we boosted a good dozen people's library careers.

But the bad news is that we have remained pretty closed to the rest of the library world. When jobs do come open, even for the non-professional positions, we get inundated with applications. Many are over-qualified: fine for us, demoralizing for them.

Right now, a lot of fine librarians have completed their master's degrees and can't find work.

It's good to spend time developing one's staff. But at some point, institutions also require an infusion of new blood. Here's hoping the economy turns around soon.


LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 1, 2011 - Castle Pines keeps a good thing going

Sept. 1, 2011 - Castle Pines keeps a good thing going

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the formation of several Midwestern libraries.

The call always began within the community. Libraries, particularly during the late 1800s, were seen as one of the ways by which a community "came of age."

Douglas County mostly followed the same pattern, with local city residents organizing, finding space, volunteering, and ultimately opening the libraries in Castle Rock and Parker, although the modest funding came from the entire county. Over time, the establishment of the Douglas County Libraries as an independent district changed that a little. The larger population centers were pretty well set.

After some election losses in 2007 and 2008, and the anticipated fall of property tax revenues after the recession, it looked like the library district generally would have to shrink. We did close our satellite in Cherry Valley.

We proposed closing Louviers, too. But the good citizens there immediately stepped up and showed how much the library mattered to them. At this point, they fundraise more each year than they pay in taxes -- an extraordinary commitment. If they stand by us, we stand by them.

In Castle Pines, committed citizens even managed to establish a new library there, in a rented storefront. That effort had several components: first, we sold our aging bookmobile, so did have some staff and materials to transfer. Second, the Castle Pines Metro District had purchased some land from us. We plowed that money back into the community. Finally, some local residents, members of the Castle Pines Chamber of Commerce, and others helped negotiate a deal that covered our rental costs for two years. We have three years left on our lease.

As part of local community efforts to help us keep underwriting this new facility, the citizen-led Castle Pines Library Campaign (including Warren Lynge, Carla Kenny, Sharon Kollmar, Linda Day, Joan Millspaugh, Sarah Tweed, Vicky Kellen, Darren Everett, Lisa Crockett, and Terri Wiebold) has started fundraising.

And right out of the gate, they found their first donor: the city of Castle Pines itself.

On Tuesday, August 9, the Castle Pines City Council approved a $50,000 contribution to the support of Castle Pines Library for the next three years. Half of the amount, or $25,000, will be in the form of an immediate gift to the library, while half will be contributed in 2012 pending private contributions in an equal amount.

The committee's slogan -- "Let's keep a good thing going!" -- resonated with Mayor Jeffrey Huff and other members of the city council, whose vote in favor of the gift to the library was unanimous.

This is how communities are made: the combination of vision, dedication, and local investment.

To celebrate this commitment, the library will host a check-signing ceremony at 10 a.m., Sept. 7, at the Castle Pines Library. Mayor Huff and Library Board of Trustees President Amy Hunt will have a few words to say. Our emcee will be Darren Everett.

In addition to a little speechifying, interested parties may hear about some other ways to donate or sponsor the mighty little library. Or call the Castle Pines Chamber of Commerce at 303-688-3359, the Castle Pines Library at 303-791-7323, or go to DouglasCountyLibraries.org and click on "Donate it!"

Once again, thank you City of Castle Pines for such an amazing and generous gift to “Keep a Good Thing Going.”

We hope to see you on the 7th.