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, October 27, 2011

October 27, 2011 - no test in Constitution

On the one hand, we honor it. We appeal to it. We think it matters.

On the other hand, it was and is riddled with profound mistakes.

The Constitution of the United States of America was crafted by some of the brightest people the world has known. They were also well-educated by the standards of the time. Of the 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution in 1787, 60 percent of them had attended college.

The striking idea at the heart of our founding document was that the purpose of government was to preserve individual liberties. Yet at the same time, it explicitly endorsed slavery, and denied women the right to vote.

Recently I've been reading about the many controversies that attended its adoption (see the writings of Cornell professors Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore). Here's one you don't hear much about:

In 1787 and 1788, the draft U.S. Constitution was harshly challenged because it was explicitly irreligious. Not anti-religious. There's a difference.

But unlike virtually every other political document of the age, the draft Constitution made no references to God. Religion makes only one appearance: Article 6 declares that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

And that was news. Eleven of the thirteen original states did have religious tests. Even in Rhode Island, founded on the principles of religious tolerance, and a place where many Catholics and Jews worshiped, you had to be a Protestant to hold office. 

Virginia and New York had adopted freedom from a religious test, however, probably under the influence of James Madison, who in the Federalist Papers wrote that too fervent a pursuit of religious opinions lead men "to vex and oppress each other."

But a Massachusetts Constitutional delegate protested that the no religious test clause meant that  "a papist, or an infidel" was just as eligible as Protestants. Delegates from New Hampshire and North Carolina worried about "pagans, deists, Mahometans [sic]," Jews, abolitionist Quakers, and "yea, an atheist at the helm of government." 

A Connecticut constitutional delegate proposed a one sentence preamble to the Constitution, to at least begin with God. A Virginia delegate proposed that the religious test be amended to require no OTHER test than a belief in God, who would reward the good and punish the evil. 

Both changes were overwhelmingly rejected by the convention.

Why? According to defenders of the article, public service should be open to any "wise or good citizen." There was as much a shortage then as now, and no religion seemed to have a corner on them. 

Baptist leaders defended the no religious test clause. Religion should be detached from "temporal power" lest it be corrupted by it. That wasn't just a fear, it was clear recent history, both in England, and in the colonies. Let the state try to promote a particular religious view, and tyranny followed. Religion was between man and God, not man and state. 

Religion just wasn't the business of government. Or as Jefferson wrote, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say There are twenty gods, or no God. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket."

Another defender wrote that the time had passed "when nations could be kept in awe with stories of God's sitting with legislators and dictating laws." No less a personage than John Adams, just before the Constitutional convention, wrote that the architects of American governments never "had interviews with the gods or were in any way under the inspiration of Heaven." Rather, our governments were "founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery..."

So at last, the United States Constitution was approved, and the prohibition on religious tests was preserved. 

The clear separation between government and religion was further reinforced by the adoption of the First Amendment. But that's another story.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

October 20, 2011 - he made the toys we wanted

The first computer I ever used was an Apple ][+.  It only displayed 40 characters per line, and didn't understand upper and lower case. Mostly I used it for spreadsheets, which was a revelation.

Then I used an Apple //e (Apple loved using idiosyncratic typewriter characters back then). And with that, I wrote a comprehensive computer catalog manual for a library in Springfield IL. After that, I knew I had to have something that made the writing process so much easier.

Briefly, I considered a new machine from Apple, called the "Lisa." It was the precursor to the Macintosh.  But it was very pricey.

So I bought a Kaypro II -- a machine running the CP/M operating system, then the dominant business platform. It was the first loan of my life ($2500 for computer and printer). I paid it off in two years, mostly through writing about computers. 

My next computer was an MS-DOS machine, also from Kaypro. 

When Windows came out, I found it really confusing, contradictory, and thoroughly inelegant. Then a friend lent me an Apple Powerbook, a Macintosh laptop. I gave it a hard and thoughtful look. 

And it grabbed me. I saw what Windows was TRYING to do (which was "copy Apple"). The Apple operating system was a brilliantly executed, paradigm-shifting way to think about interacting with a computer. I shifted platforms.

Later came the other fascinating devices: the Newton (in that brief period when Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple by John Sculley), then (after Jobs returned) the iPod, the many interesting Mac designs, the iPhone, the iPad.

Most of the folks in my family use Apple computers, although later I shifted again to the Linux operating system, mostly to explore the Internet. But I do have, and use, an iPad.

After hearing about the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs on Oct. 5, I listened again to his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. He talked about how he dropped out of college, then did things that didn't seem important at the time. 

For instance, he took a calligraphy class. 

Later, he even got fired from the very company he founded.

But he came to realize that those experiences became the foundation of his character, and his life's path. 

Jobs was not an engineer or a programmer. He was a designer, with a passion for the subtle touches that mark the difference between something that works and is serviceable, versus something that not only works, but is also an engaging sensual delight. 

And he rediscovered the freedom of new beginnings.

He was that extraordinary phenomenon, a visionary. He had a passion for the future, a belief that something "insanely great" was not only possible, but urgently necessary. 

His management style was often acerbic, confrontative, and disruptive. But he shipped the products that people wanted.

A few weeks ago, I read that Apple was, briefly, the most valuable company in the world. Even after it fell back behind Exxon, it still remained the unchallenged tech company, surpassing not only early rival IBM, but the company that once seemed unbeatable: Microsoft.

There's a cynical phrase. "He who dies with the most toys wins." Jobs created some of the most compelling toys the world had ever seen. And as someone else noted, poignantly, millions of people heard about Jobs' death ON a device that he created. 

And now he's dead, a man a year younger than I am, the kind of detail one can't help but notice.

There are never enough years, I suppose, at least not if we have our health and the joy of translating dreams into reality. Money, based on all the psychological research to date, doesn't seem to have anything to do with happiness.

But here's something that does matter. One man turned his restless imagination into a fountain of creation. That's the big reward. He made things. He changed things.

So my tribute is just two words, finally, the two words so hard to earn, and so rare to hear from those we ourselves admire. 

Well done.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

October 13, 2011 - who will be the last one standing?

Back in 2008, I was interviewed by a reporter. With a knowing air, he asked me if libraries were going to survive the Internet. On Feb. 27, 2009, after 150 years of operation, his newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, printed its final edition. 

Now when reporters ask me that question I answer, "You bet we'll survive. Will you?"

For awhile, it looked like only the smaller newspapers would make it, because they provided the only way for local businesses to advertise. But now even the smaller papers are feeling the pinch, shrinking their staffs to the point where a lot of news just doesn't get covered.

And if newspapers disappear, who WILL cover the local news? I worry about that. Can citizen journalism provide enough quality content? And how are they supposed to make a living?

There may also be a big shake-up in the world of book publishing. 

As it happens, libraries are a big part of that marketplace. We account for about 10% of all commercial publishing sales. For children's book, it's 40%. 

But now some publishers (four of the big six) won't sell ebooks to libraries at all. The other two will only lease them. (And as I've written before, when you "buy" an ebook, odds are good you're just leasing it, too. Read the license agreement that came with your Kindle or Nook.)

These big publishing houses have made a unilateral decision that overturns centuries of precedent: they have denied ownership of content to libraries (requiring us to go through third parties to manage that content), AND raised their price to us over the straight retail cost. 

Part of that is because they believe that libraries rob them of sales. But think that through. Last year, Douglas County citizens checked out over eight and a half million items. Does anyone really think people would have bought that many?

What libraries do is ENCOURAGE sales, by letting our patrons sample lots of things, and building up their habits of reading, listening, and watching. That habit is the practice of literacy. And it's also the creation of a larger market for stories and ideas.

Over 2 million people a year visit our catalog. They're all looking for books, and we make it easier to find them. I buy a lot of books myself, but it's because I found the authors I like at the library.

Yet some publishers would be much happier bypassing the library altogether, and going with the Netflix model, now adopted by Amazon. Pay a monthly subscription fee, and read all you want! Never mind that the cost of that deal is considerably higher than what you'll pay to a library, and you still won't own anything.

Meanwhile, Douglas County Libraries has identified over 700 publishers who are eager to sell to us. And the growth of self-publishing (from 29,000 titles in 2004 to over 2.7 million in 2010) has put a lot of authors out there who just might be willing to sell their ebooks to us directly. Recently, three of the top 10 bestsellers in America were self-published, so it's not like we'd be buying things people don't want to read.

Can libraries manage our own electronic content, integrating it into our existing catalogs? Indeed we can. And I've been doing a little traveling and speaking around the country lately telling other librarians how to do it, too.

So if some publishers won't sell libraries books, and self-published authors will, then libraries will start shifting their budgets away from the big houses, skipping over a whole link in the distribution chain.

If and when that happens, I think the shoe is on the other foot. It just might be the publishers, not the libraries, that can't survive the rise of the World Wide Web and the ebook.

Wouldn't it be ironic if libraries were the last ones standing?

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

October 6, 2011 - yes on 1A

For a long time, I didn't have any feelings about term limits one way or the other. But when Colorado adopted them I began to notice some things.

First, of course, state limits on Congressional terms were struck down by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1995. So no other state was going to have Congressional term limits. Given that the most powerful Congressional committee appointments are often made on the basis of seniority, it wouldn't serve us well for Colorado always to be the new kid.

Second, I've testified several times over the years before various state legislative committees. The difference in decorum before and after term limits was pronounced.

Before term limits, many of the senators and representatives had been there for a long time. They had relationships based on mutual trust. They understood that bills were complex and interconnected.

After term limits, that lack of history led to several unintended consequences. For one thing, in my observation, legislators were noticeably ruder to each other and the public. For another, with less time to build coalitions, legislators tended to run on a few narrow issues, make a lot of noise about them, then leave before they had to deal with the consequences.

Far too often, term limits are a lazy man's democracy. It's a system where voters want to exercise control over those in office, but aren't willing to do the work to make an informed decision. It's power without responsibility.

There are some elected officials who do a terrible job and get re-elected. There are some wonderful elected officials who get "termed out" just when they're hitting their stride. I consider both results a failure of citizenship.

On the other hand, at the local level term limits may make a little more sense, at least for some positions. For a few purely political jobs the people may want to rein in a candidate's will to power, and encourage more participation and diversity of opinion.

But other positions are more technical and professional in nature. There's an investment in training for the official that represents a real asset to the community.

This fall, Douglas County voters will be asked to extend the term limits for the Sheriff's office from two four-year terms to three. No one is trying to do away with term limits altogether, just add one term to this particular job description.

The sheriff's office is one of those technical jobs, greatly benefiting from the training of the person who holds it.

More to the point, Sheriff Dave Weaver is one of the good elected officials. He's a smart administrator who has built a good team. He pays attention and is responsive to our community.

If you don't track local law enforcement as a matter of course, spend some time on the Sheriff's website (www.dcsheriff.net). Under his leadership, the Sheriff's office has racked up an impressive record of achievement. Tossing him out has no benefit to us, and may do harm.

I represent no one but myself on this issue. But I will be voting FOR 1A. Let's make a decision this time based on the actual performance of the candidate, not because the clock struck some arbitrary hour.

LaRue's Views are his own.