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, November 24, 2011

November 24, 2011 - no TV before 2

It's an old argument.

Socrates expressed doubts about literacy. Teach people to read, he said, and they won't have to remember anything. Their minds would get lazy. They would believe that just by decoding scrawls on paper, they had somehow gotten to the heart of some idea.

But real knowledge, real understanding, takes time and attention and deep thought.

He was right. And wrong.

It is true that few of us examine our lives as closely as Socrates examined his. And literacy does make it possible for relatively lazy people to think they know something big when they only know a few small things.

But current literacy research (see "Proust and the Squid," by Maryanne Wolfe) demonstrates that reading helps us think faster and better. We use the words and ideas of others as scaffolds. We climb them, then add to them.

Literacy is the foundation of shared knowledge. What we may lose in depth, we gain in breadth and height.

While there are few modern day Socrates, there are many sounding the alarm about the next breakthrough in thinking: technology.

According to a recent article in Wired Magazine (see www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/10/infant-tv-guidelines), "a decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents limit TV consumption by children under two years of age."

More recent and comprehensive research by the AAP confirms the original caution and extends it to all kinds of screen time. The bottom line: the best thing we can do for babies is talk to and touch them. Language literally builds their brains.

The second most potent strategy is play. Plunk a baby in front of a TV, DVD or PC or any other glowing screen and they get hypnotized. But it doesn't do anyone under the age of two any good, and may do them harm.

In fact, just letting kids entertain themselves has proven to be far better for their developing minds. They solve problems. They grow their imaginations and creativity.

What does happen if little ones watch too much TV?

Falling asleep in front of the tube leads to sleep disorders -- no matter how old you are. But passive screen watching has been linked to mood and behavior problems, and perhaps to attention deficit disorder.

A 2006 study by some Cornell researchers (see forum.johnson.cornell.edu/faculty/waldman/autism-waldman-nicholson-adilov.pdf) found that "approximately seventeen percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s is due to the growth of cable television." Not only that, in places where it rains a lot, more people watch TV, and autism rises.

Television, it seems, is a "trigger" for autism. Or, to work in the influence of too much rain, let's say it "precipitates" autism.

The main thing about kids up to the age of two is that if they're staring blankly at a screen, then probably nobody is talking to them. So programs and software that are sold as "educational" for this age group probably aren't.

Does this mean that technology is evil? No, it just means that kids don't really even understand what's happening on a screen until then. So before the age of two, talk, play, and read with them.

But what about after they're two? A 2001 study by the University of Massachusetts probing the effect of childhood viewing on adolescents (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11326591) found that "Viewing educational programs as preschoolers was associated with higher grades, reading more books, placing more value on achievement, greater creativity, and less aggression."

In other words, the content of the program was more important than the medium.

Library staff had an interesting discussion recently about the use of iPads in library storytimes. Should we or shouldn't we?

Here's my take: the core of our children's services remains the celebration of story. We sing, dance, do finger plays, talk in funny voices, and use books, puppet shows, and yes, technology, to infect children with the sheer fun of reading.

The technology isn't the thing that matters. The engagement and language, the playfulness, is.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November 17, 2011 - imagine a world of men

A few years ago, I was riding on a bus with a librarian from China. We talked about an issue few people seem to know about.

In brief, there's a growing global imbalance between the sexes. There are a lot more boys than girls being born in China, for reasons I'll get to below. There are slightly more girls than boys being born in the United States.

At first, this looked like a golden opportunity. Could there be a better time to launch a Sino-American dating service?

But we realized that exotic romance wasn't the only option. A world with a big surplus of men and not enough women had one very probable result: war.

Now comes Mara Hvistendahl's book, "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men." The problem is getting worse. War isn't the only issue.

As of this writing, Asia alone is "missing" 160 million women and girls. That's the entire female population of the United States.

How did it happen? Well, in many Asian and Eastern European cultures, there's a preference for boys. And technology largely invented in and promoted by the West -- the early detection of the sex of the fetus, and the ready availability of abortion -- has enabled parents to terminate a female fetus until finally they get the boy they wanted.

In 2007, one Chinese port city reported that for children under the age of five, there were 163 boys for every 100 girls.

College recruiters report the odds like this all the time. Doesn't this discrepancy "favor" women?

No. In many places now, there's not so much international dating as the widespread purchasing (and selling) of brides. Women are also forced into prostitution -- what we call "human trafficking."

This is one of those issues where you can predict the "sides:" pro-choice and family planning versus anti-abortion. But whatever your ideological bent, you can't help but think this situation -- a global preponderance of men and the commodification of ever-scarcer women -- probably isn't good.

In those historical periods when women were under-represented, as in the Wild West, or the Gold Rush, violence was common. In ancient Athens, "a sex ratio of between 143 to 174 males for every 100 females" meant that women were essentially "confined within household compounds."

The original intent of early sex detection (the American invention of the sonogram in the sixties) was to help families get smaller: people could have the child they wanted, and stop. Over-population looked like a big problem then. For some people and places, it still does.

On the other hand, we've learned that as people become more affluent they tend to have fewer children anyhow. The government doesn't have to intervene.

So once again, technology has sometimes surprising consequences.

While this problem may appear to be personal -- each family making its own decisions -- it also has national and global consequences.

What should be done about it?

Opinions will differ. Hvistendahl argues for a global ban of sex-selective abortions. Others will continue to push for a ban on all abortions. But who will enforce such bans, and how?

It's an important subject. I recommend the book for anyone who just doesn't have enough to worry about, or possibly, has been worried about the wrong things altogether.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

November 10, 2011 - art centers mark coming of age

I have now had the distinct pleasure of attending the ribbon cutting ceremonies for two wonderful facilities: the Lone Tree Arts Center, and the Parker Arts and Cultural Events (PACE) Center.

The Lone Tree Arts Center opened its doors on August 11. It has a 500 seat theater,  an additional 150-225 seat event theater that opens through a glass wall to a 300-350 seat outdoor terrace theater; and a lovely and functional entrance plaza. The cost for the facility was $23 million.

The PACE Center had its ribbon cutting ceremony on Oct. 28 (and will be officially opening on Oct. 29). And by the way, it was the most innovative such ceremony I've seen. Several ribbons were pulled across the stage, one behind the other, with one town Council person assigned to each. At the countdown, all of the ribbons were scissored through at once -- an exciting and interesting visual display.

The PACE Center has a 536 seat theater, 250 seat amphitheater, an event room with a catering and teaching kitchen, an art gallery, a dance studio, a media laboratory, and classrooms. It cost $21.7 million.

Because the Lone Tree Arts Center opened first, I've already attended about four events, and find that it works beautifully not only as a theater, but also as a sort of mini-conference center and luncheon space, as well as a reception and featured speaker venue.

I've only attended one performance at the PACE Center, but I can see already that it will be a success, too. 

Both centers have comfortable theaters with fine acoustics. Both have thoughtful designs. Lone Tree used Ohio-based architects Westlake Reed Leskosky. Parker employed Denver-based Semple Brown Designs.

Both centers took advantage of just the right moment in the economy to build impressive public spaces that were remarkably affordable. 

There are some differences. The funding for the Lone Tree Arts Center was based on a public vote, and narrowly carried. The funding for the PACE Center is based on Certificates of Participation (COPs) -- a kind of mortgage paid for out of existing revenues. Both projects have demonstrated close management of costs, and both Lone Tree and Parker have relied upon corporate and private donations.

Another difference may be just my own read. From the perspective of live performance, the Lone Tree Arts Center is clearly set up as a touring facility. That is, a show rolls in, sets up the stage, does the performance, and leaves.

The PACE Center feels like a more diverse community space. While it can host touring shows, too, the studios, media lab, and classrooms seem to encourage local citizens not just to consume culture, but to create it.

There is room in Douglas County for both approaches, and I'll be curious to see how these design differences pan out over the next few years.

I can't help but notice as I wander through each of the towns to see the related new construction, particularly in Lone Tree. An investment in the arts (and medical centers, in both communities) seems to encourage other investments. I can certainly see the appeal of living within walking distance of either place. Both will increase the vitality of their respective municipalities.

It's a good thing to be able to drive just a short distance to a great show, and be home before midnight. Now we just need more late night restaurants. Douglas County is coming of age.

Kudos to the leadership of both Lone Tree and Parker, and congratulations to your citizens.
LaRue's Views

Thursday, November 3, 2011

November 3, 2011 - we revere the book

A big study done in 2005 found that when average citizens heard "library" they thought "book."

Recently, the study was repeated. Since 2005, a lot of things have happened.

Over 97% of America's libraries have Internet access. Over 80% offer free wireless.

Many initiatives have been launched around the nation to connect even rural residents to the most sophisticated computer resources on the globe. That includes business databases, periodical articles, and a host of government and private research firms.

Based on the the most cutting edge investigations into brain development, libraries have articulated and responded to the need for early childhood literacy. That includes not just live storytelling for all ages, but outreach to families in a variety of settings.

The evidence is clear. The more stimulus young minds experience -- particularly around exposure to language -- the better their lives will be. Libraries really make a difference here. In Douglas County alone, we offer over 5,000 story times a year for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

In many communities around the nation, libraries are economic anchor stores. We generate more traffic than grocery stores. That traffic creates a "halo" effect. A visit to the library often results in $20 of sales to nearby businesses.

Speaking of business, more people come to the library than ever to look for jobs, or establish a business that creates jobs.

And we do a land office business in the fields of music and movies -- which represent their own kind of literacy.

So what does current research find?

Today, when people hear "library" even MORE of them think "book."

Librarians are constantly alert to what their communities use us for. But there's a profound disconnect between what we observe, and what our citizens feel about it.

Some of my colleagues are deeply frustrated by this. Not me.

Here's how I see it. Libraries, more than almost any other institution in history, have an unassailable brand.

When it comes right down to it, most Americans have a profound reverence for the Book.

That's because Book means three things:

* story. One of the deepest drives of humankind is for a narrative. We want to know what happened to whom. We care about character and transformation. We ask, "and then what happened?" The Book tells us a tale: a journey, a challenge, a discovery.

* idea. But it's not just about a series of events. The story has to be about something. We want to learn, too, not just be entertained. We want to know what the story means.

* immortality. While all of us remember stories from our early days, that memory only goes so far. We recall parents, grandparents, maybe even great-grandparents. We may come to know children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. And that's about where the flame of human connection and continuity gutters out.

But the Book endures. We still have the story of Gilgamesh, from 5,000 years ago. We know about Egyptian gods imagined in the time of the pyramids. The Bible tells us (among other things) about the tribes of Israel from millennia past. We have histories from the age of the Greeks and Romans. We have fairy tales from before English was a language.

And every hard won secret wrung from the glory of nature, every founding fact of science, every practical discovery of engineering and medicine, has also been captured by print. We don't have to lose those things. Books enshrine knowledge.

The Book preserves life because it preserves memory. It conquers death.

And where do Books live? The Old Norse Gods went to Valhalla; books, to the library.

While not every book does in fact endure, within or without the library, the idea of the Book, and of an institution dedicated to the gathering, organization, and presentation of it to everyone is a founding principle of civilization.

So today's library is not JUST about books. But what an awesome place to start.

LaRue's Views are his own.