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, January 12, 2012

Last column

January 12, 2012 - read, dammit

Dear Reader,

Thank you for reading this column. I have been writing it, every week, since April 11, 1990. I've missed a week or two every now and then. But not many.

Mostly I wrote about libraries. That's not surprising, since I have the great gift of doing work I love. Libraries are what I care about.

My perspective - LaRue's Views - is unique to me. Mainly, I speak for no one but myself.

Eventually, I realized that the job of any sentient being is not only to feel but to think. Thinking about libraries has led me into lots of other topics. I discovered that everything connects to everything else.

Sometimes my thoughts have found resonance in the minds and spirits of Douglas County residents. Sometimes, as the Letters to the Editor page attests, they have not.

I find myself at a point in my life when I am weighing things up. I am considering how best to spend my remaining days.

On the one hand, I am very proud of the institution I have helped to build. With my very astute Board of Trustees and a series of extraordinary staff we have taken what used to be a county department, ranked as the worst public library in the state, to an independent library district ranked as the best in the nation.

We earned it.

Moreover, the Douglas County Libraries is now blazing a path to the future not just in Colorado but in the profession, particularly in the area of the management of digital content.

I remain deeply engaged with this institution and its vital mission. I remain profoundly committed to the idea that public libraries do and should illuminate and advance their communities.

On the other hand, I believe our example stands in stark contrast to a decades-long trend. At too many levels of our nation, mostly under the multi-layered leadership of my generational cohorts, our society has been either passively neglecting or actively dismantling almost every aspect of our civic, educational, and even physical infrastructure.

I still want to write. I have to, I think.

But over the past couple of years I've done a lot of professional speaking. I've spoken to library, not-for-profit, and even some corporate audiences. I've followed people writing about similar topics on blogs and other social media.

I've concluded that I need to spend some time to deeply consider, then refocus, my efforts.

All of this is by way of saying that I'm not going to be writing a weekly column for local papers anymore.

I still have opinions about many topics (boy, do I), and from time to time I'll offer them to the Douglas County press.

For those of you who have followed my musings, and often stopped by to chat with me about them, my sincere thanks.

A library colleague (Patricia Hodapp, now director of the Santa Fe Public Library) once told me, "There's more to library advocacy than just standing on a corner and saying, 'Read, dammit!'" But it's not a bad place to start.

A mostly complete archive of my columns can be found at LaRuesViews.blogspot.com. Future writings will be linked to my website at www.jlarue.com.

Thank you for your attention.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

January 5, 2012 - youth initiative a success

Back around 2002-2003, I believe, the Douglas County School District conducted a survey of its student body. The results were disturbing. Many kinds of "risky" behavior (drug use and sexual activity, among others) were on the rise. Many students reported that they felt that they were not respected or valued by adults in the community.

In 2003 the Partnership of Douglas County Governments (founded in 2002 with its original members of the Towns of Castle Rock, Parker, and Larkspur, the City of Lone Tree, and the county) brought the school district into its membership.

In an effort to address what appeared to be growing unrest among our youth, the Partnership launched something called the Douglas County Youth Initiative. The idea was to establish an approach to youth issues that focused on "assets" -- what worked right -- rather than on the more punitive interventions of criminal justice.

I was fortunate enough to participate in the hiring process of their first executive director, Carla Turner. She started in 2005.

It happens that Carla resigned from that position at the end of 2011. It's a good time to look back and see what this innovative program has done.

First, the DCYI sought to increase youth, and youth service provider access to useful resources. The Douglas County Youth & Family Resource Guide, which can be found on the Douglas County Libraries website (follow the Community>Youth/Family Resources tab) now contains almost 300 pages of contacts.

Second, the Youth Initiative tried to provide a path for young people to participate in the adult world -- to give voice to their concerns and see how things work. The first Douglas County Youth Congress was held in 2008; four more have followed. At this event, young people meet with elected representatives, consider issues of the day, and then talk with legislators and others to test potential solutions.

The Youth Congress planning team for 2011 decided to coordinate a Youth Day of Service on April 20th, 2012. This will give youth an opportunity to give back to their communities -- and with any luck, establish a history of civic awareness and engagement.

Third, Carla introduced a program called "Wraparound." The idea is this: suppose you have a family that's in difficulty. Things are getting worse. Your son is getting wilder, your daughter feels threatened.

In the normal course of things, the usual systems can't really do much for you until there's a crisis. The son gets arrested. The girl gets attacked.

At that point, all the usual apparatus of criminal justice steps in with its confrontations, penalties, multiple levels of costs, and ongoing stress.

But suppose, instead, you were able to assemble a team of friendly supporters (friends, family, and professional consultants) BEFORE things blew up. Suppose you were able to build on the things that weren't broken in the family and head off the crisis.

Wouldn't that be better? It would certainly be less expensive.

Wraparound now has six facilitators (largely funded through grants) and a family support partner serving families across Douglas County. An amazing 81% of the families who start the process (which typically takes about a year) report success. They go from "in immediate danger" to stable.

That isn't all the Youth Initiative has done. But it's impressive. And the last youth survey showed significant improvement in virtually all measures.

You don't often read about a program that works. It's worth celebrating.

My warm best wishes to Carla Turner, and for the continued success of this remarkable program.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

December 29, 2011 - so you want to be an author

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting one Jeannette Albersheim. Mrs. Albersheim is in her 90s, and has many interesting stories to tell.

One of them concerned a journey that began in January 1944. While still in her early 20s, and with a Master's degree in Public Administration already behind her, she left what she called "a well-paying, interesting job in Washington DC" to sign up as volunteer for the Red Cross.

First, she had thought about signing up for a paying position with the Navy -- but it looked like she would just wind up stationed "across the Potomac." She wanted to see the world.

And she did. Working with the Red Cross, she became a just-behind-the-front recreation and hospital worker. She was at the blitz in London, Paris just after D-Day, and then around other major battles in France, including the pivotal Battle of the Bulge.

Ms. Albersheim told me that she had written up some remembrances from that time -- about 40 "chapters" of newspaper column length. What could I recommend for her about publishing them?

I get that question a lot. People suppose librarians know agents who can rocket promising authors to bestsellerdom. Maybe some librarians do. I don't.

There are several routes to publication these days. The traditional route is: "sign a contract with a publisher for 10%" model. That takes work, too - round after round of submissions, either directly, or through that elusive agent.

There is the "vanity press" of old, where you pay the full cost, plus mark-up, for a print run. More recent is the Print-on-Demand option, with services like Lulu.com -- you pay for a copy at a time.

There is "self-publishing" - where you do all the work to format your text, then subcontract the printing.

There is the ebook option, with Amazon, with Barnes and Noble, or a host of new epublishing startups like Smashwords.com or BookBrewer.com. Each of these options has its own costs.

People have a tendency to just imagine the end: a handsome book, beautifully typeset, professionally bound, and graced with a beautiful cover.

But getting there takes work. There is the writing. Then comes the rewriting for clarity and structure. Then comes the copyediting. (Nothing screams "amateur!" like a page littered with spelling and grammatical errors.) Then comes book design, page layout, tables of contents, and all the extras that make for a complete manuscript, such as securing both copyright and an International Standard Book Number.

Then comes, for some books, indexing. Then there's book cover design, followed by (for books formatted for paper, anyhow) printing, binding, and distribution.

No matter the format, the biggest challenge of all (after the writing itself) is marketing. There are many fine books that no one ever reads because not all authors are natural marketers. Not all publishers are good at it either.

The truth is, while producing a book isn't easy, it's not all that hard anymore, either. What's hard is finding someone to read it. (And just in passing, that's one of the key roles of the public library.)

So I asked Mrs. Albersheim why she wanted to publish, and for whom. She'd already sent most of her manuscript to family through letters, she said. But she wanted to offer her experience to the world. She wasn't trying to make money on it. She wanted to preserve her memories without having to put in years of editing, formatting, and marketing.

I suggested another relatively low-hurdle alternative: publish to the World Wide Web. I set up a blog for her (there are lots of free options; I like blogspot.com), and posted a few of her chapters. Then a couple other library staff (Cecily North, and Annette Gray) helped her clean them up, and scan some wonderful photographs from Mrs. Albersheim's files.

Let me say right now that the library can't commit to help every aspiring author walk through all the stages of self-publication. There are too many of you, and too few of us.

On the other hand, I think we do need to get more thoughtful and systematic about helping people figure all this out. I'm just about persuaded that self-publishing is one of the most important trends of our time, and the library needs to be at the heart of it. I'm going to be thinking about this issue over the next year.

Meanwhile, you can read the remarkable story of Jeannette Albersheim's WWII adventures here: redcrossatwar.blogspot.com.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 22, 2011 - a gift suitable for all ages

For the past several years, I've been reprinting what I've come to think of as "my holiday column" -- a tradition. I hope you enjoy it.


What we really need is an all-purpose gift that will satisfy everybody. It should be suitable for all ages. It should require no assembly. It shouldn't need batteries. You shouldn't have to feed it. It should last forever. It should be constantly entertaining. The more the recipient uses it, the more he or she should like it.

And of course, it should be free.

No such animal, right? Wrong. I'm talking about a library card.

I'll never understand it. Most adults these days carry cards of every description; most of them DON'T have library cards. So for the woman or man who has everything, why not offer everything else? -- access to the total accumulated knowledge of the human race, not to mention the most wonderful stories ever told.

Of course, the real winner of a gift like this is not an adult. It's a child.

Here's all you have to do to make your holidays a success. First, come down to the library and fill out a library card application for your child. Then, check out three of four books. Wrap the card and the books and offer them to your children in the fashion that your holiday traditions dictate. Save this very special package for last.

When the child rips it open, say that this unassuming little card will let him or her get presents all year long. Then read your child to sleep that night with one of the books.

After your children have gotten bored with their other toys, read them (or have them read) the other books, then trot them down to the library in that slow week at the end of the year. Teach your children about exchanging one present for another.

At the library, every day is Christmas. Behind every book cover there are riches. After introducing your kids to a treasure trove beyond Aladdin's wildest dreams, why not mosey over to the adult section, and browse through the latest offerings yourself? You know you deserve it.

Many people -- librarians, teachers, Secretaries of Education, even sport celebrities and actors -- have urged every child to obtain and use a library card. It's good advice.

Besides, at prices like these, who can argue? If you are not fully satisfied after a lifetime of learning and pleasure -- I'll cheerfully refund your money.

Trust me, this could be the best season's greeting card you'll ever send.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

December 15, 2011 - tell me a story

When I was first starting out in my career, I had the pleasure of meeting the outstanding State Librarian of Illinois. Her name was Bridget Lamont.

Bridget was poised, articulate, incisive, and compelling.

I remember attending a meeting in Springfield. She entered the room, worked it (chatting with people, shaking hands, telling and gathering stories), then went up to speak. She made strong eye contact with everybody. When one of our more troublesome library directors came into the room late, she greeted him warmly, and invited him to sit right up there close to her, in the front row.

She presented her updates clearly, and somehow managed to get us all to go along with her on some new initiatives.

I was impressed. Later, I asked some colleagues about her background. "Oh, she started as a children's librarian," they told me.

At first, I was surprised. At that stage of my career, I didn't get into the children's room much. But the more I paid attention to the services libraries provide to children, the more I understood the secret to Bridget's success.

In brief, she was so good because she recognized that all of us, in some important ways, are still children. That is, we like to be remembered by name. We like to be smiled at even when we're grouchy. We like to hear stories. We like to do group activities that are fun.

Lately, I've been spending a lot of my professional time talking and thinking about the library's leadership role in the application of and access to various technologies. But after reading "The Polar Express" last night to about a hundred pre-schoolers, I'm reminded that Bridget is still teaching me by example.

You may have a high speed Internet connection at home. You may have all kinds of fancy home theater screens and DVD equipment. But nothing, nothing, beats gathering a bunch of kids in their pjs and reading a really good book together.

About a third of our business in libraries is this very, very important work of live storytelling. If all libraries did were story times, they would still be vital community institutions.

Some of that is the simple task of "reading readiness." We get kids excited about reading, because they can see that's where the stories come from. Through playing with sounds -- singing rhyming songs, for instance -- we grow their "phonological awareness."

Every story adds new words, meanings, and connections. That's about vocabulary.

We remind children that words are everywhere. That's growing their "print awareness."

We grow their own narrative skills by exposing them to thousands of other stories. That helps kids start to link things together, to see how events play out, to see how character is revealed through choices. And finally, we help children recognize specific letters, which in turn paves the road to reading fluency.

All of this is very sound pedagogy, and you can find out more about that on the library's website here: douglascountylibraries.org/storytime.

But the wonderful thing about public libraries is that it's not about school (even if it will make you better at school). It's about fun. It's about exploring the world of stories and ideas. Storytimes help kids become more genuinely curious about the world, to play well with others, and to always have lots of interesting things to think about.

Acting like that helps you grow up to be a pretty decent adult. Or even a state librarian.
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 8, 2011 - knowledge has a price

December 8, 2011 - knowledge has a price

I've been presenting this week to librarians, Friends organizations, and board members in North Carolina. Speaking with me has been one Bill Millett, a consultant who does a lot of work with libraries.

Millett is a former economic development person, and he has some interesting things to say about that. For a long time, he noted, North Carolina was winning the economic development game across the nation. They were landing one big company after another. Why? Because they had cheap labor.

But that's begun to change. Some of those companies are leaving. Now, the competition isn't just national, it's global. There is no way that any place in America can keep providing the cheapest labor in the world.

More to the point, that's not even what companies are looking for anymore. They want skilled labor. He talked about a company in Dallas that moved overseas because they had 5,000 vacant highly technical positions -- and not enough qualified applicants. 

We know that China and India are spending a lot of time and attention on education. Their instruction is now heavily focused not just on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (the so-called STEM disciplines), but also on developing the creativity of young students. Maybe you've seen the numbers: there are more people in the top 25% of their student population than we have students.

Amid the campaign talk about American exceptionalism, it might behoove us to notice that we're not even in the top twenty of international student performance (according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment). In Colorado, a quarter of our students aren't graduating from high school -- half of them, in Denver, our capital. National research suggests that we may be raising the first generation of Americans who will be LESS educated than their parents.

To Millett, this willful erosion of what he calls our "knowledge infrastructure" -- the investment in early literacy, through higher education, to the continuous retooling that will be necessary in a global economy -- is a kind of treason. Our leaders are frittering around with pointless political gotchas when the livelihood of our children and grandchildren, and our standing as a nation, are imperiled.

He tells the story about a company that relocated to Charlotte some years ago, bringing 1,200 jobs with them. He writes, "Charlotte was a finalist along with Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa and Nashville. On the day that he announced that Charlotte had been selected, the company president said that all of the cities had much to offer. What made Charlotte the winner were a few factors that distinguished it from the competition, among them the quality of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library."

Since then, of course, that library has closed branches, laid off staff, and shut down a series of award-winning programs. The problem? Funding.

Millett, a Baby Boomer, said, "People who served in World War II are now known as the Greatest Generation. How will our generation be remembered?"

The Greatest Generation responded to the threat of Sputnik by putting man on the moon. 

We never went back. [Correction: yes, we did. But our last manned moon trip was in 1972, 39 years ago. I meant to write, "But we never returned to build the colonies I dreamt of as a child."] These days, even our upper atmospheric shuttles are all worn out. 

Which country will launch tomorrow's satellites? Where will they learn the skills and the attitudes that build confidently toward a better future?
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1, 2011 - the science of highways

Every now and then, I run across something that so directly contradicts what I thought I knew that it stops me in my tracks.

I believed, like many people, that the Interstate Highways System was based on two memories of its champion, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After retiring as Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during WWII, he contrasted his admiration of the German Autobahn with his trip as a young officer with the 1919 Army Convoy. The 1919 convoy's goal had been to cross the country from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. It took 24 days. Twenty-one men were injured.

I assumed there had been business reasons for the highways, too, involving lobbying by the growing automobile industry.

Of course, Eisenhower wasn't the first to think of the problem, or the solution. Earlier plans had been drawn up. But it wasn't until 1956 that anything happened.

Why then?

Well, there was a socio-political component too: after the Supreme Court in 1954 ordered busing to address segregation, a lot of white people fled to the suburbs. And of course, the GI Bill paid for a lot of new housing.

But then I ran across a new explanation. I've been reading a book called "Fool me twice: fighting the assault on science," by Shawn Lawrence Otto.

In brief, Otto says it was all about the atomic bomb. The original military response plan to a nuclear attack was to tell its citizens to build bomb shelters, and "Duck and Cover." (The 1951 film of that name is available on Youtube. It features a remarkably catchy jingle for so grim a subject.)

But a school desk wasn't much protection against a gamma ray burst.

Eventually the Atomic Energy Commission realized the only way to survive the more powerful hydrogen bomb was not to be there when it went off. Otto writes, "As a civil defense official who served from 1953 to 1957 explained, the focus changed from 'Duck and Cover' to 'run like hell.'"

But evacuating a city, even with plenty of warning, just wasn't possible given the roads of the time. Hence, Congress approved the Interstate Highway System, whose full name is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

Fortunately, evacuating an American city before an impending nuclear attack has not yet been necessary. But the Interstate has been used, many times, to try to evacuate cities just ahead of hurricanes. Even with "counterflow" strategies (using all lines on both sides to go away from the city), the results have been mixed. But surely, it works better than the old congested lanes with a million intersections and stoplights.

The point has been made since that time that good roads are a major contributor to economic growth. Consider the effect of C-470 and E-470 alone on our regional economy.

Highways aren't cheap. In 2006, the cost of construction (for the length at that time of 46,876 miles of road) was estimated at $425 billion. About 70% of the funding comes from federal fuel taxes. The rest is from state and local matching funds.

The thesis of "Fool me twice" is that most of the problems - and potential solutions - we face or discover as a species these days are still rooted not just in politics, but in science. And that's something all of us could pay a little more attention to.
LaRue's Views are his own.