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Showing posts from 2016

The fundamental dignity of human inquiry

Years ago, I came up with this phrase to describe why libraries matter: they are institutions dedicated to the recognition and support of the fundamental dignity of human inquiry.

Curiosity is responsible for all the real gains in the quality of human life. What causes disease, and how can we prevent it? How can we build comprehensive and sustainable systems to deliver clean water and energy, to move goods and services to markets, or to educate the young? Human beings ask questions, and in the fearless pursuit of answers, they can find their way to the things that make human life enduring and worthwhile.

That end - a life in which people are free to explore the universe around them, to stand unafraid, to build rather than blunder and destroy their way through their days, to live with dignity and purpose - requires at least three things.

First, we must have the freedom to express what we know or think we know. This is what we mean by “free speech” -- the right to think, say, and write …

Hate speech

My daughter lives in Berlin, with her German national husband. Germany has something called Volksverhetzung, which translates to “incitement of hatred.” Here, we would call it hate speech. In Germany, it’s illegal.

According to Wikipedia, “the law requires that said speech be ‘qualified for disturbing public peace’ either by inciting ‘hatred against parts of the populace’ or calling for ‘acts of violence or despotism against them,’ or by attacking ‘the human dignity of others by reviling, maliciously making contemptible or slandering parts of the populace.’”

Many Germans are wary of hate speech. Hate speech preceded Nazism. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the more frequently people hear attacks on some group, the more likely eventual violence against them might be.

Such laws are not unique to Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, similar laws were adopted in many nations in Europe, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, Africa, India, Asia, and Australia.

In the United States, th…

Huck Finn and the intelligence of minors

When my daughter was 14 years old, she wrote a paper for school about an old controversy: complaints about the novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It was so good, I persuaded her to submit it to the Colorado Libraries magazine -- and they accepted it. It came out in Fall, 2002, v28 no3.
Huck Finn is in the news again, most recently in Accomac VA, where, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, a parent is seeking to have the books entirely removed from a school. The incident reminded me of my daughter's essay - and I reprint it below because I think she nailed the issues. Maddy's essay, to me, is proof that of course minors should be allowed to read anything they can understand - and they understand plenty. They are certainly up to the challenge of reading American classics.
================= River Banksby Madeleine LaRue

If you squint your eyes, and look real close, you might see that shape out there on the river. See it? It's just on the horizon, and from here it …

Max's first storyboard: a Halloween Story

My son is now wrapping up his undergraduate degree in digital design. These days, his work is very sophisticated. But even when he was still in elementary school, he had that eye for telling image.

For instance, here's a little storyboard he did on index cards, in pencil. It's a funny narrative. But what amazes me is that he was able to capture real emotion and intent in just a few lines. He clearly delineated panic, dismay, determination, bravery, utter deflation (when his hair goes from up to down), fear, and more. I wish I could tell you what year it was. I want to say that he was in fourth grade. I love it, and particularly that he described noticing something by saying that he "heard it with my o[w]n eyes." He was visually oriented even for sound.

Oh, and what was the problem, really? A little colony of mice got into the kitchen. It took us several months to catch them all.


One of the graphics I've used through the years is called the "pyramid diagram." I've also called it "chasing the library patron." It presents an image that shows how to build the market share of libraries, expressed as a percentage of households with an active library card. Here's the image (and clicking on it makes it bigger):

(This uses the now defunct Douglas County Libraries logo, which I quite liked.)

The basic idea is the base of the pyramid is what most public libraries in America do: open their doors, and offer a collection, reference services, a children's program, public classes and workshops, computers, and meeting space. In exchange, about 30-50% of the service area households will find them, often without any further efforts. (And usually because of early childhood experience with the library.)

The next level is Public Relations, in which libraries get their branding act together, send out graphically consistent messages to their commu…

Huck Finn, again

I spoke Friday at the Oak Park Public Library. They were having a staff development day (from about 8 a.m.-2 p.m.). My topic was Intellectual Freedom.

Among other things, I talked about the history of the Library Bill of Rights. It was created in 1938 by Forrest Spaulding, then director of the Des Moines Public Library. I've written elsewhere about some of the parallels of that time to today.

When I finished my talk, I got a couple of interview requests from the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. The issue was Accomac, Virginia, where a parent called for the removal from school curriculum and library both the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? Because of the presence of what would now be considered racial slurs.

On the one hand, I was sitting in the one time home town of Ernest Hemingway, who said, "“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was …

Broken links

So I've merged my blog and my website. Many of these older entries (which I'm combing through) refer to things on the web that yield nothing.

Newer bloggers know this: put the content in the post, not as a reference. So I apologize to folks who look for scintillating content that just ain't there no more. As of today, I am smarter. (You take your wins as you can.)

Kenosha WI and back

Today I talked with the staff of the Kenosha (WI) Public Library about intellectual freedom issues. (Thank you, director Barb Brattin, for the opportunity!)

There is a sense - not just in Kenosha - that things (our society, our norms of political contest) are changing. There are some things we thought we knew that are suddenly not so certain.

So, the role of the library is .... ?

I said that we should do what we have always done, what is still most urgently required: gather, organize, and present to the public the intellectual content of our culture. That content comes from several sources. Mainstream publishing has been the key pipeline for at least a generation of library users.

But I also pointed out that there are now far more numerous and potentially more powerful wellsprings of content production. Small, independent, and self-publishing now completely overwhelms the 350,000 annual titles of our Big Five publishers and three or four distributors. Today, there are over 1 million n…

New website, again

I've been an Earthlink customer - for home internet, for home networking, for web hosting - since 2002. But for the past few months, I've been unhappy with that relationship.

The big problem was that my DSL connection just started pooping out. I called it in, spent lots of time troubleshooting it, and even replaced the modem. I could never get EarthLink to even admit that there was a problem. Nonetheless, the internet connection became unusable.
As far as web hosting is concerned, things have gotten cheaper. $10 a month wasn't bad, but some folks charge half that or less.
I bought a domain name,, a long time ago, through another company. Then, a few years back, I moved to Google for email, which required some odd gyrations with EarthLink mail server settings.
Then I got to thinking: my website had been whittled down to a few links and just a little text. Why not just move that content over to my blog, and make my blog the website?
Advantages: the preservation o…

Speaker information

I've created this post for folks who bring me in as a speaker. Typically, they want three things: a brief biography/blurb, a photo, and a description of the session I'm giving.

Here's the blurb:

LaRue is director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of "The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges," LaRue was a public library director for many years (including a 24 year tenure as director of the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado), as well as a weekly newspaper columnist and cable TV host. He has written, spoken, and consulted on leadership and organizational development, community engagement, and the future of libraries.


The session description, of course, varies!

Contact information:
ALA correspondence goes to jlarue [at] ala [dot] org. Phone: 3 1 2 . 2 8 0 . 4 2 2 2
Please direct all other communications to jlarue [at] jlarue [dot] com. Phone: 7 2 0 . 5 3 0 . 4 2 9 …

Conferences as a business

I was speaking with my boss, Mary Ghikas, about the recent ALA conference in Orlando. She said some things I hadn't heard of or thought about before.

Many people, particularly their first time through an ALA conference, get totally overwhelmed, particularly if they find themselves traveling to a mix of programs and committee meetings. In that case, they find themselves dashing around a city in cabs or buses. They wonder, "Why can't we put everything in one place?"

The answer is pretty simple: we have way more concurrent meetings than most associations. While ALA works hard to get all the programs in the conference center (where there is a speaker, not just a discussion group or committee meeting), ALA typically has between 350-370 meetings going on at the same time. Nobody has a conference center that big, so we have to team up with hotels to get the necessary rooms. That adds costs, too, because hotels love to tack on charges for wifi, projectors, cords and cables, …

Moving, again

Some of you know that I moved from Colorado to Chicago this year. It was January. Then, I discovered that I had moved not just next door to, but just above the main floor of a very popular, and very loud, dance club.

To be fair, most days of the week (Sunday-Wednesday) the apartment is very quiet. But it's also dark, pointing east toward a tiny box of brick between two skyscrapers into which little light falls.

But my landlords gave me a six month (as opposed to a full year) lease, and let me out a little early to move up from the first to the 16th floor. The new apartment has a pretty spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The new apartment is more expensive, of course, but I do like the Near North neighborhood. From my address, it's an 11 minute walk to work, and two blocks away from almost anything else.

So I've spent my day, in a leisurely way (I strolled to a terrific breakfast place in the morning, I walked along the shore this afternoon), preparing 12 boxes, 6 pieces of…

Reflections of a Conscientious Objector

[What follows is the work of my friend and colleague Rick Ashton. It's a powerful story about a subject that isn't well known or talked about these days. But it's worth telling. I am very proud to "publish" it here.]
I have told the story of the Vietnam War era and my part in it to many people who have heard it with blank expressions.  My children, my younger colleagues and acquaintances, and even my contemporaries have received my story as an object of antiquarian curiosity.  This has led to a certain reticence on my part.  I have become reluctant to experience the incomprehension and wonderment of my listeners.
Nevertheless, I hope the present telling will have a different reception.  While many of the particulars will be unfamiliar, I think most readers of this report will at least recognize the general outline.  I have included what may be an unw…

Breaking in the new kid

Starting a new job is humbling. I used to be the founder of a well-respected library district where I knew (almost) everybody and everything. Now I'm the new guy in an association where I sometimes forget which floor my boss is on.

The late Missy Shock, a very insightful training coordinator I hired for Douglas County Libraries many years ago, told it like this: we go from unconsciously incompetent (we don't know that we don't know), to consciously incompetent (OMG, I know NOTHING), to consciously competent (OK, I need to do this, then that), to unconsciously competent (you're done with the task before you realize you started).

My own phases as the new director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) have gone more like this:
exhilaration. What fun to learn! New city, new building, new people, new issues. It was thrilling. This lasted about four weeks.humiliation. "I know I've asked this before, possibly twice, but how do I..." "In the 293 emails…

SmartDown II

I encountered the first version of SmartDown, written in C+, version 1.0) in November of 2014. It was a minimal, "Zen" writing application. That is, the screen was very stripped down: the top had a sandwich menu, window controls and nothing else; the middle was a pleasant faint grey background and a darker text; and there was a line at the bottom of the screen with a character and line count, and a toggle between editing and preview. Hover your mouse over the character count, and get a word and sentence count.

Markdown editors are all pretty much the same: simple text with a handful of markdown symbols to control formatting. What distinguished SmartDown was that it also offered "folding" - the ability to "collapse" or conceal text under a "#" heading.

In short, it was a clean, fast, quickly learned writing application that allowed for the creation and manipulation of complex documents. At the end, the text could be exported or copied as html or …