Saturday, May 31, 2014

Extraordinary claims

Way back in the 70s, I happened across the book "Worlds in Collision," by Immanuel Velikovsky. It was a thick, sweeping, highly detailed book in which the author, a noted scholar (psychologist) advanced a theory of celestial catastrophes designed to explain various world myths (like the flood, the plagues of Egypt, and so on). It was absolutely absorbing and fascinating. And virtually everything about it has been rejected by scientists, often savagely. As a work of comparative mythology, it was compelling. As a work of science, not so much. Even Carl Sagan took pains to refute most of its core claims (although he did chide academicians for their unwillingness to at least examine the claims first).

Well, I was taking a couple of long car trips, and checked out the 11-disc audiobook set called "The Lost Empire of Atlantis," by Gavin Menzies. Menzies, a former submarine commander, was decidedly not a member of the Atlantis-as-spacemen crowd. But he came to believe, and laid out a surprisingly wide dataset to support it, that ancient Minoans, from about 2500 BC to 1250 BC, were master navigators, the builders of Stonehenge and other "astronomical computers," and ran a trade network that linked Crete to Egypt, to India, to the Baltics, and (wait for it) to the copper mines of Lake Superior. The whole thing was pretty darn fascinating. A lot of it was about time periods I'd never read about before, and I learned a lot about the Bronze Age economy. I was particularly intrigued to learn about the deforestation of the Middle East and British isles to support industrial bronze-making (they needed the wood to make charcoal). Most scholars agree that the Minoans were indeed a remarkably advanced people, and probably were wiped out by an Atlantis-like catastrophe.

But after doing a little digging, some of the key premises of the story seem to fall apart. For instance, Menzies asserts that the so-called tobacco beetle (found in Egyptian tombs!) is ONLY found in North America. It turns out that's wrong. Much is made of the billions of tons of "missing copper" from Lake Superior, mined during precisely the period of Minoan hegemony, with the conclusion that only an advanced, European style smelting operation could have accounted for the disappearance. But archaeologists counter with three points  and scientists one.
  1. The mining had been going on for thousands of years before the rise of the Minoans.
  2. The calculations that conclude that the ore went "missing" are wildly exaggerated and inaccurate. Archaeologists don't think anything is unaccounted for.
  3. There are no remnants of Minoan garbage. All people leave garbage. It may be the defining characteristic of civilization.
Scientists refute the claims of the remarkable 99.01% purity of sunken Minoan copper, which "could only have come from the Lake Superior mines" with this: once copper is smelted, it's ALL about that pure, no matter where it came from.

There are many interesting commonalities between Velikosky and Menzies. Both were (Velikosky died in 1979) or are (Menzies is still with us) writers who don't come from the academy; they are outsiders. Both are bold and brilliant. On the other hand, both are a little on the unsystematic side, and tend to choose only the data that support the conclusions they've already reached. Like leaving trash, this too is a human trait.

I don't find it all that unlikely that the common wisdom about long ago events is mistaken. In my book, it's a miracle that we ever get anything right. I also find myself sympathetic to the idea that an iconoclastic outsider can shake things up and find the truth. But I should have realized that when a book ("Lost Empire of Atlantis") is admired by Glenn Beck (not someone whose intellectual prowess impresses me), it's worth a harder look.

As they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because it's a good story (and both Velikovsky and Menzies tell one) doesn't mean it's true. Darn it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stevan Strain for County Commissioner

Here's a brief introduction to the top candidate for Douglas County Commissioner. Do NOT forget to vote in the primary!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Open government and libraries

It happens that I serve on an advisory committee for an IMLS grant on Open Government. Crafted by the good people at the University of Albany (NY), the grant is about encouraging public libraries to contribute to the open government trend.

That trend seems to comprise several other things:

- the rise of e-government. More and more governments use new technologies (mostly web-based tools) to make it possible to retrieve information that used to require office hours and staff assistance.

- Transparency. Tyranny and waste thrive in secrecy. If government operates in the light, at least in theory it should be easier to detect misbehavior. (On the other hand, it may be that we can have governmental efficiency, OR government transparency, not both.) On the other hand, transparency might lead to something more positive: citizen contributions, and if not efficiency, at least effectiveness.

- Civic engagement. And here the idea is that real citizenship or democracy depends upon a vigorous discussion between governed and governer. Open government means open to all. 

It seems obvious that public libraries could and should be a part of this broad initiative. Most of us are wired now, and already focus time and resources connecting people to information. Few organizations are as dedicated to transparency as an institution founded on intellectual freedom. Those are easy fits.

But civic engagement is the challenge. While most public libraries in America were founded and justified to further precisely this goal, the last generation of librarianship has mostly focused on individual, one-on-one transactions. I believe that's largely due to the Baby Boomer ethos: it was all about personal values and interests. 

But society is changing. One might argue that we've gone about as far in this me-centered direction as we can, and may be overdue for a swing back to some shared or community-centric ground.

Clearly, libraries have many assets that make them good potential hubs for civic engagement.

- Reputation. Librarians are generally held to be honest brokers, trustworthy information providers that aren't pushing any particular political agenda.

- Collections. We pay to buy books, subscribe to databases, and devote many hours to spending public dollars wisely. 

- Buildings. People come to public space. There's no admittance charge, and few transaction fees. Public programs are a draw.

- Traffic. We routinely rack up more visits than almost any other institution in town, and thereby surely touch more lives in a week, and more positively, than any other public institution. 

- IT infrastructure. The majority of our 15,000+ locations have broadband access, public PCs, and even general technical assistance. Indeed, ever since the public decided that we would assume the role of free Internet cafes, we have been tech support for the nation - a big new job that came without any big new sources of revenue.

But there are some obstacles, too.

- We need a new model, a conceptual framework for stepping into this area. At my recent meeting with grant advisors, it was clear that we still have a ways to go. What is the language we use when talking with our authorizing environment (public boards and voters) about the importance and value of supporting this direction? How will library leaders begin to map out strategies for ramping up to the task? When and how does the support for civic engagement move into job descriptions and duties? 

- Staff skills. Civic engagement isn't just providing public space, collections, or even public programs. We need librarians who understand community development, and have skills in facilitating public dialog. This isn't just about training, by the way, although that will certainly be necessary. It is also about recruiting people with these skills INTO the profession, and designing hiring processes that identify and integrate them into the team. In my experience, libraries are still using hiring practices that simply aren't up to snuff. We need real leadership.

- Other. There are, of course, many other concerns.

But as I heard loud and clear from Nancy Kranich, former ALA President (who was talking and doing something about these issues over 10 years ago): if we want to be successful in making our communities better (and we do, don't we?), we can't just talk about problems. We have to talk about our communities' shared aspirations. And we have to DO SOMETHING to make those aspirations real.

Again a nod to Nancy: the best thinking about the library role might be expressed as a continuum. 

- We inform. We are passive conduits to the resources citizens seek. That's not altogether passive, of course. It still requires scouting out the options, acquiring items of interest, organizing them, and making them easily accessible. 

- We consult. That is, we step from behind the desk, from inside the building, and find those community constituencies who would benefit from the resources we know about, but they may not.

- We lead. I don't mean by this that we tell our community what to do. I mean that we actively assess trends and opportunities, then reach out to people to convene meetings to get ourselves (libraries, but not JUST libraries) organized. We pay attention, we are ourselves engaged, and we are forces to help others get engaged. 

Again, why? To make the places we live better.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Saskatchewan Library Association

Back on May 2, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Saskatchewan Library Association. The location was Moose Jaw, a town of about 40,000. It has a nice vibe: a mix of historic buildings, a lovely old downtown park, and a number of live theaters. 

It wasn't a big conference - I suppose there were about 150 attendees. Most of the public libraries, I gather, are part of municipalities, and get their money from the general fund, and the province. Speaking at the opening event for the conference were the local mayor, and several provincial elected officials. All spoke highly of the importance of libraries. Privately, I've been told that this support is more moral than financial.

In general, it appears that the issues affecting libraries are much the same in North America. There is, nonetheless, a sense that although Canadians have funding woes, too, they don't seem to operate in the highly charged anti-government atmosphere of the states. I think this comes down to the fundamental premise of the United States (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) versus the Canadian motto (peace, order, and good government). Although there is currently a Conservative Prime Minister (Stephen Harper), Canadian Conservatives would pass for moderates here.

I came away again thinking that Canadians do tend to live up the stereotype I have of them: smart, very pleasant, and cooperative. Kind of like librarians generally.

The Moose Jaw Library was an interesting mix of old (a sort of Carnegie-era entry off the park), and new (a later addition that was fairly modern). Inside, it felt much like a good US library: a large, well-appointed children's space, a well-maintained collection, public computers. Upstairs was a meeting room. Attached was a small museum and theater. As is true of many US libraries, though, I didn't see a lot of merchandising: the collection is formal, spine-out. But it did have people in it.

My topic was ebooks, and I would say our northern colleagues are as thoughtful about this potentially disruptive change to our operations as anyone here. I hope to be able to get back to work with library boards and leaders up there again sometime.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Douglas County Unaffiliated voters: declare

For fifteen years in Douglas County, Colorado. I was a Republican. The reason was very simple: Republicans ALWAYS won the general election. The only one that mattered (for people, anyhow, not issues) was the primary. 

When the general election came, I have to say that I don't think I've ever voted a straight ticket. No matter how displeased I might be with one party or the other, I'm not an ideologue. I vote for the most capable candidate, and I've observed that neither party has a lock on competence.

After I left my position as Douglas County Libraries director, in part (but not mostly) because of partisan pressure by a couple of county commissioners trying hard to get me fired, I was pleased to go back to my Unaffiliated status. I am, and always have been (like a lot of Coloradans) an independent. Tell me the issue, I'll tell you my take. But I get to decide that, not a party. In general, I suppose I would consider myself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. I support, and have worked to prove it, a strong private sector. But I also support a strong public sector. I've worked hard there, too. Both sectors are necessary. Both need to be watched.

Well, today I changed my status BACK to Republican. Why? Because I intend to vote for Stevan Strain for County Commissioner.

I'm writing this today to urge you, the Unaffiliated voter, to do the same. Why?

First, Stevan is the best candidate. I've known him for over ten years, first as a Library Board of Trustee member. He was consistently thoughtful, engaged, and worked hard to be informed. He was also a highly successful business man (he ran Parker's Warhorse Inn for many years, which he has now sold). By the time he left the board, he had served as chair of every one of our key committees, of the board itself, and of our Foundation. He is a rare creature - a true statesman. I found him consistently astute, a critical thinker, and a man utterly without vindictiveness or malice. That's rare in politics, far rarer than you might imagine. He also has done equally impressive service for a host of organizations in the county. Here's his web page: http://www.strain4commissioner.com/

Stevan and I don't always agree about the issues. He's often to the right of me, which will no doubt reassure many conservatives. But I trust him to carefully consider the evidence, to listen to his constituents, and then to follow his judgment, whether it does, or does not, fit the partisan box. He has both intelligence and integrity.

Second, still, in Douglas County, whoever wins the primary will be our next County Commissioner. It happens that Stevan is facing Dave Weaver, who has been a fine sheriff, but frankly is nowhere near as qualified to weigh in on the many non-law enforcement issues facing the county, and about which Stevan is better informed than anyone in the county, and, I suspect, anyone in the state.

Here's the issue: declare for the Republican Party, and you get to choose the best candidate. Fail to do so, and you hand it over to the party machinery. In this case, in my judgment, that would not be wise.

To change your affiliation (and you can change it back right after you vote), do this, go to https://www.sos.state.co.us/voter-mobile/pages/MainPage.xhtml?secuRegVoterIntro.do=1

Then choose Find my registration.

Then fill out the form and click on Search.

Then choose "Change my info/Activate."

Then update your party, and submit. Somewhere along the way, you'll be asked for your Colorado Drivers License to confirm your identity, so have it handy.

Then, when the primary comes around, I do most humbly and sincerely ask you to vote for Stevan Strain for County Commissioner. 

Thank you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

More thoughts on consulting

One of the challenges of my new consulting career is finding the succinct summary of just what it is that I do.

Here's my latest attempt: I'm a full time public library thought leader. I've decided that the profession I love (librarianship!) is at a tipping point. With some attention on just the right things, I think we can earn long term mind share and support. The point isn't just to benefit libraries, it's to benefit the communities we serve. Libraries just happen to be an extraordinarily effective way to do that.

So just what, exactly, are the "right things" to focus on?

Right now:

  • planning. After PLA (where I offered some free consulting to the library world, and met some fascinating people), I spent some time thinking about processes to move quickly and precisely to true "strategic" planning -- not just a list of stuff to do, but a narrow focus on the things that matter most.
  • trend tracking. Really, this is just a subset of planning. But so many librarians are caught up in the moment. They just don't have the time to lift up their heads, look around, and glean patterns. I love to have this conversation with them.
  • building design. This is another subset of planning. But it's also one of those moments when libraries can really connect with their communities, and help them decide where they want to go. I'm not an architect. But I do know how to talk to staff, boards, and community groups to lay out what libraries are up to lately, and to help communities figure out what's right for them. (I can also help them negotiate common ground when there are some differences among those groups.) I work with one of my "associates," the gifted Roger Thorp, who is an architect.
  • epublishing. We are already over the crest of a publishing revolution, a transformative and disruptive moment in the development of human creativity. Librarians have a choice: we can be players, or we can be victims.
  • advocacy. One approach is the "branch management audit" (for which I've teamed up with David Starck, one of my former board members and a graphic designer, to perform). I'm also interested in the more general staging of a long term effort to shift the public perception of a library. For too long, libraries have allowed others to define us. It's time that we identify the true civic leaders in our community, and arm them with the talking points and language to make the case for us.
  • organizational development. Here, one of my associates is Sharon Morris. We talk about (among other things), "talent management," succession planning, and leadership development. 
  • other. There are organizations and individuals who have big ideas, and just need a little assistance teasing them out into the world. I already have two clients who blow me away with their energy, insight, and ambition. It's a privilege to be part of their projects.
These might all look like very different things. But I don't see it that way. They are the same thing: a focus on the factors that do and will define our future, both as a profession, and as a society.

At any rate, these are my thoughts after a long walk through a beautiful Colorado day.

Monday, March 17, 2014

More migrations

I've long had an account with Earthlink, which hosts my website and email. But Earthlink only does POP mail, which means that it doesn't stay on the server. Given all the devices I use these days, that made it hard to search for older email.

When I left Douglas County, I moved all my work email (DCL and Earthlink) over to gmail. That worked well enough, and I could set up my gmail account to fetch from Earthlink. But there were a couple of problems: first, it took awhile for new email to go from Earthlink to gmail. Second, even though I had gmail set up to send as if it were coming from jlarue.com, in a long thread, it would give the gmail account info and say "on behalf of James LaRue." That's bound to lead to confusion.

So I converted to Google Apps, and today moved over my email information. Now I'm sitting here with fingers crossed as the old account email is migrated to the new. Then I'll tackle Calendar, Contacts, Goggle +, Google Drive, and .... other stuff I haven't thought of yet.

So I may be a little hard to track down while I try to straighten all this out.

Oh, and another thing. For reasons mysterious to me, suddenly you can't get to my website at all using www.jlarue.com. jlarue.com by itself works fine, and I think I've set up a subdomain (of www) that I think might work. But it wasn't instantaneous, so who knows?

Meanwhile, though, I'll say that the quality of Google support is far superior to Earthlink's. Ultimately, I may have to move my website, too.

Anyhow, I hope to get it all straightened out soon. Sorry for the confusion.