A real page-turner
LaRue leaving after transforming Douglas County Libraries
He was age 6, and bored out of his mind one day, while in the middle of playing a baseball game — even then, not a team-sports fan — when he spotted something.
And he started walking.
He walked right out of the baseball game, no one stopping him, and he kept walking.
“I saw this blue shimmer, and it kept getting closer and closer,” recalled Jamie LaRue, now 59, and the long-time Douglas County Libraries executive director.
What LaRue saw was a bookmobile in his hometown of Waukegan, Ill., the first one he’d ever been in. Inside, a smiling librarian. And all of those books.
At age 10, that same librarian, Mrs. Johnson, handed him “The Dialogs of Plato,” which he said changed his life. He said he still remembers the sentence he opened it to: “Socrates asked `what is wise?’”
“I’ve been thinking about it ever since,” he said.
Eventually he was reading a book a day.
At one point LaRue decided to become a theoretical astrophysicist until he tried to get through a trigonometry class and realized he was the “dumbest kid in the room.”
It then occurred to him librarians were the people who had helped him all of his life.
“The library for me was a sanctuary and intellectual playhouse,” he said.
He doesn’t watch TV. He writes poetry, loves walks, reads while he walks and plays music. A popular song with audiences — when he performed with his guitar and banjo and a friend, an acoustic duo who called themselves the “Tuna Boys” — was “Blow up your TV,” by John Prine.
LaRue said he has about 300 books near his bedside that he re-reads every year, and thousands of books about everywhere else in his Castle Rock house.
“Good insulation,” he smiled.
And great for other things.
LaRue said results of a 20-year international study following children in 27 countries show unequivocally that having 500 books in the house between the ages of 0-5 is like having two parents with master’s degrees.
Predictors of such things as whether a child will grow up to happy, healthy, educated, financially secure and out of jail can all be traced back to fourth-grade reading levels.
And reading levels can be traced back to the child’s readiness to read by age 5. And the child’s level of readiness to read by age 5 — can be traced back to the number of books in the house.
And an easy free way to get books in the home: the library, he says.
“What the library is about… We transform lives… unlock doors. We know that this happens,” he said.
LaRue’s reaction and action: As of Jan.1, there are no fines assessed for children’s picture books returned late — making it easier for parents to bring more books home if they don’t have to worry about fines.
It’s one of his last ideas. His last day is Jan. 17. LaRue, who took the Douglas County job in 1990, is pursuing his growing speaking/consulting career — talking to libraries and organizations worldwide.
‘A shot in the arm’
LaRue said when he arrived in 1990 the Douglas library system had 14 full-time employees, three libraries, four-day weeks, no children’s services and was considered Colorado’s worst library system.
Its budget would often vary as the county would sometimes redirect money from the library’s mill levy revenues for other uses. In addition, he remembers pointing out to the commissioners that of the $688,000 budget, $85,000 was funding 13 obsolete computer terminals.
In 2014, Douglas County Libraries has 325 employees, 1,500 volunteers and seven locations — with three more planned. But the reasons it’s admired and ranked the country’s best library system in its circulation class since 2006 has to do with such things as high-tech innovations and frugality. LaRue said DCL has absolutely no debt, and during the recession was still able to put aside $2 million a year saving for new buildings — and pays cash as it grows.
After the Castle Rock library moved to the former Safeway building, Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce in 2003 named LaRue “business person of the year.”
LaRue said he was “really touched” by that. The public sector is sometimes denigrated, and here was an honor given to a public institution, that with 2,000 visitors daily, was responsible for giving that end of downtown an economic “shot in the arm.”
To get from worst to best, LaRue in 1990 had to do some major convincing — talking to voters about the need to create an independent library district with a larger, 2.5, mill levy.
Business leaders told him no way voters would OK more tax. But it occurred to LaRue that 90 percent of library card holders were women.
Cindy Murphy, an activist in Highlands Ranch, organized speaking opportunities at women’s clubs.
“Anytime three women got together, I was there,” he said.
His wife, Suzanne LaRue, also a librarian, remembers those times: “While he was on the campaign trail from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, using our only car to travel around the county, I and our then 2-year-old daughter were, like Rapunzel, isolated in a rented townhouse atop a ridge in Perry park. But we had fun exploring the beautiful area…”
The voting results: 66 percent approved LaRue’s idea. Things started changing.
The following year, DCL opened up a Highlands Ranch branch; libraries expanded to seven-day service; children’s services were added and they began to build the collection.
Before Douglas County, one of LaRue’s previous positions was as circulation department head in Springfield, Ill. The library was moving into the computer age, converting the card catalogue. He read manuals during night shifts, as computers backed up data. Eventually he realized he was dreaming at night about the process.
“After months of reading computer manuals every night…my unconscious (mind) adopted the metaphor of `reformatting’ the first stage to the backup,” he said.
The result: “I `got’ the logic of the computer system.”
At DCL, LaRue with his developed expertise started incorporating technology.
In 1991, patrons could now put holds on books through home computers. In 1996, it became one of the first public libraries to connect to the Internet, and first in Colorado to have its own website.
Then there was LaRue’s idea about e-book acquisition, now known to libraries world-wide as the DCL Model. In 2010, it would be the first library in the world to use it.
“I didn’t know if it would succeed,” LaRue said.
But he said he decided to try, “betting on the future of the organization.”
The problem to solve: Many library users wanted e-books but it was becoming hard to provide them.
Instead of being able to buy them directly from the publishers for a discounted price — which is how libraries typically get books — for e-books there were middlemen between the libraries and publishers, distributors with e-book publishing platforms.
Even if a library bought a steeply priced e-book this way, there would be limits on how many times it could be checked out before DCL would have to buy it again.
“The market was starving us out…We were being locked out of an emerging market.”
LaRue decided DCL could sidestep middlemen by buying their own e-book publishing platform — a $100,000 expense — and negotiate directly with the publisher, and then have permanent possession of the book.
It has worked so well that other library systems are following DCL’s lead.
In addition, The Wire, an online resource created by LaRue and staff, gives step-by-step guidance through the writing, publishing and marketing process. And buying the book.
“We help people find you… in our catalog, every title now has a `click to buy’ button,” he said.
Always a librarian
Paul R. Miller, owner of Royal Crest Dairy and former president of the Douglas Libraries Board of Trustees, is proud of his role in hiring LaRue back in 1990.
“He’s one of the most talented persons I’ve ever worked with — in the private or public sector. I’ve always been impressed with what he’s achieved with the library and the district,” said Miller, who was the president of the Douglas County Libraries board of trustees when LaRue was hired.
LaRue is also a defender of some materials some may not want in the library and has written a book about those issues. See his column that includes his letter to the mom of a 7-year-old about why the book “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” is in the library: http://jaslarue.blogspot.com/2008/07/uncle-bobbys-wedding.html.
The LaRues’ two kids are grown — Maddy LaRue, 26, teaches English in Berlin, Germany and Max LaRue, 19, studies digital design at UCD.
A recent honor given LaRue was the Lifetime Achievement Award by Colorado Association of Libraries. In the community, he has served on Rotary, community theater and charter school boards.
But a few weeks ago, he spent time doing maybe his most important work: being a librarian again, reading to kids at one of the district’s story times.
The book was award-winning “Polar Express,” by author Chris Van Allsburg.
Its message: “If you imagine it, you can make it happen,” LaRue said.