Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Cheese Wiz

Shhh! No complaining in the library!

Or about the library.

Last November, the Denver Public Library proudly announced it had been named the top library in the nation. Its new building had already snagged national awards, it had recently fended off the evil Dr. Laura ("The Doctor Is Out," September 21, 2000), and now Hennen's American Public Library Ratings Index had given the DPL its seal of approval. "Receiving the number-one rating is an honor, not only for the library, but for the city and our taxpayers who contribute the excellent support so that the library can provide the services our customers want and need," said city librarian Rick Ashton.

The DPL quickly ordered a "We're Number One!" stamp for its mail, bragging-rights banners for its main entrance, and a holiday card that reminded recipients it was "America's #1 Library."

But for some longtime DPL employees, it has not been a very happy new year.

No sooner had the library accepted the accolade than Ashton started making changes, big ones -- fixing what, by all accounts, wasn't broken in the first place. One of his first moves: suggesting, firmly, that all 500 DPL employees read Who Moved My Cheese?

From a system filled with hundreds of thousands of elegantly written volumes containing the wisdom of the ages, Ashton plucked a slim, simplistic book about as deep as a business card for his educated, erudite workforce to read. "The irony wasn't lost on anyone here," says one unhappy employee. Another number one -- on Businessweek's bestseller list for the 33rd month in a row -- Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese? details how two mice named Scratch and Sniff (no, sorry, that's Sniff and Scurry) and two littlepeople named Hem and Haw learn how to deal with change as they run through a maze. Learn that change is good. Learn that if you complain about change, it's because you're just too dim to understand that change is good.

And then you won't be getting any Cheese.

"Our activity is moving in a very interesting set of changing directions," says Ashton, the Big Cheese himself. He pegs the start of that activity to this time last year, when he bought lots of copies of Who Moved My Cheese? for the library already named number one in the country for cities over 500,000. ("Within the library world, they are famous," Thomas Hennen, who runs the ratings index, says admiringly of the DPL.)

Library employees got the message pretty quickly. Like Hem and Haw, they were about to find that their primary Cheese source (centralized services, for example) had dried up and that new Cheese was being distributed in different places. "The arrogance of success," as Johnson calls it, had made them complacent. "Why should we change?" Hem asks on page 38 of the 94-page epic. "We're littlepeople. We're special. This sort of thing should not happen to us. Or if it does, we should at least get some benefits."

"A lot of people are ready to do things that are different," explains Ashton. "Some are struggling a bit."

"We're breaking everything down that works just to rebuild it," says one of those strugglers. But he and other employees admit they're too scared to squeak up publicly. As Haw, the swifter of the two littlepeople, reports on page 46: "If you do not change, you can become extinct."

In a July 1 DPL newsletter, Ashton addressed concerns that he'd abolished the Central Library Director position and elevated the Branch Libraries Director to a new slot, Director of Library Services: "Try as we might, the previous structure produced a certain level of divisional focus and loyalty, sometimes impeding the effective organization and delivery of service," he said, number-one status and thousands of satisfied customers to the contrary. And for a staffer upset that two departments had been merged, he had this response: "Uncertainty is a fact of work life for many Library staff members. Every day, reference librarians take up their posts, never knowing what questions their customers will ask.... I believe that people who can succeed as reference librarians can handle just about any challenge." For further inspiration, he referred readers to "Change Happens (They keep moving the Cheese)" and "Anticipate Change (Get ready for the Cheese to move)."

Even if that reference desk is nationally renowned for helping customers find the right Cheese, apparently the time is always ripe for pro-active sniffing. By page 52, Haw recognizes the need to "Smell the Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old."

According to Ashton, the library is moving in several areas "giving staff and, ultimately, the community, some pretty major reorientations." Among those areas: 24/7 online reference services; a stronger emphasis on youth, particularly teens; "intensifying the destination experience -- especially at some branch libraries" (would you like Cheese with your coffee-cart latte?); and hosting town-hall meetings where the public will be invited to give input about the library, arguably the city's best-loved institution. "They will, anyway," Ashton points out.

In fact, he's already had to move some Cheese. Initially, Ashton called his post-award push "The Next Big Thing." But after testing that slogan over the past few weeks, he's instead decided to go with "Your Library in a Changing World."

"To be useful," Ashton says, "we need to change."

Or, as Haw muses at the end of the maze: "He knew he had learned something useful about moving on from his mice friends, Sniff and Scurry. They kept life simple. They didn't overanalyze or overcomplicate things. When the situation changed and the Cheese had been moved, they changed and moved with the Cheese. He would remember that.

"Haw had also used his wonderful brain to do what littlepeople do better than mice. He envisioned himself -- in realistic detail -- finding something better -- much better.... He didn't like it at the time, but he knew that the change had turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it led him to find better Cheese. He had even found a better part of himself."

Too bad Cheese sometimes stinks.

Local Zeroes

A great city has a great past -- even if it has to borrow one.

Or buy one, as evidenced by Denver's recent attempt to buy a bus containing the alleged seat that Rosa Parks refused to give up to a white man back in 1955.

Mayor Wellington Webb hoped to acquire the bus for the city's $17 million African American Research Library, optimistically scheduled to open in 2003. The library's collection, currently stashed at the Denver Public Library's Central branch, already includes papers from Webb's tenure as auditor; more papers from former school-board president Omar Blair and former city councilmen Elvin Caldwell and Hiawatha Davis; and documents from the Denver-based American Woodman Insurance Company, the first black insurance agency. With over $200,000 in promised donations for the bus ($50,000 of that from the Denver Public Library foundation) and city librarian Rick Ashton clicking the mouse, Denver upped its online ante to $400,000.

And still lost to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

While there's some debate as to the bus's provenance, there's no dispute that Rosa Park's refusal to surrender her seat -- and her subsequent arrest -- kicked the civil rights movement into high gear. And while Montgomery, Alabama, is a long way from Denver, this town sees no problem with importing heroes rather than celebrating its own.

A few days earlier, the city had removed "King and Companion," a perfectly good statue of Martin Luther King Jr., from its longtime home in City Park, in preparation for replacing the sculpture with...another Martin Luther King Jr. monument, this one a million-dollar project led by local artist Ed Dwight. The re-sculpting of history will place a new, improved King on a three-layer pedestal supported by bronze representations of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi and, yes, Rosa Parks.

And just last week, Webb announced that the city will erect a plaque -- date and place still unknown -- honoring the crew (including a pilot who lived in Ken Caryl Ranch) and passengers of United Flight 93, who took on the terrorists on September 11. Their actions, although still officially unconfirmed (the government has yet to reveal the contents of the plane's black boxes), are undeniably heroic. They just took place a few thousand miles from Denver.

While Webb is wrapping Denver in borrowed glory, he might as well buy this city a real baseball team. Phoenix's Diamondbacks took just four years to win a World Series; the eight-year-old Rockies may take that long to climb from the basement to the ground floor.

But surely Denver has more local heroes worth remembering, too. For example, the national Library Administration and Management Association thought enough of John Cotton Dana, Denver's first city librarian (he served from 1889 to 1897) to name a national award after him. The DPL even won the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award this past summer, for its Dr. Laura strategy.

Still, this town doesn't remember Dana with so much as a plaque. Or a crumb of cheese.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun