Western History & Genealogy Blog

DPL’s Pioneering Librarian John Cotton Dana: The Man Who Opened-Up America’s Book Stacks

"John Cotton Dana." The Denver Public Library: 100th Anniversary Celebration. Denver, 1989. Page 4.
"Book Thieves Raid Library." Denver Times. 14 October 1902. Page 4.
Denver Public Library's John Cotton Dana Open Shelf Room. [1945?]

Today you can go into nearly any public library and freely browse the book stacks. At Denver Public Library, you can even have items from other branches and library systems shipped directly to your branch. But until comparatively recently in the history of libraries, libraries had closed stacks. A patron had to request a book from librarians at a desk, and they brought it out to you from a closed area (as a special collections department housing rare books, much of Western History and Genealogy operates in a similar way). But in its early days, DPL’s stacks were open to the public thanks to John Cotton Dana. During his tenure as City Librarian, from 1889 to 1897, Dana became one of the first librarians in the United States to advocate and institute open book stacks, and thus helped to revolutionize public libraries in the United States. He believed “The worth of a book is in its use,” and that “Wisdom in half-morocco locked on a shelf is trash.” His open stacks were immensely popular with Denver’s public, and when Dana left DPL upon its merger with the City Library in 1899, the library maintained its policy of open stacks. In 1902, however, the library closed its stacks and they remained closed for several years. Apparently, some residents of Denver interpreted the term “free public library” a little too liberally, and stole over 3,000 books in three years from what was then a much smaller collection. Complicating the situation was DPL’s location at the time; a makeshift library in La Veta Place, a prominent building on Colfax between Acoma and Bannock (built by David Moffat and once owned by Horace Tabor). The building had not aged gracefully, there were bats and bugs, and the books were kept in cages. When the new Carnegie-funded library opened as a cornerstone of the new Civic Center Park (now named the McNichols Building), open stacks came back to stay thanks to strong public demand. Appropriately, the open stacks area in the library was named after John Cotton Dana. Dana went onto Newark Public Library, where he further helped transform libraries by making them centers of community, and not just a home for books. WHG has several biographies on John Cotton Dana (search our catalog). We also have the John Cotton Dana Papers. So come browse the open stacks in WHG or at any DPL branch, and give thanks to John Cotton Dana.

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John Dana history

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