The celebrated collection of Western Americana officially opened to the public in 1935, though it built upon a pre-existing collection of books by Colorado authors and Colorado history pamphlets. Today the western subject specialty reflects all phases of development of the trans-Mississippi West. The collection continues to grow.
The Western History Collection began under the leadership of City Librarian Malcolm G. Wyer. Of the collection, he has been known to say "[It] is one of my great satisfactions." He and an academic adviser built the collection upon a sound base of books by Colorado authors and pamphlets on Colorado history. His efforts to collect in local and western history were validated by none other than renowned American author Willa Cather:
"Not long after we began actively building up the Western collection, Willa Cather spent two or three weeks working in our library in connection with research on the early history of Colorado and New Mexico in preparation for her book, Death Comes for the Archbishop. She talked with us about her work and expressed regret that several important books on this region which she had seen referred to were not in our library nor had she been able to locate them in other libraries in the two states. She discussed the importance of library facilities for literary and historical study, especially in a city like Denver which has the only large public library for the entire region and in which writers might expect to find the source materials giving background history and early development of the surrounding region. From the point of view of an author she considered it the obligation of a library such as ours to furnish the essential regional materials for scholarship and research. This visit confirmed the soundness of the objectives we fixed in establishing this new field of development." From Malcolm G. Wyer's Western History Collection, its Beginning and Growth.
By 1935 the collection had reached such size as to warrant its organization as a separate Department. Efforts had succeeded in finding Colorado and western newspapers, magazines, programs, yearbooks, maps, emigrant guides, broadsides, leaflets, local organization information, business records, mining and cattle company records, municipal reports, photographs and western art.
The emphasis on regional collecting attracted the interest and assistance of many individuals. One donor offered a sizable number of photographs and lantern slides, which are now priceless. Another donor initiated conversations with photographer David F. Barry about his valuable images of Sioux Indians, Indian life and encampments, U.S. Army officers, and Buffalo Bill; eventually the Department received 1,900 Barry negatives.
One early friend of the Department offered a superior collection of books illustrated by Remington, including autographed copies. Many notable works of William H. Jackson, L. C. McClure, Alfred E. Mathews, David F. Barry, George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Horace C. Poley, Benjamin S. Hopkins, George Elbert Burr, Harry Rhoads, and Edward S. Curtis - to name a few - came to grace the Western History Collection over the years.
Many Colorado authors have used the collection in research for their books. A short list includes John Rolfe Burroughs, Ruth Underhill, Martin Castle, Luke Short, Marshall Sprague, William McLeod Raine, Muriel Sibell Wolle, and Louisa Ward Arps. Authors beyond Colorado include Lucius Beebe, Donald J. Berthrong, Dr. Robert Taft, Ramon Adams, Mari Sandoz, David Lavender, Irving Stone, James Michener, and Michael Streight.
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Updated: June 14, 2010