Denver: Birthplace of the Modern Library
Walk into any public library in the country and you'll find open book stacks that are perfect for browsing; popular materials that are appealing to a wide range of users; and dedicated children's book areas.
What most people probably don't realize is that these now-familiar concepts were pioneered by Denver's first City Librarian, John Cotton Dana.
Dana, who is widely credited as the Father of the Modern Library, used DPL as a laboratory to test out his idea that public libraries should offer materials that appealed to the general population rather than a small, educated elite.
This concept, which seems so benign today, was off-the-charts radical when Dana accepted the position of Librarian and Head of the Board of Education in 1899.
Back then, most libraries were more like museums. With their locked shelves full of treasures that never left the building, they appealed only to a very narrow segment of the population. Cotton threw these ideas out the window and opened Denver's library to the actual people of the city of Denver (and that included the children of Denver, too).
In fact, Denver Public Library was the first library in the world to open a dedicated room for its collection of children's books. This ground-breaking step forward was widely criticized by elitists who thought children could not be trusted with the 3,000 books in DPL's new Children's Room. But Dana, and the good children of the Mile High City, proved the naysayers wrong.
After 18 months of operation, Dana's experiment was deemed a success. In a report quoted in Chalmers Hadley's 1943 book, John Cotton Dana: A Sketch, Dana said:
After the room had been open about eighteen months and approximately 90,000 volumes had been lent, a careful count showed that only 100 volumes were missing. It seems to demonstrate that the plan of giving them their own quarters, with their own books, and allowing them to browse there at will, without supervision, can be trusted with public property.
While Dana would no doubt be quite pleased to see how his idea for children's libraries took off, he certainly would not approve of that mainstay of children's librarianship, story time. Dana was adamant in his belief that children should use the library on their own and saw story time as an obstacle to that goal.
But don't let Dana's forward-thinking views lull you into thinking he was some sort of touchy-feely proto-hippie. Dana was very much a 19th Century man who held his staff to the same high professional and personal standards he set for himself.
Hadley recalls the following anecdote in which Mr. Dana chides a librarian who shows up to work with a bit of stubble:
'No time to shave this morning?'
'I hope to grow a beautiful beard,' the assistant replied, to which Mr. Dana remarked:
'You cannot raise a beard on library time,' and the incipient beard disappeared that noon.
Dana's ideas about what made good libraries had a lot more staying power than his ideas about what made for good librarians. (That's clearly evidenced by the number of modern male DPL librarians who are currently raising beards on library time.)
Indeed, his legacy lives on in the form of large amounts of popular materials such as DVDs, CDs, and graphic novels that line the open stacks at DPL's 26 branch libraries today. Though some modern critics turn their noses at mainstream content, Dana wouldn't mind it at all.
He preferred books that people actually read over the rare books most libraries of his day housed. In fact, he was often quoted saying:
The worth of a book is in its use...the lending department of a library reaches its highest degree of usefulness when its shelves are empty and all its books are in the hands of readers.
Denver has every reason to be proud of its connection to J.C. Dana and the birth of public libraries that endeavor to serve their communities' wants and needs, rather than dictating them.
I have recently found a new love for the Public Library - and this just helps seal the deal :)
Thanks Stepho! So glad you're loving the library!
This is awesome, thanks!
The Denver Library system is without equal!
Thanks for the kind words Lauren. We've got a lot of great people working here who do their best to give Denver a really special library system.
We should ask our City Librarian candidates their feelings on "raising beards" during the upcoming public forums!
I am so thankful to have access to this high quality library!
I love the Denver Public Library, I read the article, which makes me love the library even more, Dana was such a good librarian, if it wasn't for him, there wouldn't be a Denver Public Library!!
Great article, Brian, another Denver first. BTW, *my* beard raises itself - the only effort is in containing it. . . .
Who would have thought that the Denver Public Library would have been on the cutting edge from the start!
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