Local History Thursday: John Cotton Dana, The Librarian Who Opened Book Collections To The Public

Imagine a public library where you cannot get into see the books. Ok, so that part is pretty easy, what with the Cornavirus and all. But this crisis with its curbside holds pickup does have historical precedent. Up until the early Twentieth century, and even after that in many places, patrons were not allowed to freely browse the book stacks. Libraries had closed stacks. A patron would search the catalog, speak with a librarian, and then ask to see certain books. The librarian or a page would disappear into the stacks and return with the books. And what librarian first instituted open stacks, allowing patrons access to the books? If it was not John Cotton Dana, then he was one of the first to allow the public into the stacks, and he did so right here in Colorado.

According to the Denver Public Library’s online history, Dana founded the first Denver Public Library in the Denver High School building in 1889. He maintained his post as City Librarian until 1899. During that time, the library followed Dana’s ideas and opened the stacks to the public. Dana wanted libraries to serve as community centers, and opening the stacks most probably served to make people feel more welcome in libraries, a good first step in building a community.

Open stacks in Denver had a brief setback in 1902, when rampant theft from the collections caused the library to close the stacks again. The stacks were reopened when a new library was established in Civic Center Park (now the McNichol’s Building). The new library had more room for collections and, presumably, better security.

While in Colorado, Dana also established the first Children’s Library, the first circulating picture collection, and purchased “popular” reading material, such as romance and adventure stories. Many libraries and others at the time thought that such popular reading material would promote corruption and rot the mind of its readers. Such people thought that libraries should provide only “edifying” reading material. Dana disagreed and broke with that mold. He went onto a prominent and equally innovative career on the East Coast, especially in Newark.

While we can’t go into our libraries just yet, the time is surely coming soon. When that time does come, we should celebrate the fact that we can go into the stacks and pick out books ourselves, thanks to John Cotton Dana and other pioneering librarians.


Posted in Local History.

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