Under its many-layered, controversial and stolidly postmodern roof, the Denver Central Library houses many treasures. But one of the most fascinating -- a vast collection of historical photographic images of the West -- may also carry the lowest profile, though the library, which maintains a remarkable digitized collection of over 100,000 photos on the Internet, cannot be faulted. (And that's only a fraction of the entire archive.)
Children of the West, November 3-22, Central Library
To access the Western History Photograph Collection, log on to gowest.coalliance.org
Due recognition is now on the way: The collection will be the highlight of Friday's Booklover's Ball, the library's third annual gala to raise funds for beefing up the DPL's resources for children and young adults. Its theme, of course, is related: The ball will also launch Children of the West, a twenty-image taste of the Western History Department's photographic riches, chosen by library staff and members of the event committee.
"We were almost overwhelmed by the number of photos with children from all cultures that we have in the collection," notes library spokeswoman Pat Hodapp. "So they narrowed their selections down to photos with an emphasis on children in families or school situations -- or just playing among themselves."
Included in these images are shots of school groups from the '20s and '40s by Denver native and veteran photographer Harry Rhoads, a zany local photojournalist who especially loved snapping images of women and children. Also included is work by Clyde L. Stanley, who left behind a wealth of images from the Weld County hamlet of Keota, a town that's now essentially disappeared from the face of the earth. It's represented here by a likeness of the Keota School. "There's a three-story frame building in the background, with children on a merry-go-round wearing bib overalls -- it's a picture of what you really would expect a school in the West to look like," Hodapp says. Another photo, this one a 1938 gem by Clarence F. Holmes, depicts urban Colorado kids from another era -- a group of African-American girls posed near a vintage auto in Five Points, in the spirit of James Van Der Zee's images of Harlem.
Are there any shining favorites in the exhibit? Hodapp cites one old photo of Denver kids sledding down Eighth Avenue near Grant Street. Another, this one of a boy with his model train, inspired a hands-on angle for Friday's gala: real model trains chugging and twisting around the library, which does double duty -- that evening only -- as a ballroom.
While playing with trains, viewing photographs and dining and dancing, ball patrons will also be making an important contribution: Funds will be specially earmarked for up-to-date nonfiction resource materials for the Children's Library, for use by both students and teachers. "Things become dated so quickly -- it doesn't help if you have a book about Russia if it was written before the breakup [of the Soviet Union]," Hodapp says. "We want to have materials to support kids doing homework projects." If past experience is any indication, she adds, this year's event should help: "Last year's ball bought us 10,000 new books."
But the Booklover's Ball is also designed to be just plain fun while taking advantage of the library's unique physical structure -- it's an invitation to experience childhood joys in an elegant, yet different, environment. "This is one occasion when people actually get to sit in the stacks and eat and imbibe," Hodapp says. "There are no speeches -- people can just come and enjoy a big party for everybody who loves books and the library."