Checked Out

Members of the Friends Foundation donated their lives to the library. Those days are over.

That didn't stop him, though, from funding construction of Denver's first eight branches, establishing a tradition of local libraries in each neighborhood. Later, real estate tycoon Frederick Ross continued the effort, bankrolling four new branches, including those in Cherry Creek and University Hills. In 1956, the city opened a new Central Library at the corner of 14th Avenue and Broadway, doubling the size of its previous flagship.

As the library grew, so did its Western History collection, which became world-renowned over the years. City Librarian Malcolm Wyer made Western history a priority during his 1924-to-1951 tenure, having been inspired by novelist Willa Cather, author of the now-classic Death Comes for the Archbishop, who urged him to create a repository for local chronicles. Wyer began hunting for valuable books and manuscripts all over the West; eventually the library became the storehouse for the city's -- and much of the region's -- heritage.

In its 114-year existence, the DPL has acquired 4,646,769 holdings (including 356 copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenixand 98 of Hillary Clinton's A Living History), which are distributed across one central library, 23 branches and one bookmobile. There are 438,470 registered library-card holders -- just 125,000 shy of Denver's entire population.

And for eighteen years, Rick Ashton has been managing these assets.

The Middletown, Ohio, native and Harvard graduate has won numerous plaudits for his work, including this year's Bonfils-Stanton award, which is given to those who have made "priceless contributions to the state," and Hennen's American Public Library Ratings' designation of the DPL as the "number one library in America" for two consecutive years.

But he didn't walk into easy street. The library had foundered for years, and when Ashton took over in 1985, the old central library was run-down and overcrowded. Plus, a series of budget crises and poor management had led to the library closing several days a week.

In his first years on the job Ashton earned high marks. Drawing on his experience as a librarian at the celebrated Newberry Library in Chicago and as the director of Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ashton managed to stabilize the budget and extend opening hours. So when he went to voters in 1990 asking for a $91.6 million bond issue to fund the construction of the dramatic new Michael Graves-designed Central Library and several branches, an astonishing 75 percent okayed the plan.

Under Ashton's watch, the new 540,000-square-foot, $71.7 million building opened on March 25, 1995, just a month after the inauguration of Denver International Airport and days before the first ball was pitched at Coors Field. Since then, he's opened four smaller branches -- Athmar Park, Valdez-Perry, Pauline Robinson, Virginia Village -- and two larger, more controversial ones, the 40,000-square-foot Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library (former Mayor Wellington Webb's brainchild) and the 16,000-square-foot Schlessman Family Branch Library (which is already checking out almost as many items as the Central Library).

"I'm pleased with the work Rick has done at the library," says Landri Taylor, who sits on the eight-member Library Commission that oversees the DPL and is co-chair of Mayor John Hickenlooper's accountability and reform transition committee. "I think our customers are pleased and sing the library's praises. We've received the number-one rating the last two years in a row, and the credit has to be shared by our chief."

The city pays him accordingly: Ashton brings in $141,264 -- more than either the mayor or the governor.


That there is a new Central Library gracing downtown is, in great part, thanks to the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation. They played a crucial role in raising campaign funds and marshaling volunteers to walk door to door in 1990, when Ashton wanted money for his new facility. Then, when the 75 percent approval tally came in, the Friends raised more than $5 million to pay for furnishings, study rooms and other features that were not covered by the bond issue.

Today the Friends are a shell of what they once were.

They started small, just several mothers gathered at the University Hills branch wanting to expand children's reading programs. As they got more involved, they came to know another library volunteer group, one made up of prominent businesspeople focused on raising funds. Over the years the two groups worked together and eventually decided to merge, forming the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation in the early '80s.

The new organization grew quickly, adding members and putting on more events in addition to the much-anticipated summer book sale. By last October the Booklover's Ball, the group's capstone evening of black-tie shmoozing and big-bucks fundraising, had grown to 920 guests and raised $325,000 for children's books. The Friends had also opened a store in the Central Library -- one that earned $6,000 its first day in business -- and hired five full-time employees to manage their activities and 4,000 members.

But though the foundation was widely regarded as one of Denver's most successful charities, tensions with Ashton began to surface. Part of the problem was duplication of efforts resulting from confusion over whether the Friends or the library, which has its own development staff, should lead fundraising. The Friends struggled to reach an agreement with Ashton that spelled out their exact responsibilities.

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