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"There's an awful lot on our plate right now, given the budget crisis and trying to change the city's charter," Hickenlooper says. "I think it's an intriguing idea. One of the things we need to move toward is establishing priorities. What is the long-term funding for our most cherished services?"
In fact, that's exactly the question some of the people who know the library best -- and love it the most -- have been asking. They say they'll oppose the proposed district, not necessarily because they're against the idea, but because they view it as a way for Ashton to consolidate his power and operate with little oversight.
And that, they insist, would be the worst thing that could happen to the Denver Public Library.
"It's a control issue. Rick Ashton wants to have complete control of all the money," Benson says. "He doesn't want any source of dissent."
"If you have a situation where there's already an abuse of power, it can only get bigger and badder with a library district," says one longtime employee, who, like many others who spoke with Westword, asked to remain anonymous.
While the funding structure of the library is being examined, so is its philosophy -- and many employees feel the DPL is quickly becoming one big Barnes & Noble.
As proof, they point to the new $4.2 million Schlessman branch library in Lowry, which debuted last year. Walking into Schlessman, the first thing you see is a huge video monitor that states the policy for checking out videos and DVDs, then lists times for children's storytelling.
Dozens of flat-screen monitors line the main floor, and a diverse array of people are playing computer games and surfing the Internet. On coffee tables next to brightly colored leather chairs are stacks of best-selling books like Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen and Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites, laid out like displays at the Tattered Cover.
The video section is large and looks like a Blockbuster aisle, with Gladiator and Mariah Carey music videos on display. Customers carry blue plastic handbaskets to gather their selections, just like in a supermarket.
The library is always crowded, and there are long lines at checkout; Schlessman had its one-millionth visitor last month, making it one of the most successful branches in the system. The DPL is now extending this model -- sometimes called the "bookstore concept" -- to other branches, including the new Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library in Five Points. (While the success of that $16 million branch, which adds $500,000 to the library's annual operating budget, was initially in question, it's reportedly drawing hundreds of visitors a day; Ashton says the staff often has to struggle to clear the floor at closing time.)
The DPL intentionally tried something new at Schlessman. The collection is made up of one-third children's materials, one-third electronic media -- including DVDs, videos, CDs and books on tape -- and one-third books for adults.
"The way it's deployed is much more retail- oriented," Ashton says. "We saturated it with computers. We also designed the building to feel slightly crowded. I wasn't enthusiastic about that, but it does raise the energy level and create a buzz to make it a place people want to be."
Electronic media is more than a third of all checkouts, and the DPL now spends about 15 percent of its acquisitions budget on DVDs, videos, CDs and other media. "Especially in lower-income neighborhoods, people are borrowing videos and CDs that they couldn't afford to go out and rent," Ashton says.
For many of those who work in the library, this new concept -- pioneered in Las Vegas, which opted not to build a central library but instead opened large branch libraries that serve as community centers -- is deeply disturbing. They fear the traditional idea of the library as a place to learn is being lost in a mad dash to get as many customers as possible in the door.
"They've modeled it after a shopping mall," says one veteran library employee. "They're losing the whole idea that the library should be a repository of knowledge, broadly representative of all interests. They think we have to embrace the basest, most popular kinds of things. I'm not a snob; there's a place for all of it, but if all the money is being spent on disposable materials, there's less money for thoughtful, non-sexy items somebody will need three years from now."
Because circulation is a key factor in the annual rankings of American public libraries, there is concern that the push for more populist material is an effort to win the DPL more accolades. "It's anti-intellectual," says A.J. Moses, a circulation clerk who recently left the library after four years. "Collections are being stripped and replaced by popular literature. I'm surprised they don't have a pornography room -- that would boost the numbers. We have the World Wrestling Federation videos, but we don't have a lot of poetry. We don't have a lot of the books reviewed in Bloomsbury Review. They don't have local authors in here."
Many of the librarians who work for the DPL have master's degrees in library science and have worked for years to develop expertise in their relevant areas. Since many of them are based at the Central Library, they're being sent to work in the branches at least one day a week, and they're especially critical of what they call the "dumbing down" of the library.