By Joel Warner
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"I spent the day checking out Arnold Schwarzenegger videos," says one librarian with an advanced degree.
"We feel that because this is the main library in a metro area of 2.5 million people, it should be a place with research capabilities," says another library veteran. "Shouldn't we have a bigger collection than just 800 copies of Harry Potter?"
Ashton says the library is trying to strike a balance between popular offerings and serious books and hasn't lessened its commitment to offering literature and important nonfiction.
"Eighty-five percent of all our materials spending is for text," he says, adding that the most popular items at the library are middlebrow books like Harry Potter. "That's where the action is at a public library, it's in the middle. [City Librarian Dana] said, 'The worth of a library is in its use.' From the beginning, he said the DPL should provide materials the people want. It's been a guiding principle since the 1890s."
Plus, he points out that DPL supports a world-class research library in Western History, something that few other public libraries have done.
"I think the major risk for the library today is financial," Ashton says. "Our resources for purchase of materials will have gone down 38 percent in a two-year period. There will be reductions in expenditures for everything we stock."
Matching it, though, is a drop in morale. Many staffers and volunteers at the library say that Ashton and other managers have created an authoritarian atmosphere where librarians with years of experience are treated like widgets.
"You could feel the unhappiness in that library; there were a lot of unhappy people there," says Monley.
"We all love the library; it's the administration we're so concerned about," adds Silverman.
Library spokeswoman Celeste Jackson denies that morale is a problem: "Managers have an open-door policy, as does Rick Ashton, and every attempt is made to communicate in a variety of mediums, to discuss the library's current operating posture and possible future plans."
The most stunning example of a morale-building attempt gone bad occurred two years ago, when Ashton strongly suggested that all DPL employees -- and volunteers -- read Spencer Johnson's Who Moved My Cheese? The business book, perpetually at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, chronicles how two little people, Hem and Haw, learn to live with change by following mice in their hunt for cheese. The effort was not well received.
"I've read more intelligent books to preschoolers," says one librarian.
Ashton also closed the library for a day that year, taking all employees to an off-site retreat to discuss everything from the budget crisis to motivation, using the 96-page Who Moved My Cheese?as a guideline for the 503 staffers to deal with such changes as the budget and staffing. Then he did the same thing earlier this year.
Those who have worked with Ashton over the years often have stories about his arrogance.
When world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind was in town to unveil his sketches for the expansion of the Denver Art Museum, he met with Ashton and the library commissioners to show them his plans for the neighboring building.
According to two witnesses, Ashton launched a diatribe against Libeskind's work, stunning those in attendance and leading to an angry rebuke from Libeskind's wife and business partner, Nina Libeskind. (Ashton denies being rude to Libeskind.)
Even seemingly little things have a way of making library employees feel like they're getting a raw deal. The toilet paper on the seventh floor, where Ashton presides in a wood-paneled corner suite, is noticeably softer than the sandpaper-esque type found on lower floors where the proletariat toils -- a difference many employees see as a metaphor for what's wrong with the DPL.
While employees are paid to keep their cheese at the library, many of the volunteers have decided to carry theirs right out the door.
The library's once 150-person-strong docent program -- which leads tours, staffs the Information Desk, helps customers find books and tutors patrons on the computers -- is dwindling.
"The docents have been told that they're irrelevant and it doesn't matter if they're there or not," says Rose Keating, a onetime library volunteer of the year. "The volunteers know they're not wanted at the library."
Keating, who worked for several years to build up the docent program, says many of them felt like library managers only wanted staff to assist patrons, and they decided to volunteer elsewhere.
But Ashton, who won't "speculate on other people's feelings" about him, insists that the library still supports its volunteers.
"The library very much values the Friends Foundation," he says. "We have a tremendous need for volunteers, and we have hundreds of them working for us. The docent program continues to be very important to us."
Volunteers aren't the only things being tossed aside, Ashton's critics charge.
A lending library like the DPL discards thousands of books a year as new volumes arrive and demand space on the shelves. But what was once sorted and categorized, ready for the annual book sale, is now available to anyone, anywhere, via Amazon.com.