By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
For more than twenty years, Cynthia Monley had devoted a good part of her life to the Denver Public Library.
Every year she and a dozen other volunteers would spend months preparing for the library's huge annual book sale, sorting through the thousands of discarded books, deciding what might sell. They knew that art and gardening books that were somewhat tattered but still in good shape were coveted, that there was a collector's market for old science texts, and that the piles of children's literature the library pulled off the shelves every year would be snapped up by parents and teachers. Every day they sifted, looking for the 30,000 to 35,000 gems people had come to expect, and which had made the book sale a Denver tradition, drawing as many as 15,000 people to the Denver Civic Center and raising as much as $65,000 in a weekend.
"The book sales are a huge social event," says Denver bookseller Linda Lebsack. "People come with their kids in strollers and buy boxes of books. I worked the last day of the sale last year and people said, 'How am I going to get those back to the hotel?' It had become a tourist attraction."
Many of the volunteers involved with this project had worked with the library since the 1970s and were such familiar faces inside the building that they were often mistaken for employees. They had helped build the DPL's reputation as the most prestigious public library between Chicago and Los Angeles. In the process, the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation had become one of the highest-profile charities in Denver. Many of the city's bold-faced names either worked on its committees or attended its events -- which grew to include a rare-books auction, literary evenings with famous authors and the annual Booklover's Ball -- donating millions of dollars to benefit the DPL.
So Monley and the other volunteers were shocked in May 2002, when the library administration informed them that their countless hours of volunteering had actually cost the library more money than they had raised. City Librarian Rick Ashton had analyzed the Friends' efforts and came to the conclusion that fundraising was better consolidated in-house, even at the risk of alienating an influential segment of Denver society.
"Rick Ashton didn't like the idea we had this function he had no control over," says Bonnie Silverman, who volunteered at the library for 25 years. "It's a control thing. He wants to have all the money and do with it as he will."
The Friends bowed out gracefully, retreating to a smaller role of overseeing the $4 million endowment they'd built over the years. But they didn't miss the irony of the library's longtime fundraising group being gutted even as the Denver Public Library faces one of the worst budget crunches in its history.
Since then, Monley and Silverman have sat back with their Friends and watched as Ashton opened two new branches just six months apart, then announced that every library would have to close one day a week and floated the idea of a library district to free the DPL from dependence on City Hall. They're wondering if Ashton is just embarking on the newest experiment in the Denver Public Library's long history of unorthodox behavior or creating his own fiefdom that will vault one of Denver's most beloved institutions back to its not-so-distant troubled past.
It's no accident that the copper roof of Denver's main library occupies such a prominent spot in Civic Center, between the State Capitol and the City and County Building. It has always been a source of pride for the city, dating back to the first decades of Denver's existence, when the earliest settlers saw establishing a library as a way to mark the arrival of civilization on a remote and savage plain.
A newsstand proprietor, Arthur Pierce, brought the first circulating library and reading room to Denver (Auraria, actually) in 1860, convincing a hundred members to pay fifty cents a month for access. However, the library closed several years later after Pierce sold the business to new owners. It took nearly three decades to establish Denver's next public library, but in 1889, the Denver High School at 19th and Stout streets became the new home of what John Cotton Dana, the first city librarian, called a "center of public happiness." He offered such innovative services as a children's library and open stacks, which was a revolutionary experiment for the nineteenth century, when libraries were seen as citadels where access to books was carefully controlled and certainly never available to children.
The Denver Chamber of Commerce had already opened a Mercantile Library four years earlier -- solely for members -- and the two facilities co-existed until 1891, when Dana's philosophy won the war of the words, and the two merged. (That was just the beginning of Dana's career: six years later, he left Denver to take over the Newark, New Jersey, public library, where he earned a national reputation as a maverick; today the American Library Association's most prestigious award is named after him.)
In 1902 robber-baron/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gave Denver $200,000 to build a central library (something he did all over the country in an effort to improve his image), extracting a promise that the city would put $30,000 a year toward operations. Denver agreed, throwing in some of its own money, and in 1910 opened its first monumental library, a $425,000 Greek-style temple that still stands in Civic Center and is now used as city offices. Carnegie, however, was not thrilled with the results, scrawling on a photo of the building: "My money is wasted. This is not a fit design for a library. Too many columns."
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.
In May 2002 the already-tense relationship blew up. At Ashton's prompting, Steve Taylor, DPL finance director, prepared a now-infamous memo that claimed for every $1 raised by the Friends, 78 cents went to support the group's operating costs.
"Estimates of DPL staff time spent in support of Friends' operations or fundraising events are significant," the memo reads. "Combined with office rent and utilities, these costs to DPL have exceeded Friends' general fund net income every year from 1999 to 2001."
An attached spreadsheet listed more than twenty library staffers who supposedly devoted time to the Friends (from graphic designers to janitors), holding them responsible for $161,910 in staff costs. These charges included things like cleaning up after the Booklover's Ball and issuing press releases for the book sale. In addition, the memo said the group cost the library $18 a square foot, or $98,118, in rent for using 3,500 square feet of the Central Library's nearly vacant sixth floor to sort books for the annual sale -- plus $5,451 in utilities. In total, Taylor claimed the library provided $265,479 in services to the Friends in 2001.
"The worst thing was that terrible spreadsheet," says Monley, who was the group's chief sorter. "After we'd worked so hard, we couldn't stand it."
"It sparked a firestorm of reaction on the Friends board, to the point the board was ready to divorce itself from the library," says Ben Duke III, president of the Friends. "I think it was an ill-advised memo. The unfortunate part about that analysis is it didn't take into account the whole picture; it was one-sided. They didn't ask for any input from the Friends Foundation."
Ashton regrets the hard feelings elicited by the memo, but he stands by the central contention that the Friends were not as cost-effective as they should have been. He insists the group's five full-time employees were too large an expense for the amount of money raised -- even though they were paid from the fundraising efforts and not the library's budget.
"The Friends operation involved employing several people, and it produced a net result that was less than it could have been, because there were so many people being paid," he says.
Duke, whose late father headed up the Friends in the early '90s, worked to craft a compromise with Ashton. At first, he thought the library would hand over all fundraising to the Friends, and the group even started looking for an executive director with experience soliciting large donations. But it soon became clear that wouldn't work, either.
"The library didn't appear to want the foundation to manage its fundraising," Duke says. "The foundation board felt the events we operated were fundraising events and should be turned over to the library."
And so the Friends gave up responsibility for all their activities -- the book sale, the Booklover's Ball, several other annual fundraisers and the Library Store -- and laid off all but one of their employees. While Ashton says the Friends voluntarily stepped aside -- which is technically true -- many members feel they had no choice, because it would have been impossible to carry on without the library administration's support.
"This is the most pointed and powerful way during our tenure on the board that Rick Ashton has indicated his lack of support and confidence in the Friends Foundation," the Friends secretary wrote in the group's May 2002 board-meeting minutes, as the members heatedly discussed the memo from library management. "The overwhelming and unanimous reaction was dismay and discouragement. The conclusion seemed to be: 'This is the last straw.' The crux of the matter is the attitude Ashton has towards the Friends Foundation. This problem, according to many previous leaders of the Friends, has existed for many years."
For local bibliophiles, the most obvious signs of the Friends' departure is the first summer in 28 years without a book sale (the library canceled it in favor of a much smaller indoor sale in October) and the vacant Library Store. However, memories of the jewelbox tucked just off the plaza between the library and the Denver Art Museum may fade quickly, since Ashton plans to use the space for the DPL's highly popular collection of videos, DVDs and other electronic media.
"I certainly feel the library has lost important support from the Friends Foundation," says Library Commissioner Ann Kirchof. "I have serious reservations about losing that book sale. It deprives the citizens of Denver of a big annual sale they looked forward to."
The Booklover's Ball is still scheduled for November 15, but it is now being organized by the DPL's three-person fundraising staff, including Diane Christman, director of the office of advancement and communication, who earns $84,672 per year. Assisting them will be the same DPL employees Ashton and Taylor charged the Friends for in their cost-benefit analysis -- and the Friends' own very large mailing list.
"We've done one direct-mail piece from me to 4,000 previous supporters," Ashton says. "That produced $45,000 to $50,000 and was done at very little cost. We would certainly hope that supporters and generous donors would continue to see the importance of the library's work in the community."
Ashton needs every penny he can find. Last year, the city doled out a record $31 million to the Denver Public Library; this year, 7 percent has been hacked away, as Denver grapples with a budget deficit of more than $50 million. The state, facing its own woes, slashed another $2.3 million -- money that had been allocated for libraries outside the metro area to access the DPL collection.
As a result, the amount spent on new material has declined from $6 million in 2002 to $3.5 million, and the original staff of 520 is dwindling; fourteen staff members lost their jobs, and the library has stopped filling openings in order to eliminate seventy positions by December.
"We have an almost total hiring freeze," Asthon says. "The net effect is our staff size, by next year, will be down 17 percent from where it was. We've also opened two large new branch libraries. That makes it harder to get the doors open.
"The impact on the public is not obvious on the first day, but over time it becomes obvious. We're buying many fewer copies of Hillary Clinton's book and Harry Potter, and have much longer waits. The shelf life of a typical preschool book is eighteen months; they get used up. You have things in worse condition and less available to children. You have a student coming to the shelf and saying, 'I have a bibliography of ten books and can only find five.' You never make that up."
To handle the staff reductions, Ashton decided to shutter the libraries one day a week -- putting the DPL in the same precarious position as when he took over in 1985. Having the Central Library closed on Wednesdays frees 25 to 30 people to work at other locations, but it isn't an immediate cost saving for the DPL. Because the building must be left open for administrative staff, the utilities, security and a host of other fixed costs must still be paid, whether or not the public is admitted. However, Ashton sees the closings as a way to ensure each library is staffed fully when it is open. "People are differently deployed," he says. "Almost everyone who works at the front desk will work at two different locations."
Julie Benson, a former Friend, questions the motivation for the closing. "They told us 'We hope this dramatizes the trouble the library is in,'" she says. "I thought 'Aha!' I think it's a question that needs to be asked: Are they really saving that much money, or is it a political statement?"
The DPL isn't the only system grappling with cuts, however. Nationwide from Los Angeles (considering closing fifteen of its 84 branches) to Salt Lake City (cutting purchases of new materials by 18 percent), libraries are facing the effects of a down economy. But Ashton, in the tradition of Denver's city librarians, has found a controversial -- and some say unwarranted -- solution to the problem: a library district, which would take the DPL out of city government altogether.
While most of city government, including the DPL, depends on sales taxes -- which rise and fall dramatically with every twist in the economy -- a district would be funded through the far-more-stable property tax, much like Denver Public Schools and most other school districts in the state.
"We're looking to the long term, and some effort to stabilize our situation makes sense," Ashton says. "There are forty library districts in Colorado; the largest is in Colorado Springs. What they've experienced is financial stability that's inherent in the property-tax situation."Douglas County voters approved such a district in 1990, and since then the library has grown to include seven branches with another -- a former Safeway store in downtown Castle Rock -- almost ready to come online.
"Municipal libraries spend much of their time fighting for money," says Jamie LaRue, director of the Douglas Public Library District. "You have to argue books are more important than streets and bridges. When you're a library district, your future depends on satisfied customers."
"It's like each customer is a city council member," says Eloise May, director of the Arapahoe Library District. "The people we serve are the ones who will say yes or no to a tax increase."
Unlike Douglas County, the Arapahoe district will experience a decline in revenue next year because assessments on office buildings in the Denver Tech Center have fallen. However, May says she is still in a better position than a library director like Ashton, who depends on sales taxes.
"Property tax is slower in responding to economic trends; it gives you a chance to look ahead and prepare," she says. "We'll experience a drop in revenue next year, but we know about it and can take measures to prepare." Despite the advantages, setting up such a district would be complicated for the DPL. If passed by voters, it would cost property owners approximately $100 more a year, because Ashton believes the library would need to raise about $40 million a year to maintain current services. As a district, the library would have to pay for things such as legal services and insurance, which the city now provides -- at a cost of approximately $2 million. It would also have to negotiate issues like what to do with the millions of dollars in bond debt Denver has taken on to fund many of the DPL's new buildings. Ashton compares creating a library district to Denver Health's spinoff from the city into a semi-independent agency with its own personnel system, legal staff and other internal arrangements. The proposed library district would have a governing board whose members would be approved by the Denver City Council -- as members of the Library Comission are now, after being nominated by the mayor -- which provides at least some system of checks and balances. Ashton had hoped to get a district proposal on the ballot as soon as this November, but then Mayor Hickenlooper told him that his priority is a vote to change the city's personnel system. Hickenlooper also doesn't want to see the library compete with Denver Public Schools, which is planning to ask voters for a tax increase.
"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.
"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.
Through a partnership with the firm bLogistics, Amazon receives a 15 percent commission on each book sold, while bLogistics -- which stores the books in a Boulder warehouse -- and the library each receive 42.5 percent of the revenues. Last year the library made $37,265 from the deal over ten months, and the DPL is projecting that it will earn $50,000 this year. The Friends raised $100,000 through two used-book sales last year.
"The partnership enables the library to sell de-accessioned and donated books from its collection through Amazon, with significantly reduced overhead expenditures and a broader audience of buyers due to the reach of the World Wide Web," Jackson says.
Fans of old books are especially troubled by the new arrangement, because bLogistics only sells books that have an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a ten digit ID that has been assigned to almost all books published in the last thirty years. They fear the old books will all wind up in the trash.
"Older, rarer books, what happens to them?" asks Linda Lebsack, who sells used books with an emphasis on Colorado history at her small shop on Broadway. "Do they throw them away or sell them out the back door? Every year I go to the sale and see a book by some old geezer who lived in a small Colorado town and wrote his memoirs. You'll see dozens of books like that go through the sale. I've bought signed editions of poets from the 1920s. I sold a library discard the other day for $45."
And even though Jackson says those books will be sold at the used-book sale in October or at the annual rare-books auction in January, the Friends volunteers have seen what really happens to many of the volumes. While preparing for what would be their last summer extravaganza, they heard rumors that they no longer had full access to the stock because much of the year's discards were simply being tossed in the dumpster.
So Monley and the volunteers went down to the library's dock to investigate. What they found appalled them: box after box of books heading to the dump.
"We thought it was a mistake and went down and took them out of the trash," Monley says. "They went on throwing the books away, even though they were good books for the book sale. We always sold them; they were $18 or $19 books. They were throwing away art books -- they sell beautifully; some were in perfect shape inside. We'd sell them for $7 or $8, and they'd go in minutes."
"Those of us who sort the books see what's coming through and are appalled by it," Silverman adds. "They were saying they needed to raise money for Spanish-language materials, and we would be seeing Spanish materials for children in mint condition being discarded. We were getting stuff that had never been opened, and it was being discarded."
Especially disturbing to the sorters were the number of children's books that were thrown away. Several of the volunteers approached the library administration to see if they could get the books -- paid for by Denver taxpayers -- donated to Denver schools, which have struggled for years to fill their libraries. But the answer was no.
"Denver's school libraries are hurting," Julie Benson says. "One day we had a young-fathers' group sorting with us, teenage kids, and they couldn't believe the books that were being thrown away. One told me, 'I'm trying to write a report on the Civil War, and we don't have any books about it at school.'"
But Benson's not sticking around to witness the next DPL outrage. She's now volunteering at the Arapahoe County library, helping to arrange book sales and other fundraising activities.
She has found a very different atmosphere there than at the DPL. "They've been really great," Benson says. "There's no competition between the volunteers and staff. They're glad to have us; they like their volunteers, and we feel welcome."