Checked Out

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.)

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers