Alexis M Waide

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John Cotton Dana, library hero

If you had asked me a year ago what I thought I’d be doing in library school, I’m not sure what I would have said.  I’m not even sure what I would have answered six months ago, right at the beginning of my program.

The answer may have had something to do with learning collection development, vague ideas about information theory, or learning how to design websites or databases (though I’m sure I couldn’t have clarified what kind of tools I’d be using to do those things).  I certainly wouldn’t have answered that I’d be writing XML, getting knee-deep in Dublin Core metadata creation, or reading scholarly articles on data management for fun.

I don’t think I would’ve answered that I’d have library heroes or role models, even though there were librarians I knew of already – Nancy Pearl is one that springs to mind – and admired.  I mean, Nancy Pearl has her own reader’s advisory books!  She does spots for NPR!  She has her own action figure!

Thanks to my marketing class this term, I’ve found a new library role model.  He’s not quite as glamorous as Nancy – no action figure – but in his own quietly awesome late-Victorian way, he espoused some pretty modern ideas and in my opinion, was largely responsible for shaping libraries into what they are today.  John Cotton Dana pioneered open stacks, allowing patrons to browse freely and select books at whim, instead of having to run every request by a librarian.  As director of the Denver Public Library, he created the first children’s room and while working at Newark Public Library, he created a foreign language collection to reach out to the community’s large immigrant population.

It was John Cotton Dana’s belief in library as community center, available for the use of all, that I find really inspiring.  This was a time when libraries were still largely subscriber-driven; therefore only a portion of a community was really using it and only to access books.  There were no specialized services, no reaching out to specific populations that could benefit from collections aimed at them (such as children or immigrants).  But JCD believed that libraries should be for everyone, regardless of class, education or age, truly free and truly open to all, something that is still true.  And libraries should continue to look to his ideals to remind themselves what the work of the library is, at its basic level.  Yes, things are changing, and quickly.  But libraries are still the same at heart.

I love this statement from JCD:

“Many still do not see how unique a thing a public library is.  It is the most democratic, universal institution ever devised.  It is by all, for all, to be used as each and every one may choose.  It draws no lines of politics, wealth, birth, or education.  All can learn here, without rules or teachers, save as they make their own rules and choose their own teachers.  A collection of good books, and people to use them — what a university is this!”

(From a publication on the Newark Public Library: “A John Cotton Dana Library”)

How democratic!  How inspiring!  Of course, you can replace “collection of good books” with so many other things appropriate to our modern libraries: “a collection of books, ebooks, array of classes, awesome community events, storytime, career development services, author series, e-readers available to check out, tax assistance, etc.”  But on the whole, the message is quite timeless and I think JCD would be amazed and proud of what public libraries are doing today.


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