Denver Public Library

The Denver Public Library is a cherished institution that has served the city of Denver, Colorado for over 130 years. Founded in 1889, the library has grown from humble beginnings to become a vital resource for literacy, learning, and culture in the community.

Early Beginnings

The Denver Public Library has a fascinating history that dates back to the city’s early days during the Colorado Gold Rush. In 1859, pioneer Arthur Pierce established an outdoor reading room consisting of a simple carpenter’s bench under a tree. This humble setup served as a gathering place for the growing community of miners and settlers.

Nearly two decades later in 1878, a pivotal donation of books was made to Denver’s board of education. This collection was housed and maintained in a wing of East Denver High School, laying the foundation for a more formal public library system.

Official Establishment and the Carnegie Era

The Denver Public Library was officially established in 1889 when John Cotton Dana, a trailblazer in the library world, was appointed as the city’s first chief librarian. In 1910, the library moved into its own dedicated building in Civic Center Park, an elegant Greek Revival structure funded by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Between 1913 and 1920, Carnegie’s generosity further expanded the library system with the addition of eight branch locations. These Carnegie branches brought books and resources to neighborhoods throughout the growing city, making the library more accessible to all residents.

Mid-Century Expansion

As Denver boomed in the mid-20th century, the library system grew to keep pace with the city’s rapidly increasing population. In 1956, the “Old Main” Carnegie library was replaced by a new Central Library designed by the renowned architectural firm of Fisher & Fisher and designer Burnham Hoyt.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, numerous new branch libraries were opened to serve sprawling residential areas. Among these were the four Ross branches, funded by a bequest from local real estate investor Frederick Ross. The Ross Trust continues to provide financial support to the library to this day.

Entering the Modern Era

By the late 1980s, the Central Library and many branches were bursting at the seams, with a significant portion of the collection stored in basements and off-site warehouses. In response, Denver voters resoundingly approved a $91.6 million bond issue in 1990 to build a new Central Library and renovate or rebuild branch locations.

In 1995, the stunning new 540,000 square-foot Central Library opened, designed by world-famous architect Michael Graves in partnership with the Denver firm of Klipp Colussy Jenks DuBois. The building’s iconic design includes a soaring atrium and a sculpture titled “Symbol of the West” made from reclaimed beams of an old sawmill.

Denver voters once again showed their support for the library in 2007 by passing a bond issue to fund three new branches in underserved areas and make critical repairs to existing buildings. This unwavering public support has allowed the Denver Public Library to continuously adapt and grow to meet the ever-changing needs of the Mile High City.

Diverse Services and Resources

The Denver Public Library system, with its Central Library and 25 branch locations, offers an impressive array of services and resources to the Denver community. Its collection boasts over 2 million items, including books, reference materials, movies, music, and photographs. The library also provides access to computers and technology, a critical resource for those who may not have internet or devices at home.

Educational programs are another key offering, with activities for all ages from storytimes for children to classes and workshops for adults. The library also makes a concerted effort to reach underserved populations, providing resources and programming specifically tailored to their needs.

Challenges as a Community Shelter

However, the Denver Public Library, particularly its Central Library location, faces significant challenges in serving as a de facto shelter for people experiencing homelessness. As one of the last remaining free, public spaces in the city, the library has become a haven for those with nowhere else to go.

This has put librarians on the front lines of crisis intervention, dealing with situations far beyond their traditional roles. Staff regularly respond to drug overdoses, medical emergencies, theft, outbursts, and even physical aggression. In fact, between 2019 and January 2024, Denver police responded to nearly 2,900 calls for service across all Denver library locations, with the Central Library accounting for 30% of those calls.

Adapting to Serve the Community

Despite these daunting challenges, the Denver Public Library remains steadfast in its commitment to serving all members of the community. City Librarian Michelle Jeske acknowledges that while the library has not asked to play the role of a shelter, it is a reality they must face.

To better serve patrons in need, the library has hired a team of about 10 social workers and community resource specialists. These professionals help connect individuals with essential services like housing, food, and jobs. The library has also invested in extensive de-escalation training for staff to better handle difficult situations that may arise.

A Vital Institution

Throughout its long history, the Denver Public Library has continually adapted to meet the changing needs of the city it serves. Guided by a model of democratic public access, the library strives to be a welcoming and inclusive space for all.

As it navigates the challenges of serving as both a traditional library and a community shelter, the institution remains a vital resource that enriches the lives of Denver residents. By providing access to information, technology, educational programs, and social services, the Denver Public Library plays a critical role in supporting and empowering its diverse community.