John Cotton Dana (1856–1929) - American EducationAmerican librarian and museum director who pioneered curatorial education and spawned the transformation of libraries and museums into public educative institutions. Although the United States boasted thousands of libraries and museums by the end of the 19th century, they remained a center of a national debate over their roles in American cultural life. Conservatives saw them as repositories to preserve the nation’s historical and cultural treasures. They sought to restrict access to researchers, fearing that regular public access would ultimately lead to overhandling of valuable books and their eventual deterioration.
When the Vermont-born Dana became librarian in Denver, Colorado, in 1898, he found a gated fence separating would-be readers from the bookshelves. Behind the gate a librarian with sole access to the institution’s works sat at a desk, waiting for reader requests to find books and bring them to the gate. The reader then filled out often complex forms before being permitted to read the book at a table in full view of the librarian. Moreover, most libraries opened only during normal working hours, when most readers were themselves at work. Dana immediately lengthened library hours in Denver to make the collection accessible to the entire community. He removed the railings and locked glass doors and placed both the circulating and reference collections on open shelves. He put the most rarely used materials in special annexes and filled the shelves of the main library with those materials most in demand by the general public. He broadened the collection to fill the needs of the entire community, adding children’s books, foreign-language materials for immigrants and specialized materials of interest to those involved in local businesses and industries. Conservatives scoffed at Dana’s innovations, predicting that overhandling would destroy the library’s collection and even lead to the spread of infectious diseases—an issue of considerable importance at the end of the 19th century. Dana vigorously defended himself: “A collection of books gathered at public expense does not justify itself by the simple fact that it is. If a library be not a live educational institution, it were better never established.”
Dana took the same philosophy to Newark, N.J., where he became librarian and museum director. There, he expanded the museum to include flora, fauna, minerals, craftwork, school-work manufactured products and other artifacts indigenous to the surrounding community, and he loaned collections to local schools and other community institutions. He also organized a curatorial apprenticeship program for college graduates who planned to go into museum work. He also brought in many special exhibits and constantly advertised the museum’s programs to encourage public visits. “A museum,” he explained, “is an educational institution, set up and kept in motion that it may help the members of its community to become happier, wiser and more effective. It can help them only if they use it. They can use it only if they know of it.”
When Dana died in 1929, his transformation of Newark’s library and museum into popular educational institutions was only just beginning to have an impact on libraries and museums elsewhere. In the decade that followed, however, almost every library and museum in the United States adopted Dana’s innovations.