The Denver Public Library, located in downtown Denver, is a cultural hub and valuable resource for the Denver metro area. Begun in the early 1860s, the library collections have grown with Denver, moving from “Old Main,” the Carnegie-funded structure in Civic Center Park, to their current location at Fourteenth and Broadway in 1956. The building’s 1995 expansion by Michael Graves made it an iconic and controversial architectural landmark. The library currently operates twenty-four branches and provides free internet, computers, and access to 9 million items along with a variety of cultural and legal services.
Denver’s first library, a subscription-based reading room, was formed in 1860, just two years after the incorporation of Denver City. Organized by influential businessmen, it was known as the Denver and Auraria Reading Room Associates, and a membership cost twenty-five cents a week. The reading room dissolved a few years later owing to a lack of financial support, and the book collection was donated to East Denver High School.
In 1884 the Denver Chamber of Commerce voted to set aside a room for a library in its building at Lawrence and Sixteenth Streets. Known as the Mercantile Library, it was funded by the Chamber of Commerce until 1891, when the city council approved $5,000 in financial assistance and changed the name to City Library. Donations by Chamber of Commerce members funded the purchase of the library’s first books, consisting of 3,000 fiction titles.
The Denver Public Library officially began in 1898, when the city council passed an ordinance establishing the Public Library of the City of Denver and combined the book collections from East High School and the Chamber of Commerce. The collection was housed at Fifteenth Street and Court Place.
In 1902 Andrew Carnegie granted $200,000 to the city of Denver for a new library building. “Old Main,” as it became known, was built in Civic Center Park and matched the area’s other civic structures through its Neoclassical style, Corinthian columns, sandstone exterior, and granite base. Built at a cost of $430,000, the new library was designed to hold 300,000 books on its metal and glass shelves, more than adequate for the 1910 collection of 125,000 tomes.
Between 1900 and 1920, the population of Denver almost doubled, and the city spread out over fifty-nine square miles. To serve the sprawling city, nine branch libraries were planned and opened between 1912 and 1920, some using additional grant monies donated by Carnegie. The Roger Woodbury, Sarah Decker, Charles Dickinson, and Henry White Warren branches all opened in 1913; the Valverde branch in 1914; and the Byers, Park Hill, Smiley, and Elyria branches over the next few years. Each branch could hold 7,000 titles and also functioned as a community space for lectures, club meetings, and classes.
New Library at Fourteenth and Broadway
By 1945 the library collection had outgrown the Carnegie building, and the city began to plan a new library structure across Fourteenth Avenue. Financed by the city of Denver, the new library cost $3.3 million and was one of the last designs of Denver architect Burnham Hoyt. To facilitate the movement of collections from the old library to the new, a conveyor belt was built over Fourteenth Avenue and staffed from morning to night for six weeks. Today, the old Carnegie Library is known as the McNichols Civic Center Building and is a cultural center housing art exhibitions and cultural performances for the public.
The new library, with an elegant modernist design, opened in October 1956. Constructed around a central core, the state-of-the-art building included seven stories of collections (five above ground), housed 500,000 books, and contained a pneumatic tube system for almost-instant messaging. For the dedication of the new building, the Yale Library loaned a display of rare books, including a 1455 Gutenberg Bible and a 1640 Bay Psalm Book.
Along with the newly constructed Central Library building, Denver Public Library’s reach expanded as it added eleven new branches between 1950 and 1980. The new branches brought library services to every part of Denver, including the fast-growing northeast and southeast parts of the city served by the Hampden branch and the Montbello branch. Four of the new branches were funded through a trust established by former Denver Library Board president Frederick Ross upon his death in 1938. These four branches are known as the Ross-Cherry Creek, Ross-University Hills, Ross-Barnum, and Ross-Broadway.
By the 1990s, the library’s collections needed more space. A $65 million, seven-story addition designed by postmodernist Michael Graves tripled the size of the Central Library, allowing for a collection of more than 1 million books, 2 million government documents, and numerous special collections. The Graves addition honored the original Hoyt design by leaving most of the original structure intact and building onto its top and back, while adding visually interesting and colorful additions to the exterior. When the Graves addition opened in 1995, the building boasted 180 computers, murals by artist Edward Ruscha, and a limestone floor with embedded fossils. In June 1997, the revamped building hosted the G8 summit of major world leaders.
Archives and Collections
The Denver Public Library has housed a vast Western History and Genealogy Department since the 1920s. The collections now include 600,000 photographs; 3,700 manuscript collections; and 200,000 books, pamphlets, and maps. Thanks to an ambitious digitizing program begun in 1995, more than 100,000 images are available online.
The library system also includes the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Five Points, which focuses on the history of African Americans in Colorado and the West. Conceived in 1999 by Wellington Webb, Denver’s first African American mayor, the research library is named for two notable African Americans in Denver’s history. Omar Blair served as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II and was the first Black president of the Denver School Board; Elvin Caldwell was the first African American city council member in Denver, a position he retained for twenty-eight years. Both faced discrimination in their public-facing roles. In addition to a vast repository of literature on African Americans in the West, Blair-Caldwell also houses a 7,000-square-foot exhibition space featuring rotating exhibits about notable individuals and local African American history.
In 2019 the Denver Public Library reported more than 4 million annual visits, making it the most visited cultural institution in the city. The library currently holds more than 9 million physical and digital resources in circulation. As in many other communities, the Denver Public Library has become a congregating point for the city’s growing unhoused population because it offers a free space to spend the day out of the elements. In the late 2000s, the library formed the Homeless Services Action Committee to find ways for library staff to assist patrons experiencing homelessness. The library now employs peer navigators and social workers who can respond to mental health episodes and substance abuse incidents without involving security or police.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–21, the Denver Public Library closed all its branches to the public but kept books, laptops, and other services available through curbside checkout.