The Denver Public Library (DPL) has one of the nation’s largest and finest collections on the history of the American West. Created in 1935, the collection continues to grow and currently includes more than 250,000 cataloged books, architectural records, atlases, pamphlets, and microform titles, as well as an estimated 6,000 maps, a million photographs, and more than 5,000 manuscripts. Some 1.1 million of the library’s images have been digitized for free public access, a process in which DPL became a national leader.
DPL’s Western History Department was created in 1935 under the direction of longtime city librarian Malcolm Glenn Wyer, who served from 1924 to 1951. A graduate of the University of Minnesota and the New York State Library School, Wyer headed the libraries at Colorado College, the University of Denver, and the University of Nebraska before taking charge at DPL. In addition to starting the Western History Department, Wyer also established the Regional Bibliographic Center for Research, founded and served as first dean of the University of Denver library school, set up interlibrary loan service, established DPL’s Fine Arts Department, and helped plan the library’s 1956 building before his death in Denver in 1966.
In his 1955 pamphlet Western History Department: Its Beginning and Growth, Wyer reported that a growing interest in local, regional, and American Indian history had helped inspire the department’s creation. One particularly crucial spur came from Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Willa Cather. While researching her classic Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which deals with Catholic priests in nineteenth-century New Mexico and Colorado, she suggested to Wyer the need for a strong regional collection. Her blessing gave the plan cachet, helping to attract Carnegie Foundation support.
Wyer built the Western History Department as an expansion of the Colorado collection that existed back to 1900. An antique book enthusiast, Wyer worked to develop the library’s rare book collection, while library commission member Anne Evans enhanced the art collection by purchasing works by local and southwestern artists.
The Western History Department was originally located in the library’s 1909 Carnegie Building in Civic Center. When DPL moved to a new building in 1956, the Western History Department occupied the spacious top (fourth) floor. The large, friendly main room had hardwood floors and a beamed ceiling. Comfortable couches and chairs focused on a limestone fireplace beneath Albert Bierstadt’s 1877 painting Estes Park, Long’s Peak (now in the Denver Art Museum).
In 1995 Western History moved to the new Michael Graves addition to the Central Library. With the move, Western History merged with the Genealogy Department (founded in 1910) to form the combined Western History and Genealogy Department. In the expanded building, the department more than doubled its space, occupying the entire fifth floor and half of the sixth, which eliminated the need for offsite storage. The Gates Family Foundation gave $1 million toward a new reading room, while foundations created by descendants of John K. Mullen contributed to the Mullen Manuscript Room.
The circular Gates Reading Room is centered on a forty-foot-high sculpture by Graves. Made from enormous square beams reclaimed from a western sawmill and fastened together by wooden pegs, it has been likened to an oil derrick, a mineshaft, or a tipi.
The Western History and Genealogy Department houses one of the country’s top western history collections. Librarians since Wyer have been collecting choice items with the help of an acquisitions committee; many materials come from private donors. The department is especially strong in Denver and Colorado materials but also covers the Rocky Mountain West and, to a lesser extent, the trans-Mississippi West. Its holdings include art, photos, books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, and ephemeral publications such as programs, yearbooks, leaflets, menus, local organization records, advertising brochures, and broadsides, as well as reports of mines, railroads, ranches, regional industries, and any other valuable papers. Among the largest subject collections are those covering William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Denver parks, and western railroads.
Western History’s collection of thousands of artworks includes western paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Johann Carl Bodmer, George Catlin, Edward Curtis, Herndon Davis, Alfred Jacob Miller, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, Charles Marion Russell, and Allen True, as well as the work of famed photographers such as William Henry Jackson and L. C. McClure. Temperature- and humidity-controlled storage protects the department’s many glass-plate negatives.
The Western History and Genealogy Department includes several notable subject-area collections. DPL’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library is now a separate branch spun off from Western History and Genealogy. Within the mother department, the Tenth Mountain Division Resource Center documents the division whose members did much to launch Colorado’s ski industry. The superb map collection was funded by and named for William H. Jackson and enriched by donations from map collector Wesley Brown. The Ross-Barrett Aviation Collection originated with a large collection Malcom Wyer bought in London. The Latino Legacy Collection includes the papers of nationally prominent Denver Chicano activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The Conservation Collection, established in 1960, was spearheaded by the nationally noted conservationist Arthur Carhart. It has become the depository of many national organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy.
The department continues to collect valuable material such as the entire collection and photos of the Rocky Mountain News, which went out of business just short of its 150th birthday in 2009. Western History has a staff-generated general index of more than 3.5 million items in the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and many other newspapers.