John Cotton Dana - Newark's First Citizen

John Cotton Dana was a remarkable man whose vision and achievements continue to influence librarians and library users across the nation. He accepted his first position as a library director at the Denver Public Library in 1889, a time when libraries were still the domain of a small segment of the population, usually subscribers, and librarians were collection caretakers.

During the nine years of his employment at Denver Public Library, John Cotton Dana took two giant steps toward bringing libraries and their resources and services to the people. He instituted open stacks where library users could browse the rows of book titles for themselves and he organized a separate children's room. Although we take these two services very much for granted in our use of libraries today, John Cotton Dana was one of the first library directors in the nation to incorporate such innovations. He returned to the East to work for four years at the the Springfield Library in Massachusetts, where he acquired experience in reorganization and museum management. In 1902, John Cotton Dana came to Newark where he continued to work until his death in 1929.

When he arrived, John Cotton Dana found Newark to be a rich industrial center with many immigrant populations. The Public Library had been established fourteen years earlier and the collections had just been moved into a new facility, a French Renaissance style building which still retains its beauty. There were several institutions of higher learning-- a "normal" school for teacher preparation (now Kean University), the New Jersey College of Pharmacy (now Rutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy), and two clusters of schools offering ambitious adult education programs. In other words, the city was a perfect environment for the development and implementation of John Cotton Dana's philosophy of librarianship, making the library relevant to the daily lives of its constituents and promoting the educational and cultural benefits of reading

Mr. Dana reached out to the city's immigrants by acquiring foreign language materials and publicizing them in frequent book columns in local newspapers. Younger readers visited the Library's children's room or had access to a small selection of library books in their classrooms. John Cotton Dana interpreted the library's constituency in a very broad sense. He included the city's businessmen, establishing a branch devoted to business related information in the center of the commercial district. The concept of a library highly developed in one subject area was new (the Business Branch was the first of its kind in the nation) and led to special librarianship as a major branch of the field. The Library also supported the work of Newark's teachers, health care providers, and college students, to name a few.

John Cotton Dana was involved in much of the public life in Newark. For example, he served on the board of trustees for the institutions which have coalesced into Rutgers-Newark. When the New Jersey Law School first expanded its two year preparatory program into a four year college in the late 1920s, it was named the Dana College. This is approximately the time that Dana's name became associated with the library supporting the College as well as the Seth Boyden School of Business. In honor of his contributions, John Cotton Dana was known as Newark's First Citizen.

In addition to librarianship, John Cotton Dana's revolutionizing influence extends to museums. On his arrival, Mr. Dana converted the Library's fourth floor to exhibit space. He negotiated with Newark's leading citizens to loan art from their personal collections for display. With an eye to the natural sciences, Mr. Dana encouraged a local physician to place selections from his extensive rock and mineral collection on view. In seven years Mr. Dana staged over fifty exhibitions attracting a quarter million visitors. This overwhelming success created the impetus for the organization of the Newark Museum Association in 1909. On the Museum's behalf, Mr. Dana began collecting art objects ranging from the utilitarian to the finest art. Soon the collections outgrew the Library's exhibit spaces. A local philanthropist, Louis Bamberger, donated funds for a new building a few blocks away from the Library. The Newark Museum opened its doors in 1926.

Mr. Dana was intensely interested in American art, often providing a remarkable level of support to living artists. The Museum's exhibit focusing on Max Weber was the first one staged by any U. S. museum of the work of a living American artist. Mr. Dana's acquisition of American art at a time when other museums were concentrating on European masters resulted in a remarkably fine collection of 19th and early 20th century work. Newark Museum's collection of American art remains as one of the finest in the country today.

On a biographical note, Mr. Dana was born in October 1856 to a large, established family in Woodstock, VT. After completing his schooling, he attended Dartmouth College. The intensity of his studies had an adverse affect on his health so John Cotton Dana was encouraged to travel westward. He joined a friend in Colorado to do surveying for the railroads. In a few years, rough and ready camp life in the clean mountain air had restored John Cotton Dana's health. He had used his spare time in the camps to prepare for the Colorado bar, successfully passing the examination. Mr. Dana returned to the East and passed the bar in New York although, in a short time, resettled in Colorado. Mr. Dana was practicing law in Denver when he began a letter writing campaign to change the "do-not-touch-the-books" policy of the Denver Public Library, in particular, and libraries in general. When the library director's office became vacant, the town fathers offered the post to him and John Cotton Dana accepted.

In photographs, John Cotton Dana appears to be a tall, slender, distinguished looking gentleman with some signs that a smile was hidden beneath his magnificent mustache. Anecdotes from several authors indicate that he had a great sense of humor. He met and married his wife while in Denver. Soon after their move to Newark, Mrs. Dana's health deteriorated, leaving her unable to fulfill her social obligations as the library director's wife. While the Danas had no children of their own, they raised Mr. Dana's nephew, Grosvenor.

Additional sources

Ford, Bruce E. (2006) "A Champion of Individual Liberty: John Cotton Dana.
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Newark Public Library. (2006) "A John Cotton Dana Library."
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A 24 page illustrated pamphlet. Includes many quotations from John Cotton Dana about reading and libraries.

Dictionary of Art Historians. "John Cotton Dana"
Brief entry focusing on Mr. Dana's contributions to museums. Includes brief bibliography.

John Cotton Dana