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Remembering John Cotton Dana

April 13, 2018
Children's room graphic

Separate children's rooms were among many of Dana's innovations.

Foreign language graphic

Dana believed that the library should serve all members of its public, regardless of their age, occupation, or native language.

This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers University–Newark, we are also reflecting on the legacy of the library’s namesake. Who was John Cotton Dana and why are we proud that our library bears his name?

Known as “Newark’s First Citizen,” Dana left an indelible mark on the city and on American public institutions more broadly. After early career stints as public library director in Denver and Springfield, in 1902 Dana moved to Newark, where he would serve as the director of the Newark Public Library for 27 years.

Throughout his career, Dana advanced a vision for public service that revolutionized the way libraries across the country served their users. He wrote that a library “must be fitted to public needs. It must suit its community…. It must be open to its public; it must attract its public; it must please its public; all to the end that it may educate its public.”

Though we take many of these practices for granted today, Dana was one of the first library directors in the nation to:

  • Institute open stacks where users could browse the rows of book for themselves, rather than having to request a specific title from a librarian;
  • Organize a children’s room and create foreign language collections for immigrant communities, recognizing that all members of the public should be welcomed into the library;
  • Establish a specialized subject area library (in Dana’s case, a business library at the center of Newark’s commercial district);
  • Develop standards for legible penmanship on card catalogs (including a font that was named after him);
  • Open a branch library in Newark’s high school and loan pictures and prints to teachers for use in the classroom;
  • Implement liberal borrowing policies;
  • Set up outposts in the city’s department stores; and
  • Publicize the library in innovative ways, including newspaper ads, billboards, and radio spots.

Dana founded the Newark Museum and was pioneering in his focus on American artwork at a time when European art was in vogue. He also served on the board of trustees for the institutions that would eventually become Rutgers–Newark.

His contributions are remembered by the American Library Association through its John Cotton Dana Award for public relations, the Special Libraries Association with its John Cotton Dana Award for lifetime achievement, and the New Jersey Association of Museums with its Dana Award for outstanding contributions to the field.

To learn more about Dana and the 50th anniversary of the library, view the exhibition on display in the lobby of John Cotton Dana Library.