Denver, CO -- Denver Public Library -- July 31, 2007

I asked the docent what makes their library unique and was told to go up to the Western History and Genealogy floor.

When I got off the elevator I was greeted with photographs of wool-clad men in formation, doing kick turns and the herringbone on cross country skis. It brought back memories of learning to do that myself on McDonald Pass, just west of Helena, Montana. Strangely, and maybe this is a testament to their skill, no one was on the ground! The photography display is of the 1943-1944 training of the 10th Mountain Division near Denver. Denver is having the last big reunion of mountain men this week. The library houses the papers from manuals, reports, photos---they trained in Colorado.

Thumbing through the Sanborn Fire Atlases is a librarian who loves his job. He uses these atlases to help the community understand the history of Denver. Pink—brick. Yellow—wood. Blue—usually stone. X—stable or barn. D—dwelling.

Scholars from all over the area come to do research in the Western History collection. The Denver Library is unique in that they have archives. The other big Western History collections are at Yale and the Berkeley Bancroft library. In the 1930s, forward thinking librarians started the collection. What cost $1.50 back then now goes for thousands.

But it's not just scholars that use the collection. Every day he talks to home buyers looking at their new neighborhood history, gaining a respect for Denver's old buildings, and enthusiastic fourth graders studying Colorado history.

The reading room was designed by architect Michael Graves, a Princeton architect and the wooden structure in the background, built from hundred year-old Douglass fir from the largest sawmill in Washington, made with wood and pegs, is a symbol of the west, encompassing, and he asks the fourth graders to think hard about these: fire tower, windmill, oil derek, wagon wheel.

Right now he’s reading Middle March, by George Elliott. It’s amazing, he says. Such a picture of life. He also likes to read Philip Roth.

The history department also had an exhibit about Rodolfo Corky Gonzales, a leader in the Chicano movement in the 1960s, who wrote a book of poems about the struggles of Chicanos. He was a boxer. His book of poetry is called I am Joaquin.

Western history is not just the cowboys and Indians. People come to learn about things that relate directly to themselves--this is a theme that I see repeatedly when I talk to people about books. You're more likely to pick something up and invest eight hours in it if it has a personal connection.

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