About John Cotton Dana

With permission from the publisher, this profile of John Cotton Dana is reproduced from a book entitled "With Grace, Elegance, and Flair: The First 25 Years of Gustavus Library Associates" by Michael J. Haeuser (2002, Gustavus Adolphus College, pages 93-96).

One of the most coveted, perhaps the most prestigious of the awards given by ALA is the John Cotton Dana Award. The award is the responsibility of the Library Administration and Management Association (LAMA), the division of ALA that cuts across type-of-library lines to select libraries that have distinguished themselves by their public education and public relations efforts.

The John Cotton Dana Award was inaugurated at the 1946 annual conference of the American Library Association. It was named after John Cotton Dana (1856-1929), a librarian who began his career in Denver in 1889 and closed it in Newark, N.J., in 1929. In between he was one of the key figures in an era where progressive politics found willing innovators in progressive librarianship. Dana believed, along with others in the period that is known as the Progressive Era in American history, that libraries could and should play a leading role in realizing the democratic culture and egalitarian society. Dana recognized that public libraries had to identify themselves with common citizens and become a cultural center in the community, a beacon of light to attract citizens interested in educating themselves to become decision-makers in a democratic society. His views were, in many respects, revolutionary in the world of librarianship. He believed that the 19th-century library was a warehouse, an ornamental building that hoarded books and strove to keep them from the general public. The old-time library was simply a storehouse of treasures with the librarian as the chief preservation officer. Books were to be kept jealously, and used carefully only by a selected few. The 20th-century library, the progressive library, would throw its doors open to all and encourage them to come in and join in the building of a community cultural center. He set out to make the library into a democratic institution and is responsible for many innovations that are now standard library services. He ended the closed stack system whereby librarians could monitor (and suggest) which books the patron requested. Instead, citizens could go right to the open book stacks and select their own reading. Once in the stacks readers would find the lighting adequate and the books easy to reach and retrieve. To increase readership he made it easier to get a library card and lengthened the hours the library was open to meet the needs of working-class citizens. He increased the number of library books in the Denver Public Library (from 2,000 to 23,000 in four years!) and widely publicized their arrival. Most librarians saw children as not a ready fit for libraries. Their exuberance and lack of sophistication made them undesirable in a library. Let them wait. Dana saw children as full members of the community surrounding the library and welcomed them with open arms. He created the first children's room in a public library in the country, complete with appropriate furniture and children's art. He organized the first extensive classified pamphlet collection to provide useful information to citizens. Maps allowed citizens to find highways, trolley lines, water supply, sewage equipment, fire and police stations, schools and voting districts. A library newsletter not only informed citizens of books that came into the library but also of other useful information (frequently pamphlets) that Dana felt had to be available to all citizens. He stepped up the purchase of fiction (to the dismay of more traditional readers) and reached out to those who, like children, had not been welcome in libraries.

Dana believed that the main challenge for libraries was to educate the public about citizenship and their participation in it. To do so required public affairs programs energetically developed by libraries to inform the public and increase the quality of the relationship between the two. The more people knew about the library, the more they would use it. The more they used it the more they would support it and together the citizens and the library would participate in the democratic culture.

Dana's intellectual efforts, in practice, meant democratizing the library by getting rid of barriers. Obstacles like metal railings, gates, fences, came down. So did unnecessary rules and unfriendly staff. He advocated a management style that fostered experimentation and a constant testing of assumptions to see if they held up. But he also was a pioneer in what we now call public relations, marketing, and other promotional activities. He was an early practitioner of needs assessment, target audiences, goal setting, planning, and evaluation that could be quantified. He saw performance in numbers, in customer satisfaction. If readers liked a service he made sure others knew about it. If he added a new service-like creating separate children's libraries or business libraries-he made sure everyone had an opportunity to learn of it. He used newsletters, pamphlets, posters, flyers, exhibits, newspaper announcements and speeches to groups, and special events to publicize library events and encourage library use. He urged librarians to better understand their institutions from the patron's perspective-to put themselves in the worlds of actual and potential users. He was enthusiastic. He once said, "For over twenty years I have found that I leave my library with regret, however long the day has been, and return to it always with delight." In short, John Cotton Dana revolutionized the American Public Library.

When, in 1946, the American Library Association and the H.W. Wilson Publishing Company inaugurated the public relations award, they named it after the first librarian to make use of public relations to "publicize" their activities. From the beginning the John Cotton Dana Award contest has observed strict standards for selection winners. The type of awards changed little over the years, although the criteria has been frequently expanded to accommodate new techniques. The John Cotton Dana Award honors libraries that have produced a public relations program including a series of integrated activities throughout an academic or calendar year. A Special Award honors one particular aspect of a library's overall public relations program. Obviously, for the success of the GLA to be recognized, the term "library" is flexible. Awards are given for activities sponsored by libraries-promotional programs, publications, special events, educational programs, and radio public service announcements-but also for fund-raising efforts on behalf of libraries.

Marian Johnson, in 1970, had authored an article on the John Cotton Dana awards as a special research project. She was aware of the Award's history and she and Wilma Jensen immediately saw the GLA's success at fund raising as a potential entrant into the contest. Part of librarian Marian's responsibilities was to handle the promotional aspects of Bernadotte Library's activities. This included ensuring that a variety of displays, educational, informative, and entertaining, were set up almost monthly. Marian was also named the staff liaison to the GLA board and attended their meetings, as we have seen, from the beginning. She collected artifacts, brochures, and other documentation of the first two frenetic years and, along with Anne Jahl, produced a scrapbook. In early January 1979 she sent it off to New York.

It was sent to the H.W. Wilson Co. They, in turn, would empanel some ten judges in Manhattan for a week to sift through the entrants. Careful attention would be paid to the appearance, scope, and message of the scrapbooks. There were several key areas that superior entrants addressed. What is the relationship of the public relations goals and objectives to the library's long-term goals and mission? How well were resources used toward achieving quality programming? How original, innovative, and imaginative is the program being presented? How well is the project documented from start to finish? Entries are expected to contain representative photographs, newspaper clippings, and other relevant materials to support what the entrant said they did. How well is the entry organized? Is it clearly and easily understood by the judges? How well does the scrapbook represent efforts to evaluate the program? Has the library achieved its goals and has it convincingly proven it did?

In March 1979 the Gustavus Library Associates heard that it had won an award. The citation read: Special Award for its well-organized and energetic fundraising campaign resulting in increased library visibility and additional library acquisitions.

A few days later the Gustavus Library Associates received word that it was the only association connected with an academic library to win an award, and one of only nineteen chosen from 139 entries! Plans were immediately made to go to Dallas in the summer where, at the ALA Annual Conference, JCD winners would be honored at an elegant invitation-only reception attended by leaders in the library and public relations professions.

Bibliography of articles on John Cotton Dana cited in this profile:

John Cotton Dana: Libraries, Address and Essays (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969) p.17, 53. Mattson, Kevin.

"The Librarian as Secular Minister to Democracy: The Life and Ideas of John Cotton Dana," Libraries and Culture, 35 (2000), p. 515-534. Mattson emphasizes Dana's complex understanding of the intellectual thrusts of the Progressive Era.

Eldredge, Jon. "John Cotton Dana Legacy: Promoting Libraries for Users." Wilson Library Bulletin, v. 66 (April 1992), p. 48.

The quote is from John Cotton Dana: Libraries, Address and Essays (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969) p. 187.

Johnson, Marian. "John Cotton Dana, Publicity Awards, 1946-1970: A Descriptive Study." Unpublished essay, 1970. Gustarus Library Associates Collection, College Archives, St. Peter.

Eldredge, "John Cotton Dana" p. 134-135. Connie Dowell provides advice on what judges look for in "The John Cotton Dana Awards." Wilson Library Bulletin (Oct. 1994) p. 33.