Spring 2004

Mowers Tree logo

Cather and Malcolm Glenn Wyer at the Denver Public Library

by John Irwin, Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

Colorado's history and Western vistas were a reoccurring attraction for Cather, and the state figured prominently in several of her books. She must also have enjoyed visiting Denver. The Rocky Mountains looming majestically above the city and the fresh mountain air would have offered a striking contrast to her life in New York City. In spite of its remoteness, Denver was a sophisticated urban oasis in the vast Western hinterland, the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco.

She portrayed Denver as a place to escape to from the confines of smalltown Nebraska. In Lucy Gayheart, Harry Gordon fled west on the 2 a.m. Union Pacific train to Denver assuaging his guilt in Lucy's tragic drowning. In later years, in bitter disillusionment, he headed again to this Western city to escape his suffering: "His farms were scattered far and wide, and he lived on the road. He often went to Denver for the week-end, 'driving like the devil.' He got into thinking aloud as he drove; talking, indeed to his motor engine. Once when he had his wife along, he forgot himself and came out with: 'Well, its a life sentence'" (221).

No doubt Cather liked the amenities of the venerable Oxford and Brown Palace Hotels and the imposing architecture of the St. Johns of the Wilderness Episcopal Cathedral and the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Denver's lively music and theatrical scene would also have caught her attention.

Denver was also a place she came to do research. One fateful day in the mid-1920s Cather met with Malcolm Glen Wyer, the City Librarian of the Denver Public Library, about an important concern. One can imagine Cather ushered into Wyer's office with the dignified grace of Thea Kronborg. Thirty years later Wyer recalled the incident: "Soon after we actively began building the Western History collection, Willa Cather spent several weeks in our Library researching the early history of Colorado and New Mexico in preparation for her book, Death Comes For The Archbishop. In discussing her work, she expressed regret that several important books on this region were not in our Library, nor had she been able to locate them in other libraries in either Colorado or New Mexico. Miss Cather commented on the importance of library facilities for literary and historical study, especially in a city such as Denver which provided the only large public library in the entire region. As an author, she considered it the obligation of a library such as ours to furnish essential regional materials for scholarship and research. This visit confirmed the wisdom of our objectives for establishing the Western History collection" (Western 8).

Cather was correct. By the 1920s, outside of California, there were still few library research collections of note, academic or public, in the intermountain West. There had been an effort to collect books about Colorado at DPL since the early 1900s. Wyer, however, recognized that many important sources were not being systematically gathered and preserved anywhere in the West. Mirroring the theme of the looting of Cliff Citys treasures in Cather's The Professors House, he rationalized: In view of the scarcity of publications relating to the Rocky Mountain region, the competition for these publications among private collectors and eastern libraries, and the rapid growth of collectors, the importance of a comprehensive collection on the West in a regional center such as Denver became increasing evident. It was also apparent that a growing demand was placed upon the Public Library for source materials relating to Colorado, the Rocky Mountain West, and the many facets of the development of this great area. There was no library which could assemble such a comprehensive collection as logically as the Denver Public Library, nor one which could make such a collection so easily available to students, writers and research workers. The Library Commission considered service and accessibility as important as acquisition and so accepted the responsibly of establishing a Western History Collection which would meet the needs of the present and the future (Western 7).

Wyer was a rare combination of scholar and bookman. He took direct, personal involvement in developing this research collection, and in 1935 it had grown to the level that the Library officially established the Western History Department. From the beginning, one of the distinctive aspects was its focus upon the entire trans-Mississippi West, Alaska, Hawaii and Borderlands. There are now many local and state collections in public, university, and historical society libraries, but to this day the DPL collection is one of the few that transcends state boundaries to view at the West as a comprehensive region. Many of the most distinguished Western Americana collections in research institutions germinated from the holdings of private collectors. The DPL collection is also unusual in that it was built incrementally from scratch by generations of dedicated librarians and archivists in a public library setting.

Another significant aspect was Wyer's interest in the visual heritage of the West. In the 1930s and 1940s he collected Western art at unbelievably low prices long before most other collectors and institutions became interested. As a result, significant holdings of such luminaries as Catlin, Bodmer, Remington, Moran, and Bierstadt now reside at the Library.

Over the decades, through flush and thin budgets, the Library continued to make a serious attempt at acquiring source materials about the West.Growth was steady with the assistance of early grants from the Carnegie Corporation, and ongoing donations of materials and funds by thousands of supportive individuals. Special trust funds established by generous donors especially contributed to expansion of research materials and services. As the collection grew, its notoriety and use increased exponentially. It became known as one of the premiere comprehensive research collections of Western Americana.

New initiatives enlarged the scope. In the 1970s the accession of voluminous quantities of Rocky Mountain area manuscript collections became another focus, and in the 1990s the Library was recognized as a national pioneer in the digitization of photographs and images. Now there are 100,000 online digital Western images available to the world via the Library's homepage. An endowment fund established the Caroline Bancroft Western History Prize in 1987. The staff annually chooses the most distinguished book on Western history published the preceding year. This national award is unique among America' public libraries.

In 1995 the Western History and Genealogy Collections combined into an integrated service unit on the fifth level of Michael Graves' award-winning new Central Library building in Denver's Civic Center. At this time the other important research collections were merged in the operation of the new Department, the Conservation Collection, the 10th Mountain Division Collection, the Douglas History of Printing and Book Arts collection and the Ross-Barrett Early History of Aviation Collection. Graves' imposing 15,000 pound, three-story wooden sculpture, "The Derrick," forms an integral part of the Gates Western History Reading Room. As a distinctive symbol of the West, it is a striking visual testament to the importance of the collection and the rich research opportunities available in this reading room.

In spite of current budget restrictions, the Western History Collection continues to grow. It now numbers 200,000 cataloged books, maps, broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers and serials, dissertations, architectural drawings, in addition to thousand of objects of original art, 3,800 manuscript collections in 13,000 boxes, 150 shelves of newspaper clipping files and nearly a million photographs. Its bulging vaults contain a remarkable quantity of unique, priceless, rare and obscure items awaiting researchers. Thirty-eight reference librarians, archivists, catalogers, subject specialists and support staff care it for and make it accessible to the public.

Fulfilling its original intention for a priority on access, each day the reading room bustles with activity from a multitude of diverse users. A sixth-grade student working on a school report may be sitting at the same table as a distinguished scholar researching a book. In addition to on-site use, each year thousands of researchers, scholars, and students from the U.S. and other countries seek assistance via phone, correspondence and email.

Did Cather and Wyer warmly receive each other at this meeting, as they learned of their similar origins, connections, and interests? Both were the same generation Midwesterners and both lived in Lincoln and were associated with the University of Nebraska, although at different periods. It is possible that they knew people in common, such as Louise Pound, in Lincoln and the University of Nebraska. Wyer presided in the 1890s university library building of which Cather as a student wrote about the scandal of its construction. Both were at the forefront of their professions, and they shared a deep interest in the history and literature of the West.

Born in Concordia Kansas in 1877, Wyer's family moved to Minneapolis when he was young. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in 1899 and an M.A. in 1901. He received a Bachelor of Library Science degree from the New York State Library School in 1903, and embarked upon a noteworthy library career that spanned the next fifty years. First he served as librarian at Colorado College, and later as Director of the University of Iowa Library. From 1913 to 1924 he was Library Director at the University of Nebraska. He contrasted his experience in Lincoln to Iowa City: At Nebraska there was much more informality in the campus and university life and greater intermingling of faculty and townspeople in the social life of the community" (Books 22). No doubt Cather would have agreed with this statement from her own experience in Lincoln.

Wyer became Denver City Librarian in 1924 and continued in this position until his retirement in 1951. In Denver he entered the limelight of his profession. Today Wyer is most remembered for beginning the Western History Collection, but this was only one aspect of his distinguished career. He was a brilliant library visionary who combined high energy and focused determination to accomplish his goals. His leadership and far ranging activities and interests were legendary, and for them he achieved national fame in library circles.

Remarkably, at the height of the budget cutting Depression, he set about making Denver into a bibliographical powerhouse. He indefatigably built services and collections so that DPL became the largest and most distinguished public library system in the intermountain West. He saw opportunity in every direction for local and regional development, founding the Adult Education Council in 1930 (the first library-centered council in the U.S.) and the Bibliographical Center for Research in 1934, which became a national prototype for regional library cooperation and systems. In addition, he founded the University of Denver School of Librarianship, and held the position of Dean from 1931 —1948, while at the same time serving as Director of Libraries at the University of Denver, 1933-1948. He may be the only librarian in America ever to have concurrently been a library director at a large public library, a university library, and a teaching dean. He served as president of the Iowa Library Association, the Nebraska Library Association, the Nebraska Library Commission, the Colorado Library Association and the American Library Association, as well as receiving numerous honors and honorary degrees that continued until his death in 1965.

Cather correspondence does not exist in either the Wyer manuscript collection or the DPL archives, but one would like to think that after this first meeting Cather stopped in to see Wyer whenever she visited Denver. Her influential role in justifying founding the Western History Collection is still a vivid part of the Library's folklore, as the story is passed down from one generation of librarians and archivists to the next.

Today Cather and Wyer would no doubt be amazed with the immense size and worldwide accessibility of this collection, the ongoing fulfillment of the idea they discussed that day in the Library eighty years ago. From a small seed indeed a mighty tree has grown.

Visit the Library's homepage at www.denverlibrary.org to learn more about Denver's wetern History Collection.

Works Cited

Cather,Willa. Lucy Gayheart. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1935.
Wyer, Malcolm Glen. Books and People: Short Anecdotes From A Long Experience. Denver: Old West Publishing Company, 1964.
——. Western History Department:Its Be- ginning and Growth. Revised Edition. Denver: Denver Public Library, 1965.