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The Byers branch of the Denver Public Library drew a sizeable crowd when it opened in June 1918. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library/Western History Collection

How Two 100-Year-Old Libraries Are Adapting to a Digital World

The William H. Smiley and William N. Byers branches of the Denver Public Library are up for renovation—and reenvisioning.

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As one of the great steel and railroad magnates of the 19th century, Andrew Carnegie was a literal builder of cities. But the active philanthropist figuratively built up society, too, by funding the construction of more than 1,500 libraries across North America. “I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people,” he wrote in the New York Herald. “They reach the aspiring, and open to these the chief treasures of the world—those stored up in books.”

Eight of those libraries were built in Denver, and residents greeted their openings, from 1913 to 1920, with the same enthusiasm as Carnegie did. When the William N. Byers branch was dedicated in June 1918, at Santa Fe Drive and West Seventh Avenue, business owners closed their stores and gathered at the new building to celebrate. With ivory walls, sandstone trim, and a red- and gray-tiled roof that evoked the sunbaked homes of southern Italy, the structure was, as a 1918 Library Journal article stated, “one of the most beautiful and artistic libraries in the city.” The charms of both Byers and the English-cottage-like William H. Smiley branch, which opened in Berkeley in September 1918, haven’t protected them from financial struggles amid the past century’s cultural shifts. The internet has replaced books as the primary portal to knowledge. E-readers offer a lighter alternative to schlepping around tomes. And Amazon’s cost-cutting measures have made it nearly as practical to buy as to borrow.

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So where does that leave local libraries? The Byers location nearly closed in 2009, but City Council members pressured then Mayor John Hickenlooper to keep it open. This past November, 70 percent of Denver voters passed a ballot measure that gave the Denver Public Library system $63 million for renovations as part of the GO Bond package. The Central Library will receive the bulk of the money; together, Byers and Smiley will get about $3 million.

Denver library staffers are using the opportunity to make not only structural updates, but also visionary ones. In many ways, that strategy involves channeling the longtime ethos of the surrounding neighborhoods. Smiley was originally built near the Berkeley playground to serve the children who played there. Now, the branch will host neighborhood concerts to appeal to young families in the area.

The Byers branch hopes to tap into the vibrant Art District on Santa Fe scene and put on events that showcase the area’s Latino heritage. Already, a mural of Hispanic leaders titled “Pasado, Presente, Futuro” hangs above the building’s circulation desk. It’s a good reminder that while times have changed, people haven’t­­—and there’s still plenty of treasure to be found in the world of books.

Centennial Celebration: Smiley will host a free concert in Berkeley Park on each First Friday from May to September. Byers is also throwing a birthday bash with complimentary music and food on June 23 from 2 to 4 p.m.

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