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John Cotton Dana


Centurion, 1906–1929

Born 19 August 1856 in Woodstock, Vermont

Died 21 July 1929 in New York (Manhattan), New York

Buried River Street Cemetery, Woodstock, Vermont

Proposed by John S. Billings and Henry Rutgers Marshall

Elected 3 November 1906 at age fifty

Archivist’s Note: Brother of Charles L. Dana

Century Memorial

Although his professional colleagues agreed unanimously that John Cotton Dana was one of the great public librarians of our time, it is doubtful whether they admired or feared him most. He cheerfully remarked, in one address to his fellow-executives of the American Library Association, that “your library is perhaps injuring your community.” He put his criticism more mildly at another time by insisting that “a museum should be a collection of people, not objects,” and he was never satisfied with his own work at Newark until he was able to say that the public reference room was habitually used “by people who had never before entered a library.” In promoting this result, he was as inexorable a critic of his own tentative expedients as he was of other librarians’ methods; but that did not make him let off his delinquent colleagues any more easily. Our premier librarian, the urbane custodian of the National Library at Washington, wrote that Dana’s criticism could not be resented, because it was “controlled by his essential refinement, good breeding and good humor.” Even he had to admit, however, that if the controversial weapon in Dana’s hands was not a bludgeon, it was at least a rapier.

But the fact is that, behind this combative temperament, there was plainly visible what even the victims of his criticism described as the charm of a winning personality. Dana at times took a humorous view even of himself. He had been present, in the old days of free-silver propaganda, at a company which was broken up (as happened occasionally in that controversy, and as happens in the Prohibition controversy nowadays) by the harangue of a “bitter-ender.” Some one asked Dana, a little doubtfully, how he himself stood upon the question. He answered, “Oh, I am an anarchist of the Evening Post school.” A group of zealous disciples of his methods announced to him their purpose of forming a “Shakespeare club.” Dana, who disliked superfluous organizations, replied that he would prefer an anti-Shakespeare league. Apart from such amenities it had to be recognized, even by fellow-craftsmen who disagreed with Dana’s methods, that the tangible results of his program, applied on the lines which he laid down, were so notable a civic achievement, producing so deep an impression not only on the literary community of the city which he served but on its technical, educational and industrial life, that retort to his criticisms was answered in advance.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1930 Century Association Yearbook