A new chapter for longtime Pitkin County library director | AspenTimes.com

A new chapter for longtime Pitkin County library director

Longtime Pitkin County Library Director Kathy Chandler stepped down from her role Sunday.
Courtesy Kathy Chandler

After 44 years as library director at the Pitkin County Library, Kathy Chandler will step out from behind the library information desk for the last time.

“I am 70. And it’s — as we say in the library business — long overdue,” she joked about her retirement. 

Sunday was the first day for Genevieve Smith, the former assistant library director, in the top spot. Chandler will phase out of her role, finishing up some projects and working as a temp until about June. 

“It’s just fun seeing all the familiar faces walk through the building,” she said. “(Like) people that have been using the library longer than I’ve been here that I get to say hello to, so that’ll be a real change.”

Chandler grew up on a small farm in rural Illinois and never set foot in a library until she was about 7 years old. The bookmobile came to her school, and that was as close as she got to a library until her mother got a job as a secretary at a nearby college. On her lunch breaks, she would pick up Chandler and her siblings for a swim at the college pool. After splashing around for an hour or so, they’d walk downtown to the library.

Her brothers found their love for aviation among the magazine shelves and Chandler found that the library held a wealth of knowledge just waiting for her to take advantage. When she got a term paper assignment in high school, she used the reader’s guide to periodical literature in the library to find magazine articles about survivors of the Titanic disaster. 

“I always liked reading,” she recalled. “And there were interviews with the (captain) of the boat that picked up survivors. And I remember that my English teacher wrote on the back, ‘Wherever did you get these sources?’ And anyway, (the library) just always made a lot of sense to me.”

Chandler (right) with Assistant Library Director Mary Beth Grossman in front of the Main Street library in 1984. Grossman passed away from cancer a year later.
Courtesy photo

After going to college and working in other libraries, her older sister called her out to the Colorado high country in 1979. 

“She got in touch with me and said the Aspen job was open. So I applied and got the job at that point. I had kind of followed in her footsteps. … She’d been the Vail librarian for a long time. And then she was the Eagle County librarian,” she said. “So we kind of had a corner on the market for the ski libraries for a while.”

When Chandler started work, 1965 Main St. still housed the Pitkin County Library. The book collection and services were rapidly outgrowing the space, and the incoming library director would eventually need to oversee the move to a new location. 

Chandler looks back on the move to the current Mill Street location in 1991 as one of her biggest accomplishments. 

“It’s hard to get things built in Aspen, because everybody’s got an opinion,” she said with a knowing smirk. “And that’s a double edged sword. It’s great because things get really discussed. And by the time something finally happens, hopefully you’ve got some good buy in. But when I started, I spent 12 years in an old library building. We had so outgrown that building before we were able to get this built. And we spent a lot of time not knowing what needed to happen to get the public ear that we needed to get a new building.”

Chandler (right) with Assistant Library Director Mary Beth Grossman in front of the Main Street library in 1984. Grossman passed away from cancer a year later.
Courtesy photo

The new building opened just its primary floor first, with renovations to the mezzanine and the basement to come later. In 2016, Chandler oversaw a renovation that improved building infrastructure and energy efficiency, expanded the children’s reading area and ensured Americans with Disabilities Act compliance across the entire building. 

Along with settling into the new location, Chandler oversaw the technology-boom that revolutionized how people access information.

Molly Ireland has worked at the Pitkin County Library for 29 years, after Chandler convinced her to take a job. They have worked alongside each other as friends and book lovers for decades, and Ireland said that Chandler’s leadership was instrumental to the library’s success in modernizing.

“She is a forward thinker. She does not get stuck in the past. The principles don’t change in the form of librarianship, but how you apply them using new (technology does),” Ireland said. “I mean, my God, when I started working here, we were still working on the card catalog and the world has changed massively since then. And she is not afraid to embrace new technology and to empower her staff to investigate and to do the same.”

Chandler oversaw the library’s joining the Marmot Consortium in 1985, a collective of libraries across Colorado to better access library service and construction grant money. Computers were large and expensive back then, and working as a group helped to get the library catalogs and patron information totally computerized.

And for patrons, using technology and the internet vastly expanded library offerings. Around 1997, the computer lab opened for patrons to surf the web and use computer services like printing. 

“What’s just miraculous is everything that’s on the internet,” Chandler said. “Now we have subscriptions where people can get into The New York Times with their library card, just all kinds of things: Rosetta Stone to learn language, Hoopla (for streaming). There are all kinds of databases that Genevieve Smith keeps track of and keeps us subscriptions going for.”

Chandler also pointed to the library’s service to virtually catalog Aspen’s newspapers as a major accomplishment. Through the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection, the archives of almost all Aspen newspapers are accessible online. The Aspen Times archives are available through 1986, during its run as a weekly paper. 

“We just had a gentleman from Texas come up and was looking for some information on a murder trial from back in the 1990s,” she said. “And so we said, ‘Oh, well, you just checked this.’ And he said, oh, if he’d known he wouldn’t have had to drive up here.” 

A staff picnic in 2000 with Bob Keenan, Anne Hillmuth, Carol McArdell, Kathy Chandler, Jocelyn Durrance and Michael Chandler.
Courtesy photo

Over her multi-decade career at the library, Chandler oversaw the expansion of her team, along with the expansion of the library’s physical space. Her job morphed from mainly a reader to the “face of the library,” though that job meant something different than what you might imagine.

“There’s a lot of people that just think that if you work in the library that you just get to read books all the time. And really, a lot of my job has,” she said. “When I started, I used to do collection development, which is reading all the book reviews and deciding what’s going to go into the adult collection. As the library got bigger and the staff got bigger, I had to pass that on to somebody else.”

Responsibility for collection development and deciding which books make it on the shelves fell across the library staff. And as libraries became a target for culture-war debates over appropriate reading for children in recent years, Chandler made sure to protect the collection.

“Librarians are trying their best to be ready to defend their collection and other people’s right to access (books) and the freedom to read,” she said. “We can’t say that this information is not available to the other people who want their children to have it just because some other parent doesn’t want their kid to have access to that information.

The Pitkin County Library’s protocol for book challenges involves a staff committee to review the book and that they took the preventative measure to block book challenges from non-community members. 

Smith, a Roaring Fork Valley native, started at the library nearly 13 years ago. Learning from Chandler’s leadership style set her up for success and the library for a smooth transition, she said.

During the pandemic, Chandler oversaw expanded programming to get take-home kits and nearly all library services available virtually or socially-distanced. The children’s programming attendance dipped at COVID-19’s peaks, and the library is gaining traction again with the kids.

“I’ve had a long time to model this kindness and (ethics) that she demonstrates with not not only the staff, but with multigenerational patrons of all socioeconomic backgrounds. She has created such a welcoming environment and I’ve learned from experience,” Smith said of her predecessor. “She’s taught us that it’s our privilege to serve the public in this capacity. And it is not us versus the public.”

Ireland agreed that Chandler’s leadership made the library a wonderful place to work, and that she understood the importance of work-life balance long before it became trendy. 

“She understood that people’s lives came first. And if you had a sick pet, or a snow day, and you had to watch your kids, she accommodated people. And I’ll tell you what, boy does that go a long way,” Ireland said.

And when Ireland’s husband had a bad accident last year and needed to be flown to Denver, Chandler jumped to help without a second thought. She drove Ireland down to the Denver hospital, dropped her off, and drove right back up to Aspen. 

“She just drops everything to help her staff,” Ireland said.

As Chandler phases out of her role, she said, she will miss her staff and constantly being surrounded by rows and rows of books. But after hearing a story about a colleague being recognized in the library that she used to run, Chandler said she is excited to have her own similar moment. 

“I’m looking forward to that,” she said, “to be able to come in and have somebody ask me if I didn’t used to be somebody here.”

The library will host a party for Chandler and longtime Pitkin Library Board member Barbara Smith on Wednesday from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Dunaway Community Room. The public is invited.


See more