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Helen Palmer steps down at Pitkin County Library

Meredith C. Carroll
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Meredith Carroll/Special to The Aspen TimesHelen Palmer will step down Monday after 42 years at the Pitkin County Library in Aspen.
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ASPEN – For some, attempting to locate hard-to-find books in remote libraries would be a laborious task. Helen Palmer, the interlibrary loan manager at the Pitkin County Library, has always seen it as more of a treasure hunt.

Palmer arrived in Aspen in 1967 just before Independence Pass was paved by way of Savannah, Ga., which she considers her first home. In the decades that followed, she became a kind of book detective, as well as a local expert on genealogy, the history of Aspen and its mines, delighting in helping people pinpoint a long-lost family grave, or finding a picture of a relative shoveling coal from centuries past.

“I’ve learned so much from helping people,” Palmer says, the hint of a Southern accent still detectable.

“The days just pass so quickly.”

On Monday, Palmer will step down after 42 years on the job. She’s leaving on a happy note, and heaps praise on Pitkin County librarian Kathy Chandler, the library board and the Pitkin County commissioners for the current state of the facility, which she says is growing appropriately with the changes in technology.

“I don’t see books as something that will become outdated,” she says. “They’re part of the entire library experience.”

But she’s not opposed to e-readers, and even envisions buying one. “If I did a lot of traveling – and I might just cut loose – I could get a Kindle because it would be convenient to not have a suitcase full of books.”

When she does travel, Palmer, 69, says she always visits other libraries. Oftentimes librarians recognize her as one of them – just as she can always spot a librarian from elsewhere on her own stomping grounds.

But in her retirement she mostly plans on staying in Aspen and continuing volunteering on the Friends of Marolt board, chipping away on a family tree, and possibly working with the Aspen Historical Society to learn even more about the city.

“In other words, pursuits that were always on the edge of the 40-hour work week previously,” she says.

Palmer trusts that after she leaves, the library will continue to provide access to people who need it the most. And while the position she’s vacating will be filled, the responsibilities at the library are beginning to shift. Later this month, Pitkin County Library will be linked to a system that contains 23 million volumes in Colorado, which will allow patrons to access an online database with their library cards from home and request materials that will be delivered to the library in Aspen. What can’t be located can still be acquired via interlibrary loan.

“Resource sharing is so important,” says Palmer. “There’s no such thing as a small library anymore.”

She doesn’t have a favorite book, but she’s especially fond of Eric Newby and reads “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” every year. She also enjoys poetry, Edward Abbey and Woody Creek’s Hunter S. Thompson. Palmer believes that readers feel close to writers like Abbey and Thompson because of how they shared the intimate details of their lives in their books. And she knows all too well the impact that the right kind of writing can make.

“People who work in a library are in a position of help – helping people find what they need can really make a difference in their lives,” she says.

She’s helped make a difference on more than one occasion. Palmer recalls the time she found a young man wandering aimlessly through the stacks of books. He confessed he was getting married shortly and was coming up blank when it came to material for his vows.

She typed up William Butler Yeats’ “A Drinking Song” poem and told him to tape it inside his wrist and read it to his bride at the ceremony. A few days later, a horse and buggy rode up to the front door of the library and the bride and groom came inside to share their appreciation, some hugs and a plate of cake with Palmer.

“The best part of Aspen is the people who live here. They’re the heart of it,” she says. “Seeing the community and really feeling part of it because you see everyone in a really good environment — the library.”

“She had a good way with people and a great sense of humor. She was the personification of the library as she walked around town,” says Chandler. “People really associated her with the library.”

Susan Keenan, the Pitkin County children’s librarian, has worked with Palmer for 27 years and calls her “irreplaceable … The thing that strikes me is her knowledge of the history and culture of Aspen. For as many years as she’s been here, she’s been extremely helpful to us at the library. She’s the go-to person, and we’ll really miss her.

“We have the resources, but not her personal knowledge.”

Chandler agrees. “She’s seen kids grow up and become parents themselves. She was our most valuable asset for her overall knowledge of Aspen. But it’s not like she’s moving away. We still have her phone number.”

As far as Palmer’s concerned, while she’s already brought her maps, files and books home from work, she bought a laptop and printer for Christmas and is most certainly not riding off into the sunset, as she’ll keep doing what she’s best at, which is making artful connections between the past and the present.

“There are no answers, only cross references … Just give me Google and a pencil,” she says.

A public reception celebrating her retirement will be held from 4-6 p.m. Monday at the library, which is located at 120 N. Mill St.


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