The Pitkin County Library: Much more than books |

The Pitkin County Library: Much more than books

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – A Pitkin County Library card may be the best deal around.

Consider this: Come January, it will offer free access to some 23 million books, along with countless magazine articles, The New York Times’ online archives, digital downloads and an in-house selection of music CDs, videos and DVDs, among other resources. Even the card itself is free.

Like the card, the county library has come a long way since a group of local educators founded the first library in an unused space on the first floor of Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House building, back in 1935, fostering the circulation of what were, at first, mostly donated books among eager readers in a secluded mountain town.

That fledgling effort, in the space now occupied by Bentley’s, grew into a true library and moved to Main Street in 1965, occupying a building that now houses Design Workshop. In September 1991, the county unveiled what is likely the library’s permanent home – the familiar Mill Street building that has morphed from a warehouse for books into a repository of information stored far beyond its brick walls.

Now, the library is readying for its next leap, with an expansion and remodeling project that Librarian Kathy Chandler anticipates will position the library for an exciting and unpredictable future – one that Aspenites 60 years ago could not have imagined as they plucked a neighbor’s Depression-era Book of the Month Club contribution from the shelves at the Wheeler.

Even Chandler, hired as chief librarian in 1979, could not have predicted the evolution of libraries that has taken place in her tenure. Case in point is “Old Fashioned Recipes,” a book that remained on the local library’s shelves for years, though staffers pressed her to take to take it out of circulation in the never-ending push to make room for newer volumes. The book contained one recipe, for cookie dough Christmas ornaments (hard, inedible creations with a shellac-like coating), that someone always wanted when the holidays rolled around, Chandler said.

Now, with an unquantifiable array of information, including the recipe, available in a few quick computer keystrokes, the book is unnecessary, though Chandler insists it’s collecting dust somewhere in her cluttered office. She keeps it around as a reminder of a time when books on the library shelves represented a local resident’s best hope of finding the information they needed.

“Before the Internet, what you had for your resources was what you had in your public library,” Chandler said. “This was the best shot you were going to have at finding things.”

So, when the current library was designed and built, it was with storage capacity in mind – hence the rows of narrowly spaced stacks, loaded with books from the floor to above a patron’s head.

“It was the biggest library between Grand Junction and Denver,” Chandler said. “I guess it still is.”

The library’s current collection numbers roughly 120,000 items, but in this multi-media age, that number represents more than books on shelves, and it defines one of the existing facility’s challenges. Libraries aren’t just about books anymore.

A popular genre – author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example – doesn’t just mean keeping copies of all seven books about the fictional adolescent wizard on hand. The books are available at the library in both English and Spanish, as are DVDs and videotapes of the movies spawned by the series. Motion picture soundtracks and books on tape for some of the volumes are also available. A patron might also find an Mp3 player, with a digital audio recording of a Potter book already downloaded for the listener, available to check out. With a library card, a patron could download a book to their own Mp3 player, for free.

And, those who are looking to check out a book aren’t limited to what they find in the local library. The Pitkin County Library is a member of the Marmot Library Network, an online system that essentially tosses out the traditional card catalog and, via the Internet, links a consortium of Western Slope libraries that have paid to join. Card holders at member libraries have access to 1.3 million volumes. Items can be checked out through Marmot with a library card from any computer – not just from within the library – and will arrive in Aspen via courier, usually in a few days. A book borrowed from, say, Grand Junction, can be returned to the library in Aspen, where it is collected and transported back to the library that that loaned it out.

Given the size of the local library’s collection, it gets tapped regularly by library patrons elsewhere on the Western Slope, according to Chandler.

“We lend more than we borrow because we have a really good collection here,” she said.

In January, Marmot will tie into a similar, Front Range system called Prospector, that will put some 23 million volumes within reach of Pitkin County Library users, including the collections at the Denver Public Library and University of Colorado.

That same library card provides access to The New York Times archives, investment resources like Morningstar and Value Line, and thousands of magazine issues dating back 20 to 25 years that have now been digitally archived. All a user needs is the ID number on their library card and a computer with Internet access. None of this information is free, but the library is a subscriber, making access free to card holders, Chandler explained.

“If your dishwasher breaks, you can sit down at home and get into Consumer Reports for free – that’s what your taxes pay for,” she said.

Despite a staggering array of books and other resources available from elsewhere, plenty of patrons venture into the warmth and relative calm of the local library for a host of reasons.

A typical day finds Aspen resident Dr. Martha Susan Horton browsing the basement DVD collection. A former area resident, she moved to town from Mexico last February and was quickly impressed by the library’s DVD and video collection. The latter includes hard-to-find BBC and PBS programming. The opera selection, she says, is remarkable.

“Honestly, they have one of the best collections of videos in the world,” she proclaimed. “The minute I moved here, I got a library card – and it’s free. It’s wonderful.”

Horton relates the story of a houseguest, a classical musician researching the music of Spain, who found original manuscripts by Spanish composer Manuel Defia in the library’s collection.

“You know, you don’t find that in a typical library,” she said.

The library also keeps an impressive collection of record albums – items it does not lend, but retains for research, mostly by individuals associated with the Aspen Music Festival and School. Yes, there’s a turntable, too.

Music CDs are another big draw, and patrons withdraw stacks at a time.

On the main floor, computers available to the public see a constant rotation of users, though the demand for them has slacked off as more and more patrons come in with their own laptops and make use of the library’s wireless Internet availability. At one point, users of the library’s computers were limited to 30 minutes and there could be a wait to access one. Now that use has eased up, the limit is an hour.

When the present library opened in 1991, it had two computers for public use. Now, it has 35. Their use is as varied as their users. One recent early afternoon, Seattle freelance photographer Reese Raybon, in town to shoot World Cup ski racing on Aspen Mountain, conducted business at one computer, while new arrival Knox McLendon was keeping tabs with folks back home on another. McLendon, from North Carolina, has a seasonal job with the Aspen Skiing Co., but no computer of his own.

“This is where I keep in touch with friends and family,” he said, checking his Facebook page, e-mail account and fantasy football league standings.

Later, after the school day had ended, students begin to trickle in. As darkness fell, an English tutor assisted a Spanish speaker at one table in the second-floor mezzanine section while four Aspen High School sophomores engaged in as much laughter as study at another.

“It’s really quiet – with us not here,” quipped student Sophie Ledingham, trying to concentrate on a math assignment.

The lack of distractions, present company excepted, makes the library appealing, agreed Chandler Golbus, homework spread out in front of her. “When you come to the library, you know you’re going to do work,” she said.

Students working together at the library is a common sight, according to Chandler. Libraries are no longer hushed environments where stern librarians shush anyone who speaks at volumes louder than a whisper, she noted.

“Instead of having the whole place like a tomb, you have quiet rooms,” she said.

That is but one vision for the library as it plans an expansion that would add about 9,400 square feet of space, spread over two floors, on the east side of the building, bringing the entire, three-story structure to roughly 30,000 square feet. Conceptual plans for the nearly $10 million project, including a substantial reconfiguring of the existing space, will likely see plenty of public scrutiny in the coming year.

The goal is positioning the library to function as more than a book repository.

“New libraries are designed to let people enjoy the collection – have the spontaneity of discovery, if you will, like a bookstore,” Chandler said.

To that end, shorter stacks and more enticing displays of books are planned. CDs would be easier to browse, in bins that allow the disc cases to face forward. And the items that are used most heavily would be easiest to access – media such as CDs and DVDs, the children’s library and fiction would go on the ground floor, while non-fiction would move to the basement.

The plans include adding study rooms and creating a meeting space that can be accessed for public use even when the library is closed. Second-floor deck space that takes advantage of the outdoor views is also proposed in the conceptual drawings.

A cafe for coffee and such has been suggested – Chandler isn’t keen on the idea but will see where public discussion takes the proposal – but the library gave a nod to the concept this year with the installation of a self-serve coffee stand. A cup of coffee or tea is one of the few things the library charges a fee for – it’s $1 per cup.

The late fee remains a nominal 10 cents per day, unchanged since 1968. The fee for an overdue book was 2 cents when the library first opened in the Wheeler.

A library card, or membership card as it was once called, was $1 in 1935, according to a report in The Aspen Times by original library founder Christine Eriksen Hart, published in 1991 in conjunction with the opening of the present library. The library also charged 10 cents to check out the best and most recent books in its collection, Hart recalled.

Today, a library card isn’t just free to Pitkin County residents, but to everyone. Non-resident cards used to cost $10, but after the library received a couple of sizable gifts in 2007, the fee was dropped.

With or without a library card, patrons can sink into a stuffed chair or spread out at one of the expansive tables – a feature Chandler said she insisted upon with the cramped quarters of the typical Aspen worker’s digs in mind.

“This is the one place in town where it doesn’t cost you anything to exist,” she said.

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