Willoughby: Community effort in time of hardship leaves a long-lasting benefit

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Originally, the Pitkin County Library occupied the Wheeler Opera House.
Willoughby collection

“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean reminds me of Aspen’s effort to establish a library. Orlean writes about the 1986 fire at Los Angeles Central Library, which destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Two-thousand volunteers packed 50,000 boxes of damaged books, destined for freezers to protect them from mold. Similarly, a different fire and that same kind of community help affected the beginning of Aspen’s library.

In the years before Aspen established a public library, local school libraries grew, over time, through donated volumes. The high school library contained many reference books, especially those for history. Works of great literature and collections of poetry filled the shelves.

But 60 years passed with no public library. This left readers with few sources of books. To attract members, the volunteer fire department offered amenities at the fire stations, and these included reading material. And some fraternal orders, chiefly the Elks, maintained libraries at their meeting halls.

The major book lender worked for profit. Cooper Book and Stationary, a retailer that sold books, opened a lending library in 1905. They offered 400 books to choose from. You could borrow books and magazines for $0.10 a week, or $1 a year — in today’s dollars, $2.80 a week or $28 a year. By the end of the year, 300 members had joined.

Membership grew, as did the collection. In 1912, 450 members shared 500 books. By 1920, the collection had grown to 1,000 books, and included all of the Tarzan series, which were popular at the time. In 1937, Cooper’s tripled their rates and advertised the acquisition of “Gone With The Wind.” But the price increase may have provided the impetus to create a public library.

Christine Hart, the county superintendent of schools, talked several locals — including Louise Berg and Dorothy Shaw — into forming a library association. They named themselves the Pitkin County Library Association. They announced that although the library would be located in Aspen, it would open its doors to everyone in the county.

The association members approached the city of Aspen to provide a location. (Here is where fire comes under consideration.) The city had acquired the Wheeler Opera House for back taxes. The upper floors had suffered a major fire, and the building did not attract tenants. Beck and Bishop Grocery, the main lease, occupied the ground floor. The previous site of Wheeler’s bank, also on the ground floor, stood empty, and the City agreed to lease it for free.

Helen Collins, the newly hired librarian, set to work alongside volunteers to bring the plan to fruition. The clean, repaired bank looked like a library in every respect except one: the safe. When my mother volunteered at the library, I would hide inside that cramped space, unnoticed alongside the old and dusty books that nobody wanted.

Volunteers collected 100 children’s books and word spread, seeking more donations. The library opened in October 1938, with 1,000 books — nearly all donated. The Theater Guild produced two plays a year, and used one as a fundraiser, which brought in $750 in today’s dollars. The Library Association put on a roller skating event at Armory Hall and raised a similar amount. Volunteers turned up in support everywhere. Sheriff Otto Johnson cleared the steps of snow and ice all winter. The library secured 200 books from the state traveling library, and Leo Light, a rancher and mine owner, donated 245 books from his private collection.

During the first year, almost 700 books were borrowed in one month, nearly the complete collection. With repeat lending, annual circulation totaled 5,742 checkouts.

Through community effort and generosity, the library raised (in today’s dollars) $5,000 the first year and spent $3,900. All of this occurred during the Great Depression.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at


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