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Chris Painter: Books are the foundation

35 years invested in a special small-town library

Chris Painter smiles during a surprise party attended by co-workers, friends and family members this week celebrating her 35 years with the Bud Werner Memorial Library.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Bud Werner Memorial Library Director Chris Painter set her mind on building a staff of department heads who were university-trained librarians, she quickly found out it would be difficult to attract new hires to a ski town like Steamboat Springs with its high cost of living.

Instead, Painter, who is marking her 35th year at the library, named to honor one of the community’s Olympic skiing heroes, set out to nurture her own team of professionals. She convinced the board of trustees overseeing the library district to offer scholarships to worthy department heads who were willing to tackle the added work needed to earn their master’s degrees while promising to work at least two years longer at the library in Steamboat.

The result has been a library staff capable of helping other scholars with their research projects on the development of the American West, while enriching the experience of Steamboat residents.

“I was the first one,” Digital Services Librarian Alysa Selby said. “It was the summer of 2001, and it changed my life. I went from being a ski instructor/library employee to one of the very lucky few that had a full-time job that I just adore.”

Since that time, Painter has mentored four others: Sarah Kostin, the current youth services librarian; Jackie Kuusinen, former reference librarian; John Major, current reference librarian; and now Nina Darlington, the newest associate technical services/collection management librarian.

The library staff was preparing this month to observe the 35th anniversary of Painter’s tenure at “The Bud.”

Longtime library trustee Denny Swanson said that in the early 1980s, the task at hand was creating room for more books than the original A-frame library building at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and 13th Street could accommodate.

“With the approval of the voters, we were able to add onto the library, but there wasn’t enough money left to buy new books,” said Swanson with a sheepish laugh. “We had to go back to the community and ask them to pass another referendum for the books.”

Another significant landmark was the Library Hall addition, which allowed the library to diversify its offering with author talks and films for example. But Painter had bigger dreams that were realized in the 2012 expansion project that tripled the size of the library, allowing the Bud to leap into the digital age.

One of the most significant aspects of the new building was the modern children’s library.

“We have touch screen computers and internet computers for the older kids,” Kosten said. “We also have portable audio books the kids just love. We can’t keep them on the shelves.”

But that doesn’t mean traditional books have been stowed in closets in the children’s wing.

“They still dominate in our culture here,” she said. “Chris has always said the library was to teach kids to love stories and to love learning and, most of all, to love the library and see it as a welcoming place.

“That has made my job so great over the last 10 years — to infuse joy to kids through books, and that really has come from Chris,” Kostin added.

The upper level of the library is where the non-fiction books are shelved. But there’s much more going on there.

The library has, at the same time, afforded its patrons computer workstations and the guidance they need to apply for employment online, file their income taxes and learn to get the most out of their personal digital devices.

Major’s reference staff took on the detailed work involved in digitizing and posting the historic Three Wire Winter oral stories told to students and their teachers at Steamboat Springs High School in the 1970s. Those rare oral histories now allow scholars, and others who are curious, to learn about the pioneer experience in one small corner of the American West.

Staff members will even use their expertise in genealogy to help library patrons find long-lost relatives.

“Chris is the force that drives public love for the library and library service to the community,” Major said.

Selby describes her boss as a tireless worker who always has what’s best for her employees in mind.

“I look back over the years and the thing I most appreciate about Chris and working for the library is the enormous flexibility Chris gives to staff,” she said.  “If we have an idea and it fits the library’s mission, we never hear the word ‘no.’ In my 20-plus years, I have had the privilege of managing yampavalley.info and starting our first digitization project with the Colorado Historic Newspapers.”

“Chris is a rare combination of being a skilled administrator and a thoughtful encourager, a consummate organizer and a creative instigator, a visionary and yet one who is anxious to listen to and support the ideas of her staff and community members,” concluded Barb Ross, president of the library’s board of trustees.   

Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.


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