A few weeks ago, a photo of Pikes Peak Library District’s librarians popped up on my Facebook feed. They were celebrating the renovation and reopening of the Special Collections  section at the Penrose Library downtown. This was a place I needed to revisit!

I reached out to neighbor and senior library assistant Debbie Vitulli and she directed me to special collections photo archivist Bill Thomas.

In case you don’t read to the end of this column, at least make a note of this: you need to take a tour of Special Collections with Bill. Write that down. Put it on your calendar. Make a point of doing this, give him a call, set it up and go. You will not be disappointed and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a glimpse into what you’ll discover at your Penrose Library.

Special Collections is packed with precious artifacts. For this reason, you’ll be asked to check your coat, bag, pens, and other items that might damage the books and photographs. No food or beverages are allowed. Bring a pad and a pencil or ask for a loaner pencil if you want to take notes.

Bill’s been with the Pikes Peak Library District for 20 years and the Penrose Library for 13. He knows the place inside, outside, upside, and down.

The Penrose Library is one of three local Carnegie libraries, one of 35 in Colorado, and one of 2,509 nationwide. These libraries were established with funding from Andrew Carnegie  about a hundred years ago. Previous to this, you had to pay to go to the library, preventing access for most people. I almost cried when Bill told me this. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in libraries, mainly because I loved to read but also because they were free. When you have money, libraries are among the most interesting, friendliest places in the world. They’re even more so when you’re poor. I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like if I had had to pay to go to the library.

Special Collections is packed with historical materials focused on the Pikes Peak region including books, letters, photographs, maps, and videos. This place will make you long to be a kid again with no responsibilities and hours to while away poring over the history of Colorado Springs.

Let’s start with the genealogy resources. Sit down at a computer and get instant access to dozens of sites that enable you to track your family history. If you’re not familiar with how these sites work, book a librarian to step you through them. Then set aside a year or a decade to discover your own history in books, newspapers, documents, and more. To give you an idea of just how much is out there, my research led to a book detailing my maternal grandfather’s line beginning in 1206! My current family tree had more than 5,000 relatives and many outstanding figures, including at least nine Mayflower great-grandparents. This isn’t unusual at all, and in fact, according to one of my sources, many Colorado Springs residents can trace their lineage to Plymouth Rock.

After genealogy, I followed Bill to some other collections, like the city directories.

People who live in older homes like to flip through these directories to find out who lived in their homes before they did. Sometimes they’re just curious, while other times they’re looking for the answer to a mystery. They might be experiencing odd occurrences in their home and looking for an explanation for the seemingly unexplainable. Want to know more? You’ll have to take the tour and ask Bill yourself! Hint: he confided that he started his job as a “nonbeliever” but the stories he’s heard from library patrons have changed his thinking.

Then there’s the homicides collection. Retired CSPD Officer Dwight Haverkorn has painstakingly researched and documented every homicide in the region since our city was incorporated, and his works are packed into binders. As a True Crime addict, I would love to have a free month to read all of these, not to satisfy a morbid curiosity but to help me understand behaviors that seem “unnatural” to human nature.

Bill had more to show me: mug shots of miners arrested and deported during the Colorado Labor Wars, a sad time in our state’s history. Photos of the Cotton Club where Fannie Mae Duncan  welcomed music legends like Etta James, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, and Mahalia Jackson to perform. When I was a kid, we listened to Mahalia Jackson records all the time. Her Christmas album was one of my mom’s favorites and I still remember the day I brought it to school and the principal played it over the loudspeaker during indoor recess.

Bill showed me drawers full of photos — collections by Colorado Springs photographers Stanley Payne and Myron Wood, and even let me touch a few rare books, including one signed by Susan B. Anthony.

Find a couple hours and book some time with Bill. You might run into me down there, perusing the genealogy resources, poring over those homicide binders, or searching the city directories. Whatever I’m doing, you can be sure I’ll be forever grateful for places like the Penrose Library where anyone can listen, learn, read and reminisce — all for free.

Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor and freelance writer. She has lived in Colorado Springs for more than 20 years. Submit your guest columns for print consideration to the editor at hannah.blick@pikespeaknewspapers.com.

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