Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Women’s group celebrates 50 years in the books

When a young Robert Coombe and his family moved to Denver in 1956, the University of Denver was facing the same tough financial times it would face when he joined the faculty nearly three decades later. While the 7-year-old Coombe was pulling books from his neighborhood bookmobile, DU officials were searching for ways to fill the University’s coffers with revenue and its library with books.

DU called on Chancellor Chester Alter to lead the University through a physical and financial renaissance, and Alter called on a group of ladies he dubbed the Women’s Library Committee to rebuild the collections at DU’s library.

“A great university must have at its heart a great library,” Alter said.

The committee was headed by Trustee Marion Gottesfeld and it soon became the Women’s Library Association (WLA), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. During its five decades, the WLA has raised more than $1 million and established a $600,000 endowment for DU’s library and collections.

Coombe, now chancellor, helped the WLA celebrate its golden anniversary at a May 24 luncheon at the Cable Center. Gwen Hurd, historian and WLA member, distributed autographed copies of a book she wrote chronicling the group’s 50-year history. Bookplates honoring the nine founding members of the WLA were presented at the luncheon and are on display at Penrose Library.

Speaking at the luncheon, Coombe and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper wove complimentary stories of Denver and DU over the past 50 years, reflecting on their periods of boom and bust, the great men and women who led them through both, and the enduring legacy and literacy of their libraries.

“Libraries are places where ideas are born,” Coombe said. “It’s a place for serious work, where thoughtful young students can hone their minds.”

From its first meeting at Alter’s home, the WLA grew into an important arm of the library. By 1965, the group had gathered 2,500 donors and contributed 42,000 volumes—70 percent of the library’s total gifts. Donations included the original Harvey manuscript, valued at $10,000, and a collection of original works by Lowell Thomas.

In 1970, the El Pomar Foundation gave DU $4.5 million to build Penrose Library, which opened two years later. WLA members spent those years inventorying 500,000 volumes then stored in the original Mary Reed Library.

The WLA’s famous book sales began in 1976 as a book festival held at the Aurora Mall. The annual sale continued there until 1987, when it was moved to the Southwest Plaza mall in Littleton. In the 1990s, University officials made room in the Mary Reed Building for the Book Stack, a mini bookstore open to the public several days a week.

Named Denver’s best used bookstore in 2000 by Westword, the Book Stack is staffed by a cadre of volunteers who sort, shelve and price books. At least twice yearly, members set up tables in Mary Reed and sell the already discounted books at half price.

Barbara Powers, assistant to the dean for the WLA, coordinates association activities, including lectures for its 200-plus members, more than $60,000 per year in fundraising for Penrose and small grants for the special collections needed by faculty members.

“The association continues to provide important support for DU and Penrose,” she says.

This article originally appeared in The Source, July/August 2006.

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