The Cook’s House is a historic structure on the ranch is under renovation and will serve as guest lodging. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo)

Reading on the range: How Kickstarter turned one cattle ranch into a cultural center of the American West

When people think of libraries, they probably picture enclosed spaces, buildings with rows of metal bookshelves interspersed by study tables. Or, in our more digital age, perhaps the image of computers and searchable ebook databases springs to mind.

In either case, though, the notion of a library housed on an abandoned 19th-century cattle ranch seems fantastical. Yet that’s the very idea two Denver-based Tattered Cover Book Store employees had before they launched an enormously successful Kickstarter earlier this year.

Jeff Lee and Ann Marie Martin’s dream of turning Buffalo Peaks Ranch just outside Fairplay into the home base of the Rocky Mountain Land Library–a 30,000-plus collection of books related to the land of the western United States, which includes works of poetry, fiction, history, and hard sciences–began in 2012 when they were forced to move most of their books into storage.

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Since then, the Rocky Mountain Land Library has captured the imagination of people all over the country. The campaign went supernova after being featured in media outlets across the United States.

When asked if he expected this level of response to the Rocky Mountain Land Library Kickstarter, Lee responded, “Yes and no.”

On one hand, he knew from previous pop-up libraries and projects the RMLL had been involved with that there was already strong support for the library, as well as a group of people who could be counted on to help fund the project. On the other hand, he knew they’d have to reach a lot more donors than that to get the $125,000 they were asking for to renovate the Buffalo Peaks Ranch’s Cook’s House into a working building.

Amazingly, Lee and Martin not only funded but exceeded their campaign by about $15,000. To give an idea of how extraordinary that is, only 69 projects asking for $100,000 or more have been successfully funded in the entire history of Kickstarter. That’s about one half of one percent of all Kickstarter campaigns.

What is it about the Buffalo Peaks Ranch library project that fires up people’s imaginations and inspires them to contribute? Lee believes it’s a combination of things: first of all, the sheer improbability of a 32,000-volume library existing on a deserted ranch in rural Colorado, surrounded by prairie and mountains, is irresistibly romantic and quixotic.

It combines paper books–something of an endangered species in and of themselves–with open space and history in a way that calls to our nostalgia for the slower-moving days of the past. There’s also the fact that the RMLL is a positive, grassroots project driven by ordinary people.

But primarily Lee believes that the RMLL has garnered so much attention because of people’s passion for books and learning, and because they believe connecting with the land and protecting nature is essential, particularly in our technology-driven era.

Lee hopes that the books in the RMLL, which can roughly be characterized as a collected cultural heritage of the American west, will inspire his fellow bibliophiles to search for greater understanding about their environment, taking whatever knowledge and insight they gain from the library and applying it to their own neighborhoods, whether they be urban, suburban, or rural.

Since the RMLL is a private, non-profit library and not funded by taxpayer money, Lee and Martin plan to pay for its upkeep and maintenance with a mix of grants and fees, including membership fees and fees for attending programs or staying the night at the ranch. However, Lee emphasizes that they want to keep the prices reasonable and possibly offer scholarships in the future.

Once the Cook’s House renovation is complete–which is currently slated for the end of this summer–the RMLL will also be open to visitors who just want to stop in and explore. Although Buffalo Peaks Ranch looks quite isolated in photos, it’s just a short drive off Highway 9 and within easy travel distance for those on the Front Range.

Want to get a peek at the Land Library yourself? Lee and Martin are scheduling several programs for this summer that include artist workshops, nature field courses, and bookish events. If you didn’t have a chance to fund their Kickstarter in April, this is the perfect way to get involved with what’s slated to become one of the world’s most unique libraries, and provide the RMLL with even greater support as it continues to grow. Visit the Rocky Mountain Land Library’s website, landlibrary.org, to learn more.

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