More than Books Transcript

Jun 20, 2018

Back to the More than Books episode.

William Hosley: This is now 35 years ago that I started this habit, of pulling over and visiting historic libraries, older libraries. I even have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “I Brake for Historic Libraries.”

William Hosley lectures on the history of New England libraries for the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke to us by phone from Enfield, Connecticut.

William Hosley: Today, probably most towns in Vermont also have a local museum, a local historical society, but in almost every case the library predates the historical society, and so there were long periods of time when the library was kind of the center of culture and learning and continuing education in their communities.

Vermont has 183 public libraries, the most per capita of any state.

William Hosley: I mean the libraries…after houses of worship, the library was the next-most aspirational thing a town would build.

William Hosley: I think a town with an aspirational and impressive library is sending a message, not only to the world beyond but to its own citizens, about where its priorities lie.  

We have a lot of libraries, and many of them were built to be beautiful. More than twenty Vermont library buildings are listed as being architecturally significant in the book, “The Buildings of Vermont.”

William Hosley: You know, to go to the Bixby library in Vergennes, it sort of takes your breath away. Vergennes is not like a huge city or anything. And yet the library there has this big stained-glass dome. It’s just an amazing building.

Jane Spencer: It’s a large building. It’s also a very simple building.

Jane Spencer works inside that building. She’s the Director of the Bixby Memorial Free Library.

Jane Spencer: …it’s Greek Revival with ionic columns and a wonderful stained-glass dome. And the dome right now, the sun shines through on a nice day and it is reflected on the floor underneath. It’s just a beautiful place to be.

As beautiful as it is, the Bixby Library exists to serve the needs of its community. And sometimes those needs are pretty basic. One of its key features when it opened was public restrooms that farmers and their wives could use when they came to town.

Jane Spencer: I guess it seemed a little simpler back in 1912. It was bathrooms and books. And with the way the world has changed and continues to change so quickly, that’s not quite the same formula that we can use today…although we did build a beautiful ADA bathroom.

People still need bathrooms. And even in the age of the internet, we still need libraries. But what is their role today? And in a state with so many beautiful libraries, why is it such a challenge to keep them going?

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and the Vermont Humanities Council. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today Mary Rogstad and Paul Carnahan from the Historical Society are showing us a small, white, two-handled vase.

Mary Labate Rogstad: We are opening up a piece of souvenir ware that is from Brattleboro…

Mary Labate Rogstad: This one has an image of the Brooks Library in Brattleboro on it. Starting about 1890, businesses had the idea to put a photograph or an image on an object, and to sell it as a souvenir to the people that were coming in to the state. Something that they could bring home with them.

Paul Carnahan: It seems to me this is a particularly nice one, in that it’s got a colored image of the Brooks Library. It’s got nice gold leaf handles, it’s very bright and attractive. I can see how someone would be interested in purchasing this to take home.

Paul Carnahan: You know, these buildings were significant structures in the towns and people had a lot of pride in those buildings.

Paul grew up in Brattleboro.

Paul Carnahan: This is a library that I remember from my childhood, very early in my childhood. It’s a Victorian brick decorative brick building that stood right on Main Street. It was a very impressive building.

Paul Carnahan: The building was replaced in the 1960s. 1967 is when the modern building opened. This building was torn down to make room for a parking lot, unfortunately. In the 1960s, there wasn’t a strong preservation ethic in Vermont. Other Vermont communities lost historic structures.

Paul’s father saved a pile of bricks from the old building, but became a frequent visitor to the airy, modern library that took its place. The library retains an important role in the town, even if images of the new building don’t end up on plates and vases.

Paul Carnahan: Now, it’s much more common to be tourist destination or a natural phenomenon; you know, Yosemite or Disneyland or something like that. Having a souvenir of a library is rather unusual.

Vermont’s first community library was in Brookfield. It was founded in 1791, the year Vermont became a state. But it wasn’t until around 1850 that public libraries as we know them began to exist in their current form in Vermont.

By then, Vermont was becoming a different place.

William Hosley: The world changed so dramatically around the Civil War and industrialization. By the 1870s, the country was more affluent than it had ever been, industrialization was bringing newfound wealth, and there was this sort of displacement where a lot of the rural towns and the farming towns, they had this outmigration.

By the turn of the 20th century, this emptying-out had become such a problem that towns in Vermont started holding “Old Home Week” celebrations. The idea was to convince former residents to move back to the state. Or to at least get them to invest in their hometowns.

William Hosley: The richest people that cared about Vermont in 1890 and 1900 were often people who had made it big outside of Vermont, but still they had cousins, they had families. They had, I suppose you could call it, nostalgia, but a real sense of affection for their home places.

Building a library became a popular way to honor your hometown, and to share your wealth with those you left behind. At least three dozen expatriates constructed libraries in Vermont between the 1880s and 1950s.

For example, George Joslin grew up in Waitsfield, but made his fortune in the newspaper business in Nebraska. He funded what became the Joslin Memorial Library in Waitsfield.

An act by the state legislature in 1894 provided free collections of books to new libraries. This seemed to recognize the importance of libraries in Vermont communities, especially in an era that had few options for higher education.

William Hosley: In the early 20th century, still most people did not go to college. The libraries were kind of filling a void.

People across the United States supplemented their education at the local library. The science-fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote, “My real education…I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.”

Joy Worland: I have a great passion for the small village library because of the things that we can do really well because we’re small. There’s a lot of challenges to that budget-wise and size-wise, but one of the things we can do is really localize our service because we know everybody.

Joy Worland works for the Vermont Department of Libraries, specializing in small and rural libraries. We spoke with her when she was the director of the Joslin Memorial Library in Waitsfield. Both roles have given her a view on the advantages — and challenges – of running libraries in our state.

Joy Worland: In Vermont we’re very isolated. I mean, there are libraries here that have one staff member, or they have two or three. Then it’s very hard…You don’t have colleagues that you can bounce ideas off all the time.

Joy Worland: I’ve served on a lot of national committees, and sometimes I’ve sat on those committees and just gotten kind of wistful hearing people talk about the services that they have, and the staff that they have, and the number of teenagers that flock to their school afterwards because they have a dedicated teen librarian who’s right on top of all the newest young adult literature coming out, and doing programs for them, and that would be great, but we don’t have space for it, and we don’t have the staff for somebody to focus on that.

Beyond their small size, Vermont libraries are unique because they’re not funded from a central authority like in most other states.

Joy Worland: We do get support, like through grants. They help with resource sharing and intra-library loan, and a variety of programs, so it’s not that they aren’t generous, but just the structure of the way Vermont libraries is set up…It’s every little town has their own budget. Every town has to go and champion their library and get it re-approved every single year.

Paula Moore: Libraries have to be much more in the fundraising business and be concerned about it here in Vermont than they do in other states.

Paula Moore is the President of the Board of Trustees at the Bixby Library.

Paula Moore: So we are dependent on our five towns every year approving a per capita assessment. And then we also are responsible for fundraising for the last third of it. It’s tough. 

So why are libraries important? Why fund them? Many people have access to the internet. And lots of folks read books and magazines on tablets and smartphones.

William Hosley: I’ll be blunt and say that I think there is a good chance that we’ll live long enough to see the book as we know it not disappear, but be much, much diminished in terms of being a delivery system for information. But I think what we’ve seen is the programming, the continuing education, things like the history room, what I would call the museological functions of libraries, those things have been growing.

Paula Moore: A couple years ago we started using the phrase, “more than books, more than a building.” Because we wanted to convey the message that we are here for information. We are here for the socializing. All the other aspects that we’re trying to promote.

Joy Worland says the same is true at the Joslin Library in Waitsfield.

Joy Worland: Our mission is to meet the information needs. It’s such a broad term. It’s not just doing research, it’s not just reading books. Information is like learning about current events or learning about your neighbors. This is a great venue for that.

And don’t be so sure that everyone has access to the internet.

Joy Worland: We have a lot of people coming in to use our wifi, and I know that’s true all over the state, and sometimes we have people coming in who this is the only place. They don’t have a computer at home, or they don’t have wifi at home, so kids doing homework, or all the things that people have to do on-line for government forms, taxes, unemployment forms, applying for jobs. That’s a huge thing that libraries are offering.

But sometimes the history of Vermont’s libraries – and the buildings they’re housed in — can get in the way of becoming that one-stop community center.

Paula Moore: I think that, when people first walk in, this does have sort of that austere temple-like appearance.

Paula Moore told us the Bixby Library is so beautiful that it can be intimidating.

Paula Moore: It makes you want to lower your voice. It makes you want to be very careful of touching anything or where you’re walking. That is actually, I think, diametrically opposed to what libraries are trying to become.

For librarians, old stereotypes die hard.

Paula Moore: Anytime I would go to any kind of a cocktail party, someone always had a story to tell me about how librarians had been mean to them when they were little.

Joy Worland: I interviewed people about their memories of the library. Even people that are my age who grew up here, they said, “I was scared to go in there. I was scared of the librarian.” They were even scared of the picture of George Joslin….there’s a plate of him sort of looking down severely. There’s the ancestors are up there looking down.

William Hosley: The joke is that the most common word ever spoken in a library was, “Shhh,” and I think the age of “Shhh” is over. I mean, there is a much more dynamic, vibrant sense of things happening and things going on in our libraries today.

Joy Worland: We no longer tell people to be quiet all the time. At least we don’t in this library. We celebrate if they’re having a good time and enjoying a book and squealing with delight over it.

Paula Moore: I think in the past, libraries have always been about, “Well, you should come to us. We’re here and we’re just waiting for you, and we know what’s best for you.” That is really an outmoded philosophy. Now, it’s like we want to connect with the community in as many ways as we can. And we want to hear what it is that the community needs from its library and provide that.

Jane Spencer told us that the Bixby Library has been reevaluating how it’s serving the community’s needs, starting with a look back at their history.

Jane Spencer: Vergennes once upon a time was actually the city center for the surrounding towns, which were very much agricultural. So people would come into Vergennes on Friday night, they would do their shopping and they would have dinner and it was very much a center for the community.

Like many Vermont libraries, the Bixby was founded by someone with a fortune. William Bixby lived most of his life in Vergennes. But his sister Eleanor married a wealthy hotel owner in Chicago. When she died, her Chicago real estate and wealth of stocks and bonds went to her brother.

Jane Spencer: He gave about $300,000 to the community to make a community library and he named seven of his very good friends to be the first trustees and these trustees were entrusted to find a site, hire an architect, and get a library built.

Jane Spencer: In 1912 when the building was dedicated, the President of Middlebury College came. And he said the library should have plants and flowers and be made bright and homelike. “The place where every man, woman, and child in this region would prefer to be, next to his own home.”

Jane Spencer: And he also said—this gets back to the bathrooms— “I was especially pleased that you have a restroom where the farmers and their wives may come during trading expeditions to the city.” So they were looking at something more than just “high falutin’.” They were looking at serving people and looking very specifically at what people who came to the city needed to have. They needed books and they needed a beautiful building to experience, and they needed bathrooms.

To find out what Vergennes needed from the Bixby 100 years later, the library’s board and staff created a survey.

Jane Spencer: And one of the things that was decided in that process was that we needed to make visible change. The community wanted a place where they felt welcomed, where they could come and they could use computers, they could look at books. They were very interested in making sure that we preserved the historic building as well.

Phase one of the project is already under way. The old circulation desk is a remnant of an era when librarians located books for patrons. It blocks easy access to the stacks, so  a new desk will be built and moved elsewhere in the lobby. A community room will also be upgraded.

Jane Spencer: There are a lot of people now in our area who work from home and they like to have time with others who are working together and that room should provide real comfortable space for people to be working together. It’s got access to the exterior porch and the beautiful view to the west so that people in the summer time can head out and sit on a rocking chair, read a book, visit, use the space for a variety of things.

The staff is also categorizing and finding new homes for objects that fill an upstairs “museum room.” The large room holds hundreds—maybe thousands—of items given to the Bixby over the years, from marching band drums to Native American pottery. The room will also be reconfigured for community use.

Jane Spencer: And when that’s finished, I think the board is going to take a deep breath and look forward to phase two, which involves moving the children upstairs and creating a space for families to visit with one another and nursing moms and activities for children and a regular children’s room where there are books and a librarian is stationed…and that will make a big difference.

So. More than books. More than high-falutin’. Gardening classes and children’s story time and help with computers. Free talks, given by organizations like the Vermont Humanities Council. Free wifi.

But the true value of Vermont’s libraries may be more than the sum of all of those events, programs, and offerings.

William Hosley: They also function as a kind of … like the general store used to, as a place you bump into people. They talk about third places, this idea that you have work and home, but these third places are environments that have a civic and social dimension to them that is part of the well-being of their communities.

Paula Moore: That is absolutely our goal, to become that third place in people’s lives. It’s not their home. It’s not work. It’s a place that they want to congregate in. They want to meet people there to socialize. That is a big part of what we’re doing, is to become the third place for this area.

Paula Moore: I think in this day and age, we’re so used to all the connections that go on with social media, that it’s almost a paradox that we are isolated in other ways. We can be just such an inviting respite and a welcoming place that is nonjudgmental. We want everyone to feel like they can come in here regardless of their age, their background.

Joy Worland: We have people who come in and just sit and read a magazine really because it’s kind of a social thing to do. They’re reading, but they’re not reading at home. They’re reading here.