VERGENNES — Charlotte filmmaker Philip Fass has accepted and begun what he calls an exciting challenge from the Bixby Free Memorial Library Board of Trustees.
In the next 12 months, Fass, 58, plans to complete a 60-minute DVD that will not only express what the Bixby Library has meant to the five communities it has served since 1912, but also emphasize the central role the Vergennes institution can continue to play in the decades to come.
The finished product, he said, will contain looks at the library and its past, including old photos, and snippets from the roughly 20 interviews he plans to film with residents of all ages who have grown to love the Bixby.
“It’s not going to be the Bixby encyclopedia. It’s going to be a series of snapshots of the history, the current use and the hoped-for future,” Fass said. “It has been, is and always will be a tremendous resource that can’t be replaced and is worth supporting and preserving.”
On this past Tuesday in the Bixby’s Lois Noonan Vermont Room, Fass was conducting about his eighth interview, this one with Vergennes Union High School social studies teacher Roberta “Cookie” Steponaitis.
Steponaitis — whose history with the library dates back to attending kindergarten in its basement and using the same space as a Cold War bomb shelter — outlined what she called the three central purposes the Bixby has served since it was opened after a 1910 gift by William Gold Bixby allowed the library to be built and endowed.
“First of all, it’s a link to our heritage. The gift ... gave Vergennes a place to collect and preserve its own unique heritage, which is very special in the story of the Revolution and the War of 1812. Secondly, it’s a place where multiple generations have discovered the wonder of books and of reading,” she said. “As a teacher I bring my own students here to handle primary documents, to work with them on programs, and to pass on that sense of wonder that the computer has kind of downplayed.”
Bixby board president Thelma “Kitty” Oxholm said the idea for the DVD and the recommendation of Fass came from Friends of the Bixby Library member Karlene Devine, a Ferrisburgh resident.
The trustees, already seeking ways to recognize the Bixby’s 2012 centennial, signed on.
“We agreed ... that this would be a good project for our centennial celebration,” Oxholm said. “They’re very excited about it. It’s going to be quite helpful to us in lots of ways.”
Oxholm said the DVD can be shown regularly during the centennial year and at other library events, can be sold or given as a bonus to donors, and might also be useful in applying for grant funding.
“These days it’s helpful to send something more than paper,” Oxholm said.
Another Fass interviewee was retired VUHS English teacher and former Bixby president Ann Sullivan, who described herself as “a kid who hung out at the library.”
Sullivan said she believes the DVD could have an emotional impact that will help raise funds for work the library needs. Even after a series of repairs in the past decade, more is necessary, she said.
“It will create renewed interest, and bring new people in,” Sullivan said. “It will help raise money for improvements and repairs the library desperately needs.”
Bixby trustees have been making the rounds in Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham seeking additional town support. Until the 1990s, the library’s endowment covered most costs, but building needs and inflation chipped away at the endowment’s value. Towns upped their contributions earlier this decade; before then, public funds for the Bixby were among the lowest per capita in Vermont.
Sullivan said Bixby officials appreciate the towns’ response back then and the positive receptions this time around.
“The towns have been absolutely phenomenal in their generosity ... which shows you how (the Bixby) is held in such esteem,” she said.
One thing that won’t dent the Bixby budget is the video, Fass said. His fund-raising partner is Martha Nye, formerly the fund-raising director for the Vermont Historical Society. Nye will be in touch with community members and businesses seeking support for a project cost that Fass pegged as “in the 20s (thousands).”
Steponaitis is confident the film will generate revenue, fond recollections and maybe even new users.
“For those who are not familiar with what treasures are here, it will educate. And for those who have lived here all their lives and kind of taken this building and its beauty for granted, it will kind of be a wake-up call that she’s 100 and she needs a little bit of work,” she said. “So it will educate, it will bring the curious, and it will bring back a whole bunch of memories.”
Fass, a former business writer who transitioned into full-time filmmaking and website design about seven years ago, said he quickly has come to appreciate the Bixby. Interviewees from ages 20 to 70 sound common themes, he said.
“They all believe, whether they’re in their 20s or 70s or 80s, that this is something that has to be kept up, that future generations must have,” he said. “It’s really nice to see that broad age range feeling pretty much the same things about it.”
Many are thankful for the building’s beauty and its efforts to stay modern, including Internet access and the current work to computerize its card catalog and digitize its historic photos. And all are grateful for the human touch, Fass said.
“From everybody I talk to, part of that warm feeling they get from coming in here is also partly because of the people who work here, who are very, very generous with their time and their help,” he said.
Fass is concerned about future funding for the Bixby.
“Sometimes it’s taken more for granted than it should be. People should be more aware that there is a cost in having a place like this,” he said. “People in the communities who really own it also really own the responsibility to make sure that future generations have it, too.”
In the long run, though, Fass is optimistic those the Bixby serves will understand what they have, and do what it takes.
“People have a personal connection with it,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.