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Bixby library to celebrate first 100 years

VERGENNES — Back in 1907, Vergennes native William Gove Bixby surprised fellow townspeople in his will by leaving much of his estate — the bulk of which he inherited from his sister — for the purpose of building a new public library in his hometown.
Five years later, workers finished building the Bixby Free Memorial Library, and 100 years after that — on Oct. 13, a week from Saturday, to be precise — the Vergennes institution named after Bixby will hold a party to celebrate its 100th birthday.
The library has changed in the past century, said Bixby Executive Director Jane Spencer, and its central mission now includes 21st-century technology, but some things remain the same.
“It is really important to acknowledge that the Bixby has been here for 100 years serving the five communities that support us,” Spencer said. “And we are committed to remaining relevant and still continuing to serve those communities. And also I don’t want to ignore the fact this is one heck of a building, and part of our responsibility is to take care of it and make sure it is here 100 years from now.”
Back 100 years ago, Vergennes did in fact already have a library, on North Maple Street in a building that now houses a Peoples United Bank branch.
But it didn’t have the grandeur of what was erected with W.G. Bixby’s bequest, starting in September 1911 and concluding in November 1912. The Bixby was built with yellow tapestry brick, fronted with Indiana limestone pillars and double oak doors, and capped with a stained-glass dome that soars three stories over its central room.
The Bixby is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and will celebrate its centennial on Oct. 13 with speeches, music, tours and a recreation of the 100-year-old photo of the original celebration on the library steps.
Spencer is optimistic for a good turnout on what promises to be a busy weekend in Vergennes, during which also the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s canal schooner Lois McClure will be docked in the Otter Creek basin to honor the city’s pivotal role in the War of 1812.
“I’m excited about it. I think it will be really great,” Spencer said. “I hope we have people coming through and looking around and getting excited about what we have here.”
The library will hold its usual hours, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., that Saturday. Tour guides will take people through the Bixby’s many special collections of books and artifacts every 15 minutes from 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., and at 10:30 a.m. kids and families will be offered what Spencer called an interactive musical program featuring performer Matthew Witten. 
The Bixby will also display a photo exhibit of its history, a 100th anniversary commemorative poster featuring photographs by Trent Campbell, and an exhibit of drawings of the building created by Vergennes Union Elementary School students.
At 2 p.m., a dedication program will feature trumpeters Dennis Bruso and Barry McDonald playing music from both 1912 and 2012, and talks by Bixby board member Bill Benton, on the Bixby’s history, and state librarian Martha Reid, on the future of libraries. Spencer said the Vergennes Lions Club is also expected to make an announcement, and those present will be asked to pose for the photo re-enactment of the 1912 opening.
Spencer also plans to offer at least a few words about the Bixby’s present and future. In an interview this week she addressed why libraries are still important, noting that the Bixby not only offers a wireless Internet signal on its premises, but also was the lead applicant in a grant that now provides wi-fi throughout downtown Vergennes.
“One of the things that is happening with libraries is as reading changes, as reading habits change … libraries are becoming more and more of information centers. One of our responsibilities is to make sure the community has access to wi-fi,” she said.
The Bixby and other libraries also recognize their obligation to bring all residents into the digital age, Spencer said. The same grant that supplied downtown wi-fi also brought more computer hardware and software into the Bixby, and funded outreach to those who need help getting up to speed with using that technology.
“We have public-access computers, and more importantly … we have to realize what our responsibility is to educate our population in digital literacy,” Spencer said.
Spencer said libraries also become community anchors by hosting regular programs for both children and adults, as does the Bixby, at a time when the digital age is encouraging more people to be alone.
“As people become a little more shredded … community life becomes more and more important,” Spencer said. “It’s more important that people have spaces they can share together.”
Of course, those goals cannot be accomplished without cost. Grants have paid for some improvements, including the recent technology items and a handicap-accessible bathroom to be added soon.
Another grant, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is training Spencer and a board member on how to best make the Bixby’s case to the community.
“What it is teaching us is how to come up with good strong presentations,” Spencer said.
Spencer said the current fiscal year’s budget is balanced, but “it’s not all rosy” and the library has been unable for a number of years to increase funding for purchasing books and materials.
“And the annual appeal is in the mail as we speak,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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