City library is reaching out with more hours and youth programs

VERGENNES — While the Bixby Free Memorial Library board works with the five communities the Vergennes institution serves to ensure the Bixby’s financial future (see related story), its librarians and director say they are trying to make sure the library will continue to be an important part of residents’ lives.
Director Jane Spencer said steps have already been taken, including hiring new head librarian MacKenzie Ross, moving former head librarian Rachel Plant to the position of children’s librarian, and juggling staff hours.
Those changes will allow the library to become more technologically up to date and to reach out more effectively to the next generations of patrons, Spencer said, and also permit longer hours on Friday evenings and Saturdays, effective in February.
Spencer said tough decisions had to be made to create the expanded hours and to hire Ross, an Oregon native and 2012 University of Pittsburgh library sciences graduate, without boosting the Bixby’s already challenged bottom line.
Core staff agreed to take turns working evening and weekend shifts, part-time workers who staffed the circulation desk in off hours will be let go, and Plant accepted fewer hours in her new post to allow the Bixby to afford Ross for 24 hours a week.
But Spencer, formerly the Addison Independent’s advertising manager, used herself as an example to show how important is was to make it easier for busy people to take advantage of what the Bixby has to offer.
“I worked in Middlebury, lived in Addison, and this was my library, and it was really difficult to get here because every day it closed at 5 o’clock,” she said. “So adding hours seemed like a real priority to serve the community.”
Ross’s expertise will also be critical, Spencer said. Modern libraries must offer more than books and movies, and the Bixby has had, courtesy of a grant, two iPads and two e-readers sitting idle for months because its staff is not familiar enough with them to put them into circulation.
Spencer said Ross, who discovered Vermont as an AmeriCorps worker in Franklin County, can solve that and other digital challenges.
“She’ll keep us up to date on best practices for libraries, on expectations from the Vermont Department of Libraries, on databases,” Spencer said. “Somebody needs to be there explaining how to use all this … 21st-century way of communicating, somebody who is more familiar with websites and Facebook to help us move forward.”
Ross, who started at the Bixby in early January, said, for example, she developed instruction sheets for iPads, Kindles and Nooks while volunteering at the Fairfax library, and those can be used to train staff as well as help patrons.
It will still be a while before the Bixby’s hardware hits the floor, however: They lack cases and installed software apps and ebooks.
“We’ve got these two iPads and a Nook and a Kindle, and we are looking at getting those out, hopefully in March,” Ross said.
Ross is also considering hitting the road during the library’s off hours, possibly taking the Apple tablets and the e-readers for technology workshops in town halls or schools in Panton, Waltham, Addison and Ferrisburgh. There, she said, the Bixby could reach patrons who had questions about their own units or wanted to learn more about them for possible purchases.
Meanwhile, Plant plans an effort to reach youths from elementary school age through teen years. She is already working with local school personnel on a grant to create after-school programming for younger children.
Plant is also considering a chess club and family game nights that could take advantage of the dozens of youth and adult games the Bixby owns, many recently donated from a Ferrisburgh home.
Plant also envisions a “Teen Advisory Board” of up to 10 area teens to provide feedback.
“What that would entail would be fantastic expeditions into the who-knows-what?” Plant said. “I could (learn) … if they’re looking for more graphic novels, more manga, if they’d like to start different clubs here, if there are certain types of programs they’d like to see offered for teens here, and for tweens, also.”
The Bixby’s basement Otter Creek Room, which Plant said can hold 45, could serve as a meeting place, possibly with open-mike nights. She would love to see a donation of a high-def TV, and is hoping a local resident who is upgrading might see fit to donate his or her older set.
“I know a lot of public libraries are able to show films, and it would be great to be able to do that,” she said.
Plant said she and Ross will always be open to requests from adults and youths — for example, one Ferrisburgh teen suggested a series of “zombie fiction,” and Plant promptly purchased the books and told him he had first dibs.
“I’d like to know what you’re reading. I’d like to know what we’re missing in the collection, to give it a new face and bring in other people,” she said.
Spencer said some work has just been concluded. One grant funded a handicap-accessible bathroom on the main floor, necessitating moving office space to the mezzanine level over the circulation desk.
A major drainage project to the rear of the building also corrected long-standing water problems in the basement, allowing the staff to “store things in a more systematic manner” in what is now safer, more usable space there, she said.
Also, a grant from the Cerf Foundation is funding an effort, with help from Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Natural History, to evaluate the Bixby’s extensive, but largely hidden and under-used, collection of historical materials.
“(We’re) organizing a lot of the stuff here at the Bixby that hasn’t been touched in years and years, historical documents that are nowhere else … Some of them are incredibly valuable to historians,” Spencer said.
By spring, she said the effort will produce recommendations on what should be kept, what should best be donated to other institutions, how materials should be preserved, and what should be made available to researchers or displayed to the public. Further grants could aid that process.
At the same time, the Bixby’s collection of archaeological artifacts — some of them “of Smithsonian quality,” according to one expert Spencer quoted — is also being evaluated.
Some should be displayed in the Bixby’s museum room, but others — such as Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years to peoples in the North- and Southwest — perhaps belong elsewhere, Spencer said.
“Does it make sense for us to keep those?” she said.
The Bixby is also making itself available to community nonprofits. About two dozen have met there, including Porter Hospital health programs, WomenSafe, the Vergennes Partnership, and groups offering help with tax preparation.
Providing space for others’ programs as well as providing its own are parts of the Bixby’s larger goal, Spencer said.
“That’s what we’re working to do,” she said, “to be more valuable to our five towns.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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