Bixby Library making progress on building, services, finances

VERGENNES — A combination of building improvements, technology upgrades, strong fundraising and new programming has created optimism among Bixby Memorial Library officials that the Vergennes fixture can survive its current financial crisis and become a more thriving part of the five communities it serves.
“It is true that you’re either growing or shrinking,” said Bixby Executive Director Jane Spencer. “I think the board has made the decision that we’re moving forward.”
In recent months, the Bixby has:
•  Finished construction of a main floor handicap-accessible bathroom and adjacent break room; replaced its rear exterior stairway to the basement, while solving drainage and basement-flooding problems in the process; begun refinishing its main front doors; and continued its multi-year window repair and painting project.
•  Replaced its patron and staff desktop and laptop computers and installed new software on all of them; finally gotten onto the floor for patron use two iPads, soon to be followed by two e-readers (a Nook and a Kindle) secured by an e-Vermont grant; and created a qualified volunteer information technology committee to support the staff.
That committee also obtained hardware and software at a discount, with each computer costing about $100 with software, and help is available through the Internet to troubleshoot for the staff.
•  Neared completion of an effort to catalog priceless materials in the Bixby Library History Room, which were previously so haphazardly stored that no one was sure what the Bixby possessed. Sheldon Museum archivist Eva Garcelon-Hart and Bixby employee Carolyn Tallen have taken on that task. Local anthropologist Eileen Corcoran and city resident Aaron Robertson have volunteered to do the same in the Bixby’s Museum Room. They are now seeking help for that project.
•  Run a sold-out Lake Champlain cruise in which librarians Rachel Plant and Diane Lawson recommended summer reading, worked with the Little City Players to send Plant and Lawson to local schools for a presentation and cross-promoted the theater troupe at the library, scheduled a book-recommendation hayride in Waltham for October, added a weekly “Walk and Book Talk” on Wednesdays, and committed to bringing programming to each of its five service towns.
•  Obtained grants or raised money for the aforementioned projects without tapping the library’s endangered endowment. A Cultural Facilities Grant from the Vermont Humanities Council is funding the bathroom and related work, a National Bank of Middlebury gift is paying for the window project, a Cerf grant is funding the History Room project, Ferrisburgh volunteer Jeff Tweedy is refinishing the doors, and the Friends of the Bixby Library raised money for the computer purchases.
Bixby board members and Spencer, who is about two years into her Bixby career, said they are happy with what they see.
“We want to take care of what we need to take care of, and not just the building, but certainly the contents of the building, and to be a community center of the five towns that support us,” Spencer said. “So, yes, definitely there’s momentum.”
Bixby officials said preserving that momentum will be crucial. Twenty years ago, the library’s principal endowment approached $1 million. A major 1990s restoration project sapped several hundred thousand dollars, and since then the board has had to tap the endowment to pay annual operating expenses.
Board member Peter Morris said last year’s hit came to about $70,000, and despite tight budgeting in the coming year, officials expect to tap another roughly $30,000. That will leave about $320,000 in the endowment. He said there are two answers to the problem: One is that more progress on the building, community outreach, and services will translate into more support.
“If we can demonstrate to our communities that we are vital, that we are cost-effective, that we are well-managed, that we are staying on top of our maintenance, I think that encourages people to back us,” Morris said.
The other is bringing up the annual support from Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes and Waltham to a level that is equal to that for many other Vermont libraries. Four towns this year agreed to increase their support for the library to $18.94 per capita, while Addison’s selectboard opted to stay at $13.66 and at the same time, unlike the other towns, give the decision back to voters.
A more typical level of support — in towns like Shelburne, Lincoln and Bristol — is $24 or $26 per capita, and the Bixby will probably seek that number in the years to come.
“We think the number is fair,” Morris said.
Bixby officials said they don’t expect selectboard members to take their word for it. One reason they prefer to be a budget line item is that they can sit down with town officials and have what Morris called “informed discussions.” Those talks will include updated information on residents’ use habits and levels, and on the Bixby itself, Morris said.
“We realize when we go back to the towns and ask for an increase in their support, we need to make a case to justify it,” he said.
Officials plan to return to Addison and ask local officials to put the Bixby back into the budget, even at the $13.66 level to provide a safety net, with residents then being asked to decide on whether to support a higher per capita amount.
Meanwhile, Bixby officials will continue to work to improve services, maintain and upgrade the building and look for outside funding.
They are increasingly confident in their ability to pursue grants.
“I think before we weren’t looking where we needed to be looking for grants, or we didn’t have time to do it,” Spencer said. “That’s one of the reasons I was hired, to be doing that, and in the future we’re going to be more organized about it to keep the ball rolling.”
Morris said the grants helped generate current momentum.
The Bixby does have another ace up its sleeve: A $250,000 estate endowment it intends to devote to building needs. But board member Ed Place said he and his colleagues don’t want that bequest to suffer the same fate as the Bixby’s main endowment: Officials will be patient.
“We may have to hold off on some projects just to build the endowment,” Place said. “It’s like, if you use the money, then the money can’t work for you any more.”
Bixby officials also recognized that libraries must offer Internet access and other computer technology. Spencer said the IT committee — Place, Jon Sullivan, Hal Clark, Carol Kress and Jim McClay — has met the need by educating the staff as well as helping offer technology.
“It is all about customer service,” Spencer said. “There was a real need for an IT committee and for the staff to come up to snuff.”
Now, Place sees the computers — one loaded with Skype — as a lure.
“Someone described the library as a dinosaur,” he said. “But that has changed in the last few years since Jane has been here, since we’ve added computers, since we’ve computerized the card catalog system. I’ve seen people come in and work on résumés, do job searches. The patron computers get used quite a bit, so there’s a real turnaround going on. I think there is some momentum.”
In the history and museum rooms, officials hope more grants will eventually make items like a one-of-a-kind history of the Revolutionary War available to the public and researchers, and to display some artifacts in a more organized manner.
“When we started we didn’t even know what was in that (history) room,” Spencer said. “It’s great that it has been cared for, and next step is … hopefully another grant and then to be looking at individual collections and get them digitized and make them available to people.”
Place summed up from an inside perspective everything that is happening at the Main Street institution.
“There is a lot of synergy going on,” he said. “It’s good synergy. It’s professionalism. That’s what we’re demonstrating now.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
Those who wish to see some of the changes first-hand could stop by the Bixby this Saturday during Vergennes Day for a used book sale beginning at 9 a.m. and an open house from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., which will include the popular Bixby Raffle Drawing.

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