Bixby makes changes to boost outreach to towns

VERGENNES — The support the Bixby Free Memorial Library received on Town Meeting Day came on the heels of a new librarian arriving, and Bixby officials are optimistic that financial backing, the new hire and new job descriptions emphasizing outreach mean the library can play a larger role in area residents’ lives.
Library Director Jane Spencer said the Bixby board and librarians would continue to make increasing and improving library services their central mission in the years to come.
“It’s always been cultural programs and books,” Spencer said. “But I think we have to take a look and say, really, what does the community need, and how can we provide that information.”
But that goal cannot be met unless the Vergennes library is on solid financial ground. At their town meetings last month, Waltham and Panton reaffirmed their $18.94 per capita support for the library, while for the second straight year Ferrisburgh residents strongly over-rode their selectboard and increased their town’s support to that same level.
In Addison, residents voted, 181-131, to increase that town’s backing to $25,967, bringing Addison up to the same $18.94 per capita support.
Vergennes aldermen a year ago agreed to include $44,017 in the city budget for the Bixby, an amount that including an estimated $5,000 for property maintenance brings the city up to that same level.
Collectively, the five communities’ annual Bixby support tops $100,000 for the first time.
Spencer said she and the board are grateful for the backing, although it is not quite enough to prevent the Bixby board from having to dip into its shrinking endowment to make ends meet (the board estimated in 2012 an amount closer to $21 or $22 per capita would be needed).
Still, it is enough to create breathing room.
“It’s definitely stabilized us. To have that chunk of change there is incredibly important, and I think there is a psychological part that goes along with it, too,” Spencer said. “You know you’ve got the support. Some of what you’re doing people must feel good about.”
Now, Spencer and the board hope a series of changes will earn that support — and more in the future.
The most prominent of those moves came in late February, when the board hired Muir Haman, 30, to be what the Bixby now calls its “adult services librarian.”
Haman, a Groton, Mass., native, has a master’s degree in library science and is working toward a master’s in English at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School. Now a Bomoseen resident, he focused on finding a library job in this area after moving to Vermont with his girlfriend.
“It was a good opportunity to switch directions in my life, and I got my degree,” Haman said. “I very narrowly focused my search and wanted to be up here.”
Haman said his first weeks on the job have been enjoyable.
“I had for a long time been looking for that sort of community feeling in a place, and so far I’ve found it,” he said. “I’m really happy.”
Spencer and the board also have written job descriptions for Bixby personnel for the first time. Haman’s states 60 percent of his time should be “develops, plans, implements and evaluates services.”
In hiring Haman, Spencer said the Bixby has someone with the personality and technical expertise to fulfill those goals, adding Haman has already booked author Annie Downey for a new series of writers’ workshops, and is creating a five-town committee to advise the library on book purchases, eyeing book groups to discuss those purchases, and working to bring the staff up to speed on new technology to better serve its patrons.
“We were specifically looking for somebody who could interface with the community, could find out, what is this community? What do they need? What kinds of things are going to make their lives better?” Spencer said.
Haman said he would not forget the library’s central literary mission while introducing and emphasizing social media and technology — the library already has laptop and desktop computers, an iPad and e-readers available to patrons — and seeking new ways to connect with residents.
“She brought me in particularly to be innovative, to try to bring in some creativity to what the library can provide as services, but also to try to update it into the information age that we’re in, which is very different than just a couple years ago,” Haman said. “It’s a personal goal of mine to stay true to the traditions of paper objects, but also to update it.”
An ongoing issue at the Bixby that Haman and Spencer will address is how to handle its wealth of historical materials and artifacts. For the past year or so a team of volunteers has been cataloging items in its Museum Room, and considering how to both preserve and present its collections remains a question.
“We have so many valuable resources in the building, in the Vermont Room and the History Room, particularly, that need to be accessed,” Haman said. “They should be accessible. The first step to that is taking stock of what is there, but also letting people know what is there, getting that information out there, I think that is a big part of it, too.”
Bringing Haman on board for 30 hours a week means Rachel Plant, who will also work 30 hours a week, will return to her Bixby roots as its “youth services librarian.” Her new job description, like Haman’s, is 60 percent “develops, plans, implements and evaluates services.”
A little more than a year ago, the Bixby hired a librarian who promptly bolted for another job, requiring Plant to spend more of her time managing all of the library’s collections.
Still, Spencer said Plant has established strong connections with the Evergreen Preschool, the Champlain Valley Christian School and the John Graham Homeless Shelter; March’s Vergennes Union Elementary School Read-A-Thon culminated with a celebration at the Bixby, and she has hosted movie nights at the library.
Spencer said families and schools could expect more outreach and programming from Plant in the future.
“It’s just more recently she’s been freed up, but she’s done a great job working with the schools,” Spencer said. “She’s doing a lot more interaction with children, and she’s very good at that.”
Even after the favorable town meeting results, finances will remain an issue, but Spencer and the board hope that if outreach is successful and more residents are benefitting from the Bixby, fundraising efforts like its annual spring gala and fall appeal will be more fruitful.
“This year we will be able to take less money out of our endowment, and next year we will be able to take even less,” Spencer said. “I don’t know that it takes us quite out of the woods yet.”
Another central question is how to create and manage access to the 7,000-square-foot structure’s second story. Already, the Bixby has expanded its availability to community nonprofits: This year it has hosted a Counseling Service of Addison County parenting group, free tax preparation sessions sponsored by RSVP, experts from Vermont Health Connect offering advice, and Porter Hospital smoking cessation sessions.
But full access would require a plan to deal with the historic artifacts and materials.
“A lot of where we want to go and what kind of services we want to be offering has a lot to do with what we’re going to be using the building for and how we’re going to make the building accessible to everybody,” Spencer said. “And if you are going to make the building accessible to everybody, what are you going to do with those documents in that room in the corner?”
Those new job descriptions also require Spencer and the librarians to come up with a long-range plan to address those questions.
“Where do we want to be in 2019?” Spencer said.
But those who just love to read need not fear they will be forgotten.
“Yes, we’ve got the books,” Spencer said. “And they’re not going anywhere.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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